2011 Ford Crown Victoria LX (USA)

Ask even a non motoring enthusiast to name an American car, and the chances are that they would come up with one or more of the Corvette, the Mustang or, most likely the Ford Crown Victoria. This large saloon has been in production for 20 years without significant change, and in no small part thanks to its popularity for most of that time as both a police car and a taxi it is a common sights on the streets of Everywhere-ville America and known to the rest of the world thanks to featuring in countless movies. I would venture that not only would lots of people nominate this as the archetypal American car, but that almost anyone who has ever been to the US of A will have ridden in one. In most case, because some soggy old Crown Vic collected them from the taxi rank at the airport, swallowed up all their luggage and despite the billion miles on the clock, conveyed them effortlessly to their hotels. Less fortunate souls may well have sat in one operated by the law enforcement agencies, and had a less pleasant experience of the same car. And those who’ve actually got behind the wheel and driven it themselves? That’s what this test is all about.   
To be fair, I was not exactly coming to the Crown Victoria from a position of pure ignorance and curiosity, as only very recently I sampled the sister model Mercury Grand Marquis and have already written about the experience. Thanks to badge engineering at its most basic, the 2 cars had become all but identical, with just different grille and lights front and back, badges and trim specifications to tell them apart. In the Ford Motor Company’s world, Mercury was positioned as the slightly more upmarket brand, and so as sales of these cars did start to diminish a few years ago, in 2007, Ford  ceased selling the Crown Vic variant to retail customers, confining it to fleets. Reported sales volumes of the model remained surprisingly high, though the rental fleets seemed not to be among those purchasers. When the decision to kill the Mercury brand altogether was taken, production of the Grand Marquis, which had also become a fleet sales only car for the last of year of its life, ceased and with diminishing stocks left on fleet, it would appear that the rental car companies made a decision to acquire some more Fords and many of the final cars produced in mid 2011 arrived chez Hertz and Avis, Budget, Alamo and Enterprise.       
Whereas my test of the all but identical Grand Marquis was heavily concentrated on freeway travel, the Crown Vic was taken up into the canyons above Los Angeles. Very quickly, I wished I had not, as what had been acceptable if not exactly exemplary, on straight and flat roads quickly became quite alarming on hilly, twisty and steep ones. For a start, the engine struggled. I know that 224 bhp is not that much by modern standards, but it is not exactly nothing either, so the fact that the Crown Vic really did labour in third or sometimes second gear on what were only moderate inclines is a matter for some disappointment. Far worse, though, was the handling, which I found to be really quite worrying. I have driven many different cars on the roads where I took this car, and I don’t think any of them have caused me quite so much alarm as this one. And then there are the brakes. Well, I think that there are brakes fitted, but I would not like to be sure. And that was on dry roads. I know from past experience that large 1990s Fords, like the Taurus and Explorer were literally terrifying in the wet as their braking performance was negligible. Let me say that it was pretty scary in this thing, too. Soggy, with no feel to the pedal. Combined with the boat like handling, it is unsurprising that I ended up tackling the roads with far less aplomb than usual. I was quite relieved to return to the valleys and the freeways, as the worst of the deficiencies were somewhat masked. Law enforcement officers who drive these cars at speed – admittedly with retuned suspension in many cases – are both skilled and brave, as I really would not want to do so. Is there any good news? Not really. Fuel consumption was also pretty mediocre. I consumed 6.8 gallons in 150 miles which equates to 22 mpg US. Not too bad, you might think, but noting that the car was driven at steady and low speeds, and therefore in a way where it is unlikely ever to be much more frugal, then this really was not very good either. Did the fact that it has a V8 atone even a bit? Again, not really, as you get no aural evidence that this is indeed the cylinder configuration of the lazy lump under the bonnet. To be sure, the Crown Vic is decently quiet when underway until the engine is labouring up a hill, then it just becomes unpleasant. Dynamically, then here is all the evidence that cars have improved beyond all recognition in 20 years. Thank goodness.
It really does not get any better inside, either. Billed as a six seater, that assumes that three people occupy the front perches. Given that although there are three seat belts but only two admittedly large seats that nearly, but don’t quite join up, the middle passenger would probably be fairly uncomfortable even before they realised that their legs would have to straddle the transmission tunnel, and their backrest largely comprises the folded back central armrests and a gap in the middle. The two lucky souls on the proper seats fare little better as they get very large shapeless blobs to sit on, which provide limited support for the back, under thighs and absolutely no lateral grip at all. The driver at least has a steering wheel to hang on to. but the front passenger seat has nothing. Just as well that exuberant cornering is unlikely given the dynamic limitations outlined above.  Matters don’t improve when the driver surveys the dashboard in front of him or her. Barring the badge on the steering wheel boss, this is identical to that in the Mercury, even including the thick slab of polished wood effect plastic that goes across the width of the car. The dash is made from horrid hard plastics and there are some particularly nasty plastic levers on the air vents that would shame what the budget Korean manufacturers were inflicting on us 10 years ago. The dials are at least easy to read. There are two large ones, for speed and revs and smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature. Green digital displays between them, and on the stereo system like the sort of thing you would have found on a 1980s digital watch. The audio unit, mounted high in the middle of the dash looks not a lot more contemporary than that, though it did at least work reasonably well. Below this a series of pushbuttons for the air conditioning system. Various other switches are scattered randomly on the dash panel in a slightly haphazard manner. A large gear selector sprouts from the upper right of the column where you would expect it.  There is a foot operated parking brake pedal.
At least those in the back of the Crown Vic can enjoy a feeling of space. With upright screens fore and aft and quite a long wheelbase, there is generous room in all directions here, and as many a taxi passenger can attest, three adults really do fit without feeling unduly cramped. The boot is large, too, though it achieves this by virtue of having the fuel tank immediately behind the rear seat, and the spare wheel mounted on top of it, where it would be extremely difficult to pull out, leaving a very deep well at the back of the car for luggage. There is quite a high sill outside and a far higher one inside, so lifting my very heavy suitcase in and out was far from easy. There is not a lot of oddments space in the cabin with just a moderate glove box, meagre door pockets and a pull out tray in the middle of the dash from which the cup holders emerge.   
Equipment levels are far from generous, either, in accordance with the low price and fleet sales aspirations. Over the years, a number of safety features have been added, so there are front and side air bags, there is automatic suspension self-levelling, and you do get a form of automatic climate control. The audio unit is relatively old tech, and there are leather seats, a leather wrapped steering wheel, power operated front seats. remote central locking with a key pad on the driver’s door for keyless operation.   
After 20 years, you would hope that any production processes would long since have been resolved so that build quality would be decent. Not so. Now, I know that modern designs, built in modern ways have got panel gaps and tolerances down quite a lot from how they used to be even 20 years ago, but there is no excuse for the way the doors fitted, or rather did not fit. On the test car at least, the bottom of the driver’s door simply did not fit at all, and looking very closely at it, it was clear that this was not because it had been damaged, as it was clearly built like that. By contrast, the front passenger door seemed to fit quite well. But the rear door behind it had a huge gap between the wing and the door. Cops and cabbies may not care – though I suspect that actually they do – but a private buyer would have every reason to reject this sort of standard as simply not acceptable. Of course, the upside, if there is any upside, is that one reason for the longevity of this design is not only is the basic shell very strong, but it is also very cheap to fix if the car does get damaged.
Noting that the last of the sister model, Mercury Grand Marquis are still on fleet, at nearly 2 years old, I would guess that this last batch of Crown Vics may linger in the rental car fleet for quite some time yet. For those of you who have a burning urge to try one, this will be your opportunity, but take it from me, you really would be better off renting almost anything else. Yes, I really do mean anything else.
2012-02-24 19:01:35

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