The Beast Is Back

The Beast is Back—4 photos


As I write this, the major players in the cop car world will have spent a weekend in Michigan battling it out for police vehicle supremacy in the fine hands of the Michigan State Police (MSP). Along with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, these yearly vehicle tests set the playing field for whose car can do what under the most extreme conditions. The results just arrived as I was writing this, and one thing is certain: Chevrolet’s  Caprice is back and swinging a big stick. Just how big? In order to find out, yours truly got to spend a day at GM’s Proving Grounds in Milford, Mich., where I was able to finally take the wheel of the new Caprice PPV and put it through some realistic EVOC maneuvers I’m used to teaching on the academy tarmac. Before I get to how it performed, a little review is in order.

A Little of the Old & a Lot of the New
There will be debate about the fact that the Caprice isn’t made in the U.S. That may cause a problem for those agencies that are mandated to buy a vehicle made on U.S. soil, even though the Caprice is a GM product. What can’t be debated is that the Caprice has a deep pedigree developed under the watchful eyes of the Australian arm of General Motors, Holden. It’s been producing hot-rod, four-door sleds for some time. To understand the Caprice, you need to understand Holden.

In Australia, the Commodore HSV, which the Caprice is based on, is held in reverence as a big dog. Because the last Caprice was legendary for its big block “go” in black-and-white form, GM looked to the Commodore to serve as the base for continuing the legacy. If the Impala is the lightweight contender and the Tahoe the superheavyweight, the Caprice is the equivalent of Ali stepping back in the ring—fleet of foot and packing a heavy punch. 

Size Matters
From looking at preliminary results from the MSP testing, the Caprice has no shortage of beans. It was the fastest car tested, both in 0–60 (6.15 seconds), which is relevant, and top speed by a long shot (148 mph), which isn’t as relevant. This places it on par with the also wickedly-quick 2011 Hemi Dodge Charger. Ford’s two Interceptor models participated in this year’s test, but being that they are considered 2012 prototypes, their performance numbers were not included in the final numbers. Officially, however, the Caprice runs neck and neck with its Dodge nemesis, largely in part because of 384 foot-lbs. of torque doing their thing through a 2.92 rear-axle ratio, rear drive and traction control. As RPM climbs, a healthy 355 hp from the 6.0 liter V-8 takes over and pushes the Caprice well into triple digit speeds in no time at all.

Once you back off the happy button, a fuel-saving Active Fuel Management technology and E85 capability take over for what’s expected to be competitive fuel economy. Granted, if you’re hammering the throttle on a 6.0 liter engine all day, fuel economy will drop like real estate values in Arizona. Then again, the Crown Vic and Charger aren’t the Prius either. Anticipated fuel economy goes out the window when cops are behind the wheel anyway.

GM says the Caprice PPV is expected to crack the six-second barrier to 60 mph. Although the tests had the preliminary results pegging the Caprice PPV at just beyond six seconds, my nearly identical G8 GT routinely hits the mid-fives on the data log. The unifying conclusion is that the Caprice PPV is fast—really fast.

Living Large on the Inside
Although it’s not as plush as the new Ford Interceptor, there’s no denying that the Caprice PPV is deceptively big on the inside. On the outside, it’s a scant two inches longer and actually narrower than the new Interceptor, but it sure doesn’t feel that way on the inside.

Pop into the driver’s seat and the extra 8 or so cubic feet inside the main passenger area over the Interceptor is apparent. So too is the voluminous rear seat area due to the long wheelbase, which adds a hefty 6 inches of floor space in the back seat. These added inches are in the most crucial spot because we all know how much space a cage can eat up. The extended floor means that the front seats can be pushed to their rear-most position and still allow plenty of legroom for our temporary customers in the back. The Caprice PPV genuinely feels spacious on the inside because it is. In the cop world, space is one thing we can always use more of.

The transmission of the civilian model features two modes. Unfortunately, this eats up a lot of valuable space, so the engineers at GM sought a solution that would retain the basic architecture of the shift mechanism, but also allow for a “sport mode.” The sport mode activates a shift algorithm that firms up shifting and allows the transmission to keep a specific gear longer or downshift on its own, adding engine braking. And because we know cops typically mow people’s lawns by overdriving into corners, anything that helps slow them down when approaching a corner is a good thing.

In the case of the Caprice shifter setup, the normal PRNDL setup has been moved to the left edge of the center console and a sport mode button has been placed just ahead of it. As brilliant as the sport mode is, the sad part about this setup is, I think, most cops won’t enjoy its benefits because they’ll forget to hit the button every time they get in the car. Note to GM: Either take the algorithm’s in the sport mode and make it the regular drive mode or create a new algorithm that can sense when cops are entering warp speed and seamlessly activate the sport settings and performance algorithm.

The second potential gripe is the actual shifter location on the tunnel instead of being column mounted. There’s no doubt that there’s some packaging considerations that come into play, but is it really a problem? I don’t really think so because the shifter mechanism was easy to reach, and, as an outfitted demo showed, there was space for everything. Example: Many of the Ford Expeditions at my old agency featured transmission tunnel shifters that worked just fine. Perhaps there’s pushback because it’s different. Although some agencies will immediately rule out the Caprice PPV because of it, my advice is to look at the overall package and drive it before rushing to judgment.

The Caprice PPV interior features some very comfortable and supportive front seats that are sculpted to pocket the equipment belt. GM spent a lot of time on these seats, consulting with its own police advisory board. The seats get an “A” in my book and should work well for ingress and egress with all the goodies strapped to the waist.

The dash has been redesigned for 2011 over previous G8 and Holden models, and it flows smoothly across the front of the occupant area and features compatibility with in-dash touch-screen computer technology. There’s also a driver information center in the instrument cluster with selectable speed tracking feature. Overall it is works well, and HVAC and other controls are easy to find and use.

Keeping the Shiny Side Up
Because the Caprice has the beans to haul the mail, keeping the light bar from becoming a poor traction device meant ensuring all four 18-inch wheels and 235/50-18 tires kept terra firma under hard cornering, braking and accelerating.  This means a four-wheel independent suspension that has performance-tuned shocks and springs, StabiliTrak stability control with revised tuning, traction control and the usual four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. In fact, in this years MSP testing, the Caprice was also fastest of the cars officially participating on the handling course, including the redesigned Charger.

If something ends up going terribly wrong, the Caprice PPV has high-strength crush zones and a multitude of air bags, including front-seat-only head-curtain air bags that allow the use of a full-width partition without the complexities presented by full length alternatives.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Before I tell you my driving impressions, I want to say loudly that I own the Pontiac G8 GT that the Caprice PPV is built from and love it. I’ve also owned four Ford Mustang 5.0 coupes that I loved and had a Dodge Charger Hemi as a patrol car that I thought kicked butt. I’m a race car driver and EVOC instructor who became a-law enforcement officer, not the other way around. I say all this to hopefully prevent the misconception that because I own a Caprice, I won’t tell it like I see it. The gripes you’ve already read about in this article should disabuse you of that notion.

OK, enough carping; how’s it drive? My opinion is two-fold. The first part is how it actually drives as a police vehicle. The second part is how it fits the role. In the first part, the Caprice shines. Throttle response is excellent, shifting is crisp and the PAL in sport mode is brilliant. In fact, it is so seamless that I was literally begging the Holden engineers to e-mail me the algorithms. It holds the proper gear under aggressive driving, downshifts without upsetting the chassis and allows for explosive acceleration off corners. With a fairly heavy nose due to the 6.0 liter engine, plus the added 6 inches of wheelbase, the Caprice PPV understeered predictably when entering a corner or if throttle was applied early on exiting, but that’s generally more preferred than oversteer in terms of regaining control. 

On that topic, I repeatedly tried to induce off-throttle and trailing throttle oversteer  by inducing aggressive yaw rates through abrupt braking and steering inputs, and the Caprice’s StabiliTrak system with revised calibrations wouldn’t be fooled—a huge safety plus for the average street cop. Braking was excellent, and fade was minimal even after repeated hard stops from 70–80 mph. The Caprice PPV drives like a high-performance, rear-drive car should, and it’s a well-developed platform.

The other half of the equation is whether or not the Caprice PPV fits the bill as a police car. In this respect, the car has captured the elusive essence so effectively presented by the Caprice of yesteryear—and even the Crown Vic, for that matter. Whereas Ford’s Interceptor comes across like there’s a lot of technology going on under the sheet metal—and there certainly is and it works well—the Caprice is big, brash, fast and captures much of what also makes the Hemi Charger so fun to drive.

Being rear-wheel drive and powered by a big V-8 makes the Caprice feel like a police car should. It eschews FWD or AWD and lays the rubber down using good ol’ American V-8 power with gobs of torque, while sounding glorious under full throttle. It’s an elusive trait that not all patrol cars can capture. Although I applaud all of the manufacturers for giving us some damn good cars to drive these days, the Caprice PPV speaks that valuable message that “you better not mess.” As Joyce Mattman, director of GM’s Commercial Products and Specialty Vehicles told me, “It’s a no-compromise vehicle.” After driving it, I can say the Caprice is back, and it means business.

Why a Caprice?

• It feels big inside because it is.

• It features rear drive, so it drives in a way officers will be familiar with.

• It’s fast and handles well.

• Comfortable seats.

• The long wheelbase means plenty of leg room for officers and maneuvering room for prisoners in the back seat with a cage installed.

• The transmission’s “sport” setting is effective in providing responsive acceleration, predicative downshifting and holding a particular gear, something not available in other patrol vehicle alternatives.         

Want a Caprice?
At the time of this writing, GM was slated to start taking orders for the undercover version of the Caprice PPV in October 2010 with patrol vehicle orders early next year. Production will begin in the spring of 2011, and a base price of just over $30,000 was announced. For more information, visit



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