As if the streets weren’t mean enough for police vehicles, Ford Motor Co.’s all-new Taurus-based Police Interceptor is breaking from tradition in a hostile economic climate.

Purists bemoan the car’s front-wheel-drive roots while pessimists point to budgetary restrictions so severe police departments are postponing plans to rebuild their fleets.

“Cost is going to be the determining factor (in Ford’s success). There’s no doubt in my mind about it,” says Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations.

“Some departments are cutting their patrol units in half. Those are the budget situations (departments) are faced with.”

Ford is pulling the plug on its Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, largely because the car is outdated and can’t pass stringent federal roof-crush regulations. Long a favorite with law-enforcement officials, the rear-wheel-drive CVPI has helped the auto maker secure 70% of the police-vehicle segment.

Amy Marentic, marketing manager for Ford’s cars and cross/utility vehicles, admits the new vehicle may sticker higher than the outgoing CVPI, but says the auto maker is working with law-enforcement agencies to “significantly” reduce the cost of ownership.

The naturally aspirated Taurus Police Interceptor will achieve 25% greater fuel economy compared with the outgoing CVPI, she says.

The new car, scheduled to begin production at Ford’s Chicago assembly plant next year, offers the choice of two powertrains – a naturally aspirated 264-hp 3.5L V-6 and a 365-hp 3.5L V-6 with Ford’s EcoBoost turbocharging and direct injection.

The EcoBoost version will be offered only in all-wheel drive cars, while the base 3.5L will be available in FWD and AWD configurations.

Ford has yet to disclose pricing for the vehicle, but the retail version of the Taurus equipped with the normally aspirated V-6 stickers at $25,170 – $3,170 more than the CVPI. The high-powered SHO version starts $9,170 higher at $37,170.

To address law-enforcement’s specific needs, Ford says about 90% of the vehicle’s interior has been redesigned.

And while both the CVPI and Taurus Interceptors come equipped with numerous upgrades, including heavy-duty suspensions, alternators and brakes, police vehicles require costly aftermarket add-ons such as radios, light bars and sirens.

Up-fitting a CVPI can cost close to $15,000, says Brad Swenson of Texas-based PursuitVehicles, which has been equipping law-enforcement vehicles for more than 30 years.

“By the time we are through adding all the equipment, it comes close to matching the (base) cost of the (retail-market) vehicle,” he says, noting his cost estimate is based on the installation of new equipment compared with transferring it from an older vehicle.

But even though the Taurus Interceptor retails for more than the Crown Vic version, industry experts say Ford should be able to offer its new cruiser at a competitive price.

Steve Contarino, vice present-vehicle operations for police-vehicle up-fitter Adamson Industries Corp., predicts Ford will be able to keep costs in check by de-contenting the Taurus for police use.

“Things like fancy leather seats and CD players, if you take those out, could knock down the price,” he tells Ward’s. “I don’t expect it to be a $40,000 police car by any means. Some things are added, but some things they take out cost a lot of money.”

Contarino, who was on hand during the official unveiling of the new Taurus Police Interceptor this month at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, says Ford officials were not specific but promised the car would be offered “at a price that’s competitive.”

Adding to Ford’s list of challenges are cross-town competitors General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

GM plans to launch an all-new Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle in 2011 from its Holden subsidiary in Australia. GM already makes police versions of its Chevrolet Impala sedan and Tahoe SUV.

The RWD Caprice PPV initially will be offered with a 355-hp 6.0L V-8 that generates peak torque of 384 lb.-ft. (521 Nm). A V-6 engine will be added for the ’12 model year, GM says, without disclosing horsepower and torque output.

Joyce Mattman, GM’s director of commercial products, is mum on Caprice PPV pricing, but acknowledges the financial difficulties of law-enforcement agencies.

“This is definitely a price-sensitive business because of the budgets being what they are and being fed by tax revenues,” she tells Ward’s. “Certainly the folks negotiating the business on the purchasing side do everything they can to get a competitive (price).”

Chrysler’s police package, a Dodge Charger sedan, has been making inroads, going from 14% segment share in 2007, to 18% last year, spokesman Jiyan Cadiz says. The RWD car is available with a 250-hp 3.5L V-6 making 250 lb.-ft. (339 Nm) of peak torque, or a 368-hp 5.7L Hemi V-8 with a torque rating of 395 lb.-ft. (536 Nm).

Cadiz is mum on pricing for the police-configured Charger, but suggests it will be less-expensive than the upcoming Ford offering. “If you compare the (Taurus) SHO to what we have, we’re highly competitive, if not better off,” he says.

Another potential competitor for Ford is Carbon Motors Corp. The upstart Indiana-based manufacturer says it can fill a potential void left by the Crown Vic with what it calls the world’s first purpose-built police car.

Co-founder Stacy Dean Stephens, a former Dallas police officer, says his company’s product, dubbed the Carbon E7, provides a viable, affordable alternative to law-enforcement agencies. Carbon this week signed a deal, estimated at $1.4 billion, to equip its cars with 3.0L I-6 diesel engines from BMW AG. But unlike offerings from the Detroit Three, which have to be up-fitted, the Carbon E7 police car, scheduled for production in 2012, comes standard with integrated emergency lights, shotgun mounts and a 130 Hz-350 Hz bass siren.

An optional automatic license plate-recognition system also is available, as well as a unit that detects biological, chemical and radiation hazards.

“Our vehicle is purpose-built from the ground up,” Stephens tells Ward’s, calling the Taurus Interceptor “a repurposed retail vehicle.”

One serious competitive issue Ford faces with its new Taurus Police Interceptor is its lack of RWD, a configuration preferred by law-enforcement. Ford officials cite the attributes of FWD include handling, particularly in inclement weather conditions.

“(Some officers) drive in nasty weather and said front-wheel drive would be more effective than rear-wheel drive, so they see it as a positive,” says Ken Czubay, Ford vice president-sales and marketing.

But Kurt Spitzner, an instructor at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, CO, disagrees.

With new technologies, such as traction control, the advantage AWD and FWD vehicles may have had over RWD has pretty much been erased, he tells Ward’s. “FWD only has a minor advantage with regard to acceleration on some surface conditions. Cornering and braking performance are essentially equal.”

Additionally, FWD is at a disadvantage when it comes to uphill acceleration, Spitzer says, because the weight transfer takes weight from the driven tires and moves it to the rear. “Modern RWD vehicles equipped with stability and traction control can overcome the small accelerative advantage that front drive has on slippery surfaces.”

Up-fitter Contarino adds police officers, many of whom are trained to drive RWD vehicles at high speeds, are unlikely to be convinced FWD or AWD vehicles are superior.

“It doesn’t matter if you explain (the advantages) to them,” he says. “It’s their way of thinking; police officers are like that.”

bpope@wardsauto.com