Though they were what most people drove in the 1950s and 1960s, full-size cars like the Ford Crown Victoria are now an anomaly. But Ford's biggest sedan still offers significant virtues, including affordable V8 performance and room for six people (if configured with a three-abreast front bench seat).
Today, the Crown Victoria's passenger and cargo volumes compare favorably against fashionable SUVs. Its low seat height doesn't afford a truck's elevated perspective of the road, but sliding into the Crown Vic is as effortless as settling into your favorite armchair. This lowness also pays a noticeable dividend in ride quality, avoiding the hobbyhorse head tossing of a truck or SUV.
The Crown Victoria is popular with a lot of people for its impressive safety ratings, easy entry/exit, big windows, pleasant ride quality, quiet interior, confusion-free controls, and optional power-adjustable pedals. Ford sells nearly 80,000 Crown Vics a year.
Ford substantially updated the Crown Victoria for 2003. A stiffer chassis provided front frame sections designed to better absorb crash energy. Handling precision was improved, thanks to more precise rack-and-pinion steering and an extensive redesign of the front and rear suspensions. For 2004, Ford has made changes to the transmission for better acceleration, and re-thought the layout of the optional overhead console. Laminated door glass is now available for even more quiet and security.
Ford Crown Victoria ($23,620); LX ($26,645); LX Sport ($29,590)
It requires a conservative taste in automobiles to appreciate the Ford Crown Victoria's appearance and a very critical taste to dislike it. The Crown Vic is big, mostly bland but also oddly admirable in its haughty restraint. From a distance, its considerable rear overhang marks it as a sedan of the past, but as you approach, you realize that its basic shape is still a pleasant thing, and Ford has kept it that way with just the right nips and tucks.
Crown Vic's formal looks suggest dignified duties: going to work and back, shopping excursions, or maybe an outing to the theater on Saturday night with another couple. The long hood says power and direction; the traditional chrome-ringed grille denotes an elevated station in life. There's more than a wink of Lincoln influence in its long, liquid flanks, and its thick vertical C-pillars. Fortunately, bright work has been applied sparingly, letting you see the Crown Victoria's true shape, rather than its ornamentation.
The LX Sport is distinguished by more aggressive wheels, tires, and monochrome trim. Mechanically, the Sport model includes dual exhaust, a high-performance torque converter, firmer springs, stiffer anti-roll bars, a standard air spring rear suspension, a lower rear axle ratio for quicker acceleration, and special 17-inch wheels and tires.
Entering the Ford Crown Vic is a snap: the doors present a yawning access to the driver's seat, which is wide, located at an easy slide-in height, and nearly devoid of lateral bolstering to impede your inward progress.
Once seated, drop your left hand to the side of the driver's seat bottom and you'll feel the control for the lumbar support. Perched on the door panel is the easy-to-use controller icon for the remainder of the seat's eight-way adjustability. Still not comfy? Near your left knee on the dash is a switch to electrically reposition the accelerator and brake pedals ($120 on base model, standard otherwise). Not only is this adjustment convenient, but it's a significant safety factor, moving shorter drivers away from the steering wheel's airbag.
Before you is an array of distinguished, readable gauges, including an atypical but welcome oil temperature gauge. In the center of the dash (a long arm's-reach away) are the simple-to-use controls for the sound system, heating and air conditioning. (The LX Premier and LX Sport feature handy steering-wheel mounted buttons to operate these remotely.) The dash is broad and minimally sculpted, with periodic blisters and brows to emphasize different areas, and a thin streak of imitation wood across the bottom for visual relief.
Crown Victoria models can be configured to seat five or six occupants. The five-passenger LX Sport features two front bucket seats with a floor-mounted shifter and center armrest/storage bin nested between them. The standard six-seat models employ a split front bench seat with an old-fashioned column shifter. The six-seat configuration offers compelling versatility, but that front center seat is not attractive given its hard bottom cushion, next-to-no legroom (there's a big transmission hump there), and a lap belt instead of a shoulder belt (no upper body retention). Any takers? Only little people are likely to volunteer to sit there.
The rear seats, on the other hand, offer lots of elbow-stretching room, plenty of headroom, but little knee room. The rear center seat is a better deal than the front center seat, with tolerable legroom (straddling your feet around the smaller driveshaft tunnel), a softer seat cushion and a proper shoulder belt.
There are several reasons why live-axle rear suspensions have fallen out of favor in automobiles, and one is the useful room they subtract from the cabin and the trunk. In the Crown Vic's case, one casualty is that rear knee room we mentioned. Another is its trunk configuration. It may sound silly to complain, when the Crown Victoria leads its class in trunk capacity; but clearly the trunk could be both larger and longer if the Crown Vic enjoyed a modern, space-efficient independent rear suspension.
Outward vision is a mixed bag. The big windows provide a panoramic view. But the mirrors are much too small, particularly the rear-view mirror, which has to be adjusted just-so to do the job. The driver's dual sun visors can be arranged to effectively defeat late-afternoon glare.
Safety is enhanced by a load sensor in the outboard front passenger seat. If it detects an occupant, it activates a chime to remind that person to buckle up; if no occupant is detected, it de-activates the passenger-side airbag. It's all part of what Ford calls its Personal Safety System, which also provides dual-rate airbag deployment depending on driver-seat position and vehicle speed, plus pre-tensioning and energy-managing belts. ABS (with panic brake assist) is standard. Also standard are rear LATCH-system child seat anchors. As mentioned, side-impact air bags ($300) are optional. If this sounds like an impressive complement of safety equipment, it's because it is.
If your only experience with a Crown Victoria has been riding in a taxicab, careening through city streets, you've been misled. Truth is, the Crown Vic's driving personality is far more sedate. While some cars vie for your down payment by touting driver involvement, the big Ford goes the other way, trumpeting maximum driver isolation. It regards the world out there as bumpy and loud, and insulates you from it.
In the past, riding in a full-size sedan meant dreaming along the boulevard in sofa-like comfort, while suffering a sea-sick wallow on secondary roads. Steering was typically as vague as a politician's response to a direct question. Fortunately, the current Crown Victoria largely avoids these missteps, only straying into unpleasantness if you flagrantly disregard the posted speed limit. Within the boundaries of legal speeds, its steering and brakes are very slow responding (more so the steering), but competent and unruffled in a limousine sort of way. Both steering and brakes require only light effort, although the relaxed steering ratio does mean sometimes turning the wheel quite a bit more than you'd expect. The steering is accurate, however, a benefit of the new rack-and-pinion setup. A new steering gear shaved a foot off the pre-2003 Crown Vic's turning circle, easing parking-lot maneuvers.
The Crown Victoria handles back roads better than you might expect. Live-axle rear suspensions have a habit of unsettling both rear wheels when only one of them hits a bump. Taking a railroad crossing at an angle, for instance, is likely to tighten your grip on your commuter cup. But it doesn't have to be that way, and the Crown Vic's rear axle is so accurately located and smoothly controlled that it's rarely ruffled.
Ride quality is generally smooth. The big Ford is particularly adept at sapping the sting from sharp jolts. There's little fore and aft head toss, an annoying experience accepted by drivers of today's taller vehicles. On the downside, the Crown Vic's tires follow road contours more rigorously than we'd like.
In terms of interior noise, the Crown Vic truly shines, delivering near-concert-hall quiet even as it absorbs crashing bumps. It's an ideal environment for conversation, music-listening or just quiet contemplation.
The big Ford earns high marks not only for a controlled ride and acoustic isolation, but also improved structural solidity. The redesigned perimeter frame introduced last year is roughly 20 percent more resistant to bending and twisting than its predecessor. In human-speak this means less shake, creak and booming, as well as an impressive double-five-star safety rating in the federal government's front-end crash tests.
Acceleration is V8-brisk, and even better for 2004, thanks to a re-engineered torque converter in the transmission. Squeezing down the go-pedal returns a satisfyingly quick twirl of the speedometer needle and an authoritative intake note. When a good dose of scoot is called for, a punch of the Crown Vic's throttle does the job, sending 224 horsepower to the rear wheels in fire-brigade buckets full.
Driven normally, you should expect a satisfactory 17 mpg in the city, 25 mpg on the highway, and smooth shifts from the four-speed automatic transmission.
And it's in just this sort of breezing along where the Crown Vic really shines, effectively isolating you from exterior noise and the harshest of road surfaces. Behind the wheel, you're invited to relax and ignore the frenzy of modern traffic. The Ford Crown Victoria is a rolling respite from traffic anxiety disorder.
Ford Crown Victoria may be the most traditional domestic automobile available today. Or, depending on how you look at it, it could be one of most unconventional, given how far the market has migrated from the original recipe. In the Crown Victoria, you have the classic ingredients of the American automobile: size, V8 power, rear-wheel drive, and four doors, all packaged in the once-ubiquitous three-box sedan configuration. There's room for six, a huge trunk, safety features aplenty, a well-cushioned ride and a silence-is-golden acoustic experience.
Yet, technical upgrades such as rack-and-pinion steering, a revamped suspension, and a stiffer chassis give the Crown Vic a driving experience that is far from lackluster. Its character is fluid and relaxed, its performance surprisingly competent. That's why Crown Victoria remains a popular choice.