For CHP, New Volvos May Be Just the Ticket


Don't look now, but the next time you are stopped by a black and white California Highway Patrol car with flashing red and blue lights, it may be a Volvo.

A Volvo? Right. The same boxy, upscale sedan from Sweden that yuppies and suburban soccer moms discovered years ago is trying to displace traditional beefy American brands as the patrol's next pursuit vehicle.

For two years, the CHP has been quietly testing Volvos on its high-speed tracks at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento.

Next month, it plans to start deploying the imports, each wearing the CHP insignia, for patrol duty and more testing on roads and highways throughout the state.

"We are going to put 100,000 miles on them. If they come apart real quick, we'll scratch them real quick. If they hold together, we'll drive them," said CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick.

If the five-cylinder, turbocharged four-door sedan, which Volvo says can exceed 146 mph, survives and wins a contract, it would be the first car built overseas to win a permanent job at the CHP.

The patrol's current fleet of big Ford Crown Victoria V-8s carries the name of the American manufacturer, but were built in Canada. Volvo cars are made in Belgium and Sweden.

In January, Ford bought Volvo's car business. "Technically, we are a U.S. company," said a Volvo spokesman.

The patrol's test Volvos, the S70 model, will be sent to a variety of extreme climates and geography, ranging from the snowy, 7,000-foot high Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe to the searing 120-degree summer temperatures of the desert at Palm Springs.

They also will get duty on the Interstate 5 Grapevine near Gorman and in Bakersfield, Santa Maria, Temecula, Victorville, Sacramento, Redding and Tracy.

So far, officers who have subjected the famously safe car to repeated split-second emergency stops at 90 mph, white-knuckle test pursuits and other nerve-numbing exercises give it high marks.

"We beat it pretty good. It won't stop," said Sgt. Casey Cronin, training supervisor of the patrol's emergency vehicle operations course. "It runs strong, stops straight and has excellent handling."

Fewer Competitors

The Volvo S70 is front-wheel drive and develops 236 horsepower, the manufacturer says. The police model features a beefed up chassis and bigger brakes than the civilian version.

Historically, the CHP has bought rear-wheel-drive cruisers with American brand names. But domestic manufacturers have been withdrawing from the police market in favor of other customers, including the sport utility vehicle crowd.

"Right now, the only police car that is being made is the Crown Victoria by Ford," Helmick said.

"We have no problem with continuing to buy Fords. But the concern is that if for some reason Ford got out of the business or the price went astronomically high, we've got to be prepared to go alternative ways," he said.

Helmick said the CHP recently tested a Toyota Camry V-6, built in Kentucky, but found it underpowered. Officers also tried out but rejected a modified Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility model.

In the 1980s and early '90s, the patrol added a sporty muscle car to its fleet, the Ford Mustang. Officials boasted that it could outrun a Porsche. The Mustang was eventually dropped because its interior space was too small.

The Volvo S70 may also suffer from "limited" interior space, a potential issue that will be examined when it is put through field testing, Cronin said.

The Ford Crown Victoria is a full-size four-door vehicle. The Volvo S70 is also a four-door sedan but in the slightly smaller, mid-size class.

"The only thing we recognize that is going to be a problem is limited interior room," Cronin said.

He said testers are concerned whether there will be enough space for officers' laptop computers and whether the bucket seats will be comfortable for officers whose bulky belts include a pistol and holster, handcuff case, ammunition pouches and a portable radio.

And unlike the moms who pile soccer kids and Brownie scouts into the back seat, Cronin said 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," Cronin said.

Cost Comparison

Another potential issue would be the cost of shifting to pricier Volvos. Now, the patrol pays $22,200 for a Crown Victoria compared with $27,500 for each Volvo test car.

The order of 880 Fords cost $19.5 million, the CHP said. The same purchase of Volvos would total $24.2 million.

"The cost would be prohibitive right now," Helmick said.

No argument about that, said Richard Cook, a San Diego-based consultant to Volvo on police cars. But he said the price difference could be offset when the CHP resells the Volvo.

"When they retire it, our car is probably worth $8,000 more than the Crown Victoria. They make the money back on the residual when they sell it," Cook said.

He said Volvo has been in the police car business in Scandinavian and other European countries for 30 years and now wants to move into the U.S. market. Other Volvos are being tested by the highway patrols in Arizona and Oklahoma, Cook said.

Helmick said if the CHP decides to switch from an American brand to the Swedish car, he would voluntarily seek approval of the Legislature.

"I'd go back to the Legislature because the Volvo is built overseas," he said.

California's "Buy American" law for state government was ruled unconstitutional in 1983. In recent years, the CHP has purchased motorcycles made by Japanese and German companies.

Helmick said there still may be some sentiment in the Legislature to remain with American brand patrol cars.

One member, Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Wilmington), an ally of organized labor, said he opposes even the testing of Volvos.

"We make enough nice automobiles in this country. We don't have to test some foreign car," Floyd said. "Buy American. Stick with the right thing."

But Volvo's Cook countered: "Now that we are a part of Ford, we are a U.S. company. . . . We are just as much apple pie as Ford is now."

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