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For 2003, Ford's largest sedan, the Crown Victoria, may look very similar to last year's offering, but there's been plenty of changes under the skin to keep it technically up to date. Key among them is a new, stiffer chassis that includes front frame sections designed to better absorb crash energy. Handling precision is improved via the adoption of more precise rack-and-pinion steering, plus there's been an extensive redesign of its front and rear suspensions.
Once the most common type of automobile on America's highways, Ford's big rear-wheel-drive Crown Victoria is now something of an anomaly. But Ford's biggest sedan still has significant virtues: affordable V8 performance and room for six people (if configured with a three-abreast front bench seat). It almost sounds odd today, but this sort of car and seating arrangement is what most people drove in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration.
Crown Vic's interior and trunk volumes compare well against those of an SUV. Indeed the Crown Victoria offers the largest trunk in its class. Its old-fashioned low seat height doesn't afford today's popular elevated-perspective of the road, but climbing in as effortless as settling into your favorite arm chair). This lowness also pays a noticeable dividend in ride quality over tall, hobby horse SUVs. This is why the Crown Vics are so popular as taxi cabs and police cars.
The Crown Victoria is popular for its impressive safety ratings, easy entry/exit, big windows, pleasant ride quality, quiet interior, confusion-free controls, and adjustable pedals.
If your only experience with a Crown Victoria has been riding in one as a taxicab passenger careening through city streets, you've been misled. Truth is, the Crown Vic's driving personality is far more sedate. While many other cars are vying for your down payment by touting their driver involvement, the big Ford goes the other way, trumpeting maximum driver isolation. It regards the world out there as bumpy and loud, and it insulates you from that world.
In the past, sedans such as the Crown Victoria meant dreaming along in a sofa-like boulevard ride that could easily decompose into a sea-sick wallow on deteriorated roads. Likewise, their steering was typically as vague as a politician's response to a direct question. Fortunately, the highly redesigned 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 light driver effort, although the relaxed steering ratio does mean sometimes turning the steering wheel quite a bit more than you'd expect. However, when motoring down a typical highway lane, the new rack-and-pinion steering represents a real improvement in accurately pointing the Crown Vic. At parking speeds, the new steering system helps shave a foot from the turning circle. Overall, the new Crown Victoria feels as if its popularity with the police and taxi cab markets has rubbed off on the consumer version, influencing it to become a considerably more predictable handling car than in years past.
The Crown Vic's ride quality is generally smooth. It's 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 engineering-speak, the rear suspension is of the old-fashioned live axle variety, which has 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 the morning's latte. But that's not the case with the 2003 Crown Victoria's all-new front suspension and revamped rear suspension, which are rarely ruffled.
Related to ride quality is interior noise, and here 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. High marks for this big Ford's acoustic isolation and improved structural solidity. Technically, the new perimeter chassis is roughly 20-percent more resistant to bending and twisting; In human-speak this means less shake, creak and booming, as well as an impressive double five-star crash rating in the federal government's frontal crash tests.
Acceleration is V8-brisk, delivering a satisfying quick twirl of the speedometer needle and an authoritative throttle note. When a good dose of scoot is called for, a punch of the Crown Vic's throttle does the job, pouring its 224 horsepower to the driven rear wheels in fire-brigade buckets full.
Driven normally, you can expect a satisfactory 18 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and smooth shifts from the four-speed automatic transmission that are noticeable only to a transmission engineer.
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 this car's basic recipe. In the Crown Victoria, you have the classic ingredients of the American automobile: size, V8 power, rear-wheel drive, four doors, all packaged in the once ubiquitous three-box sedan configuration.
With room for up to six occupants, a huge trunk, safety features aplenty, a well-cushioned ride and a silence-is-golden acoustic experience, the Crown Vic has plenty to offer big families or older drivers for whom driving thrills are moments preferably avoided.
Yet with technical upgrades including rack-and-pinion steering, a revamped suspension, and a stiffer chassis, the Crown Victoria's driving experience is far from lackluster. Its character is fluid and relaxed, its performance surprisingly competent. Sprinkle-in a pinch of new-for-2003 visual enhancements, and you have a Crown Victoria that's a traditional, but evergreen choice.