CHP went out with a lot of models before settling on new SUV

CHP went out with a lot of models before settling on new SUV
The CHP vehicle sales yard in 1996. The sedans made today are too small for the CHP. (Joyce Mejia Ingram / Los Angeles Times)

The California Highway Patrol had to go big because the cars got small.

Carmakers have been discontinuing the big, heavy sedans that the CHP and other police agencies relied on: first the Dodge Diplomat, then the old version of the Chevrolet Caprice and more recently the Ford Crown Victoria.


Lately, CHP officials have been adding Ford's Explorer-based Police Interceptor SUV to the fleet because none of the remaining sedan options had the payload capacity for the personnel and equipment.

"The Crown Vic had a much higher payload capacity than all these new sedans coming out," CHP Assistant Chief Erik Knudsen told The Times in 2012. "Unfortunately the design of the new sedans is becoming smaller and lighter."

But this is far from the first time the CHP has agonized over picking a car.

Camaros, to crack down on big rigs

In 2002, the CHP introduced a fleet of white Chevrolet Camaros in a bid to reduce crashes involving big rigs.

The idea was to have a smaller car, without roof lights, that would be "virtually impossible to detect from the elevated cab of a big rig or in the rearview mirror of a passenger car," The Times reported.

"We want to keep folks off-guard a little bit," CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick said at the time. "We want them to think there may be an officer behind them and slow down."

Is a Volvo good enough for CHP?

For a while in the 1990s, the CHP even toyed around with … Volvos. The solid family sedan gained the interest of officials for its legendary safety record and reputation for reliability. Another appeal: It had a higher resale value than the Ford Crown Victorias the CHP was using.

But from the beginning, there were questions about whether the Volvo S70 was the right fit.

Tests noted there was less interior space for officers, their computers — and arrestees.

"Unlike the moms who pile soccer kids and Brownie scouts into the back seat," The Times wrote in 1999, "officers may find it tough to put uncooperative prisoners into the S70."

"You get some guy, he's drunk, 6-4, 250 pounds and he doesn't want to go along with the program. I think we are going to have our hands full getting somebody that size into the back seat of the car," one CHP tester said.

Some lawmakers also balked at the CHP's using a Swedish car.


Around this time, the CHP also tested but rejected another suburban stalwart: the Toyota Camry.

Mustangs, for high-speed pursuits

The most famous break with tradition came when the CHP unleashed a fleet of Ford Mustangs onto highways and freeways in the 1980s.

The Mustangs came in handy for high-speed chases, because they could get to up to 130 mph, The Times reported. That was significantly faster than the CHP's two sedans used at the time: the Diplomat, which could reach 112 mph, and the Caprice, which could reach 120 mph.

But interior space was small, and the Mustangs were eventually discontinued.