DETROIT – Law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. each year purchase between 60,000 and 70,000 sedans to use on the streets to protect and serve the public.

The battle between Detroit’s auto makers to get a piece of the police-car pie is getting more fierce as DaimlerChrysler AG’s Dodge brand plans to enter the fray in 2002 with modified Intrepid.

Ford Motor Co.’s rear-wheel-drive Crown Victoria currently lays claim to nearly 75% of the law enforcement market, while GM’s front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Impala holds 21.5%.

Chevrolet once held as much as 53% of the specialty market with its old Caprice sedan, which went out of service in 1996. Police departments quickly switched to the Crown Vic after GM left them with no true rear-wheel-drive alternative.

Shortly after its introduction in 2000, Chevrolet put its Impala into service. The results so far have been “bittersweet,” says Bruce Wiley, program manager for law enforcement and specialty vehicles at GM.

“I’m happy that we’ve made the ground that we have, but yet you always want to strive to get more market share. That’s just not coming as fast as I’d like it to,” he tells Ward’s.

Wiley would like to see the Impala capture as much of the police market as the old Caprice did – 53% -- but that goal appears a bit ambitious as long as police departments continue to favor RWD sedans.

“That is the highest hurdle we have to get over is the perception of durability, comparing a front- versus rear-wheel-drive car,” says Wiley. “The emphasis is on perception because no one has data out there that says otherwise. What they are basing it off is the experience law enforcement has had with attempts at front-wheel-drive many generations ago.”

Police agencies took a chance on FWD in the late 1970s and early 1980s with models such as the Chevrolet Celebrity and Ford Taurus. But the results were less than stellar.

After a few years, most agencies switched back to the old stalwart full-frame RWD offerings. That doesn’t mean Chevrolet isn’t making progress with the Impala. Wiley says the car will be extensively used by the New York City police department patrol units by the end of the ’02 model year. “We’re the dominator there, I would call it,” he says. “By the time the end is done for the 2002 model year, about 95% of the marked patrol cars in the New York City fleet will be Chevrolet’s, which is a conquest over Ford.”

Ford, however, says it isn’t concerned with the Impala and upcoming Dodge models encroaching on its stronghold. Jerry Koss, Ford’s North American fleet brand team manager, tells Ward’s Ford has no intention of leaving the police market behind.

“We’re going to continue our dominant position in the police market,” he says. “Their (police officers) preference is rear-wheel-drive body-on-frame, (and) we are the only manufacturer that provides that type of vehicle out there.”

GM’s Wiley cautions that with police fleet sales contributing only a small fraction of overall sales to a vehicle line, it’s impossible for a manufacturer to justify selling an RWD body-on-frame sedan developed mainly for police use.

“For anyone to come out and say, ‘We’re going to build this new rear-wheel-drive car, and we’re going to sell it to law enforcement,’ you’d probably be out of business before you got started because of the size of the market,” Wiley says. “The key is to find harmony between retail and law enforcement.”

The Impala, for example, was designed from the ground up to be a police and retail vehicle that would sell in high volumes on the retail side.

“Impala was the first police vehicle that was ever designed from concept and in concert with the retail vehicle,” he says. “The retail car benefited from that because we assigned targets from a police car standpoint for durability and made those the norm, and the retail car benefited from it.”

Ford, however, has plans to improve the Crown Victoria for police use in 2003. Most of the changes come as a direct result of input from law enforcement agencies via Ford’s law enforcement advisory panel. The group meets twice a year with Ford engineers to provide input on future police vehicle designs.

“For 2003, what’s going to be in the Crown Victoria are vehicle enhancements from the voice of the customer – suspension, frame, steering, improved durability and better ride,” Koss says.

Chevrolet also is busy designing its next iteration of the Impala, which sources say could be RWD. The next Impala will be tailored to both the police and retail markets.

“In concert with the next-generation Impala is going to be another version of the police car,” Wiley says. “We’re in (the police car market) for the long haul.”