In today's column: is buying a used police cruiser a good idea?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2009

Dear Tom and Ray:

I am looking for a used vehicle for less than $10,000, and I was curious about used police cruisers. I have heard that they are built for durability. But how reliable are they as used cars? A company I am looking at sells them with 71,000 miles on them, at a year or two old. Are they going to be money pits, or does their build quality offset the beating they probably have been put through?

-- Matt

RAY: I think I'd head in another direction, Matt.

TOM: It's true that police cars -- most notably the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor -- are beefed up to some extent.

RAY: They come with sturdier suspensions, for when officers have to drive up onto sidewalks to cut off or apprehend suspects.

TOM: They have beefed-up frame and body mounts so that when cops go over speed bumps at 80 miles an hour during a chase, the car won't come apart.

RAY: They have bigger engines. And their transmissions allow the engines to rev higher in each gear so that when the police need to pursue suspects, they can make jackrabbit starts.

TOM: And most importantly, they have external transmission coolers so the car can idle for hours in front of crime scenes. Or doughnut shops (apologies to our police brethren reading today, but we're contractually obligated to make that joke whenever we write about idling police vehicles).

RAY: These examples of how police cars are driven are all very good reasons NOT to buy a used one.

TOM: And 71,000 miles is a meaningless number. Most police cars never get shut off. When's the last time you saw a police car that wasn't idling? When one officer finishes his shift, another one gets right into the car and takes off. So the odometer reading doesn't account for the huge number of hours the engine has been running.

RAY: They do have the advantage of being relatively easy and inexpensive to fix. That's why cab drivers use these cars as well. In fact, they buy most of the used police cars. But unless the car is, say, half the price of a comparable nonpolice Crown Victoria, I'd stay away. They've just been driven too hard.

TOM: For $10,000, you ought to be able to get a very decent used car, Matt. One that's been used only occasionally in high-speed chases. Good luck.

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