For years, the stalwart Crown Victoria — with its V-8 power, high-speed stability and room enough for the growing accumulation of gear required for modern policing — has been the mainstay of Maine police departments.

Now, it’s going the way of other law enforcement nostalgia, such as the wooden nightstick, the ’60s Plymouth Fury, and the canister light atop Andy Griffith’s Ford Fairlane.

Ford plans to discontinue the line, replacing it with a smaller, more fuel-efficient cruiser built on a Taurus frame.

But Ford has competition in Maine. Departments are also considering the Dodge Charger and Chevrolet Caprice.

Police, like any consumers, want it all.

They want a car that performs well, doesn’t break down and gets good gas mileage without sacrificing acceleration and speed. They need a roomy interior and comfort for logging long hours behind the wheel.

“Safety is number one,” said Portland Police Chief James Craig, “and especially with fuel prices increasing, we’re sensitive to where we can get the best mileage.”

Departments are also considering interior space, said South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of equipment in these vehicles today,” Googins said, rattling off a few of the essentials: radios, radar, video cameras and in-car computers. “There are many big police officers that need to fit in them well.”

Police cruisers are generally based on production-line cars that have improved suspension, brakes and other enhancements, he said. They are only a small segment of the car market, so when the large, gas-guzzling Crown Victoria fell out of favor with the masses, it didn’t make sense for Ford to continue making them just for their police customers.

The announcement was made about three years ago, but few departments jumped ship right away.

Switching over to a new cruiser model is expensive. Light bars, cages, laptop consoles and plastic rear seat inserts are interchangeable within a model, said Lt. Tom Williams of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. A new cruiser type means purchasing those components new, $6,000 or more on top of the roughly $20,000 to $24,000 for the car, he said.

The Crown Victoria has commanded about 70 percent of the national police market. When cruisers get old — usually after two to three years and more than 100,000 hard miles — they are handed down to detectives and town officials.

New Hampshire State Police started replacing Crown Victorias three years ago. Of the state’s 350 cruisers, about two-thirds are now Dodge Chargers, said Maj. Russell Conte.

“The Crown Victoria, which was kind of like the battleship for all police agencies, that’s a big car,” Conte said. The stylish Charger, while smaller, has performed well, he said.

Craig, a muscle car enthusiast who grew up in Detroit, said the Charger was used by the Los Angeles Police Department, where he worked before coming to Portland. He likes it, but said the department will evaluate all models before buying in the fall.

All departments won’t do in-depth evaluations. They will look to the annual comparisons done by the Michigan State Police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, which rate police vehicles on handling, speed, acceleration, fuel efficiency and interior room.

The Caprice was fastest to reach 60 mph and 90 mph, but the Charger was quickest to 70 mph and 80 mph. The Caprice hit the top speed at 148 mph. A turbo-charged Ford stopped quickest.

Departments have different needs.

Maine’s troopers, with their largely highway and rural patrol areas, may have different priorities than an urban department such as Portland.

Portland also will look at all-wheel drive vehicles, given the state’s tough winters.

Crown Victorias have rear-wheel drive, and departments can attach chains in bad weather. Rear-wheel drive vehicles handle better in emergencies and have fewer maintenance problems, Googins said. All-wheel drive cruisers are attractive, but pricey, he said.

Williams, who patrols with Cumberland County, said the importance of cruiser performance cannot be underestimated.

“It’s probably the most important piece of equipment for a rural deputy,” he said. “How you can get to the next call is what it’s all about and do you have the equipment to take care of that call.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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