America's workhorse - Ford Crown Victoria

Friday, August 6, 2004

Ford Crown Victoria has a loyal following

"Front-wheel drive is just a fad," my aging father mused almost 20 years ago. "There will always be rear-drive cars." A couple of years later he traded his rear-drive Lincoln Town Car for a front-wheel-drive Lincoln Continental, and said, "Well, front-wheel drive has certain advantages, but rear-drive will always be around."

Well, Dad's prediction proved to be right. While most cars on the road today have front-wheel drive, there is still high demand for rear-wheel-drive cars like this week's test vehicle, a Ford Crown Victoria LX Sport. Like its cousin, Lincoln Town Car, and sibling, Mercury Grand Marquis, plus dozens of prestigious import brands from Europe and Asia like Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the Crown Vic uses the proven rear-wheel-drive concept that, enthusiasts insist, allows for superior handling, simpler manufacturing techniques, and greater load-carrying capacity. This week's test car has a loyal following that has allowed the design to remain in production for nearly 50 years, and has seen literally dozens of upstart front-wheel-drive cars come and go during the same time period. If you've ever had a ride in a taxicab, a "free ride to a police station," or worked for a government agency, you're probably already familiar with a Crown Victoria.

Although the basic design -- a powerful V-8 engine connected to the rear wheels through an automatic transmission and a drive shaft --remains intact, the list of modern innovations, such as rack and pinion steering and anti-skid control, reads like a tech sheet for a modern sports car.

History

The Victoria debuted in 1951 and the top-of-the-line Crown Victoria joined the Ford lineup in 1955. In 1965 the Victoria name was traded in for the Galaxy 500 and LTD designations, but it returned in 1980. As the accepted manufacturing technique of the time was body-on-frame construction, that process has carried through to today. Because it is a big car, but carries a relatively low price and seems to run forever, it is the most common police, taxi and fleet car on the road. Crown Victorias are an institution.

"Civilian" Crown Victorias come in three trim levels -- base, LX and LX Sport -- which I tested. It came equipped with air conditioning, power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, a handling and performance package that includes performance tires, aluminum wheels, air-suspension components, a 3.27 axle ratio (compared to the standard 2.73 gears), dual exhaust, leather trim and six-disc CD changer. Options included traction control, power-adjustable pedals, remote keyless entry, heated side mirrors, steering wheel-mounted stereo, cruise and climate controls, a power passenger seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, moon roof and a sporty transmission shifter in the center console.

That axle ratio combined with a V-8 power plant and newly revised torque converter provided surprisingly enthusiastic acceleration. The 4,000-pound Crown Vic Sport is blessed with a 4.6-liter V-8 engine that pumps out 239 horsepower and breathes through a dual-exhaust system. The standard engine produces 224 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque.

That power resides under a long hood that that gives the Crown Vic its traditional, formal look. When its sales figures are combined with the Mercury Grand Marquis (which is built on the same assembly line) one realizes what a formidable impact this design has on the market place.

Safety

Speaking of impact, Ford is particularly proud of Crown Vic's frontal crash-test results, which have earned it a double five-star rating. Safety is enhanced by a load sensor in the front passenger seat that activates a chime to remind the person to buckle up. If no occupant is detected, the passenger-side airbag is deactivated. The Ford system provides dual-rate airbag deployment depending on driver-seat position and vehicle speed, plus pre-tensioning of the seat belts. ABS with "panic brake assist" is standard.

Driving the Crown Vic

Riding in a heavy sedan used to be synonymous with riding swells in a boat. Going around a tight curve at speed meant severe body lean and squealing tires. No more! Today's Crown Vic is competent and unruffled on bumpy pavement. Steering is accurate and brakes require only light effort. This Crown Vic turns a foot shorter than pre-2003 Crown Vics, and handles back roads better than you might expect. I loaded it with five adult passengers and marveled as the automatic air suspension leveled the car. The quietness of the ride was most impressive, even over rutted roads. Suspension noises are isolated and the body feels structurally solid. Ford says the redesigned perimeter frame is roughly 20 percent more resistant to bending and twisting than its predecessor.

But the Crown Victoria doesn't provide the interior room and appointments that you might expect of such a large car. Although the trunk is huge (largest in its class), there is a large hump containing the drive shaft running down the center of the passenger floor, and the rear seat has less leg and foot room than some full-size front-wheel-drive cars. But the cabin width, length and height are at the top of its class.

The test vehicle listed for $33,090, but carried several interesting financial incentive packages that brought the asking price down considerably. Even with the performance engine and axle ratio, it should get 17-mpg in the city and 25-mpg on the highway. I don't think Dad could have predicted that kind of performance 20 years ago!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at steve@robertsonsphotography.com.

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