Cars are now an integral part of any police force, anywhere in the world, but it wasn’t always so. The motor car may have been invented in 1885 by Karl Benz, but the first police car didn’t go into service until 1899, and even that was an electric-powered wagon, which patrolled the streets of Akron, Ohio, and could only travel 30 miles before its battery had to be recharged.
Modern police cars have to meet several criteria if they are going to be effective in catching criminals. Speed is obviously a decisive factor, along with ensuring that the vehicles have plenty of trunk space for any specialist equipment the officers might need. It is also important that these vehicles have a high safety rating, not just for the sake of the police officers inside them, but also to protect other road users as much as possible.
Police forces also need to consider how much cars are going to cost, given that they are spending public money on their fleets of vehicles. And it isn’t just the initial outlay which needs to be calculated, but also the long-term costs of keeping the cars fueled up and in good repair. Often police forces can get a bargain for buying in bulk, but that does sometimes mean that they get stuck with some less than stylish vehicles, as the list below illustrates.
The Suzuki Jimny started life as a jeep version of the classic Kei car – small vehicles which were popular in countries in Asia in the years following WWII. Although it has evolved over the decades, it still remains one of the smallest SUVs on the market and not an obvious choice for a police car.
And yet the Suzuki Jimny is used by the police force in Japan, as well as cops in New South Wales, in Australia, while the Indian version of the vehicle, the Gypsy King, has also been used by the police and even the army in India.
It may be a more robust SUV option than the lightweight Suzuki Jimny, but the Pontiac Aztek is certainly never going to win any prizes for its looks. In fact, the Aztek regularly features on top ten lists of the ugliest cars of all time, while Thrilllist.com described the car as “the biggest failure in automotive history”.
Perhaps the police force in Montreal got a great deal on its fleet of Pontiac Azteks, seeing as nobody else wanted to buy one; why else would a city known for its culture and sophistication make its cops drive around in such ugly vehicles?
Pushing the Pontiac Aztek pretty close in the ugly car stakes is the Fiat Multipla, a compact MPV which looks more like it is two vehicles which have been welded together, one on top of the other. The alternative, that someone designed a car to look like that, is just too bizarre to contemplate!
Amazingly, this car was in production in Europe for 12 years, between 1998 and 2010, and was widely used by the municipal police in the Tuscan city of Florence. Not Fiat’s proudest moment, which is saying something from the company that gave us the bone-rattling Fiat Panda.
In contrast, there is nothing particularly wrong with the Hyundai Sonata sedan which is used by police forces in South Korea and in China. The mid-size car is just a bit dull and would be neither use nor ornament in any high-speed chase through the streets of Seoul.
In fact, the Hyundai Sonata’s bewildering popularity as a police car stretches beyond Asia, as it is also extensively used in Australia and even in many cities in the US. They might be relatively cheap, and fairly reliable, but they certainly don’t live up to the Hollywood image of cop cars.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser looks more like a cop car from a cartoon than the kind of vehicle you would expect real-life police officers to be driving. In fact, it almost looks as though the Cruiser, with its vintage styling, was modeled on the cars from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Designed as a family car, it doesn’t even boast many of the attributes which are supposedly a must-have for a fleet of cop cars. The police department in Largo, Florida has decided to embrace their inner animated characters by giving their officers a fleet of Chrysler PT Cruisers to patrol the city.
Of course, police cars don’t have to look stylish and sophisticated to do their job, but they do have to be able to drive for more than a few miles without grinding to a halt. Which makes the decision by the Bulgarian police force to give their officers one of the most notoriously unreliable cars in the world all the more surprising.
Lada is a car manufacturer from Russia which made most of the Soviet-era cars for the countries behind the Iron Curtain, and the Lada Niva is one of their compact models, which has been in constant production since 1977.
The Toyota Corolla also has a long history, having been launched by the car manufacturer all the way back in 1966. It became the biggest-selling nameplate in the world in 1997, passing the previous record holder, the Volkswagen Beetle, and in 2013, it hit 40 million sales worldwide. It may be a big hit with ordinary motorists, but it hardly makes for an exciting set of wheels for police forces to give to their officers.
The Toyota Corolla is a popular choice as a cop car around the world, being used by the police in Singapore, Thailand, Ghana, and Turkey.
So far on this list, we have had ugly cars and cars that seem too boring for cops. However, the next vehicle, the Renault Twizy, is perhaps the most impractical option of all.
The two-seater electric car would be more at home on a golf course than helping ensure law and order on the streets of the UK, and yet this quirky set of wheels has proven to be a popular choice for police forces who are trying to find the ideal car to patrol city centers. Its 60-mile range and top speed of 50mph makes it an unlikely high-speed pursuit vehicle unless the culprits are on foot.
The Smart ForTwo may be a little more powerful than the all-electric Renault Twizy, but it is still completely impractical as a cop car, even where it is only used to patrol cities. Where on earth is an officer supposed to put any suspects they manage to arrest?
New York City is one of several places in the US which have adopted the Smart ForTwo as one of their police vehicles, despite the obvious drawbacks, with the city buying 250 models in 2016 to replace the three-wheeled motorbikes which patrol officers had previously used to keep order in the city that never sleeps.
From one of the most compact police cars seen anywhere in the world to one of the most unfeasibly large vehicles ever to serve and protect. The Plymouth Caravelle, which patrolled the streets of Toronto throughout the 1980s, was 15 feet in length and nearly 6 feet wide, which might have worked out on the open highway, but wasn’t exactly suited to negotiating city center streets.
The 1970s and 1980s was the era of big police cars – think back to the good old-fashioned Crown Victoria – but the Plymouth Caravelle was certainly one of the ugliest examples of these unwieldy sets of wheels.
The problem with the vehicles used by the Aspen Police Department isn’t that the individual models themselves are ugly, but that the city has decided to give their fleet of cop cars one of the most unfortunate custom paint jobs. The silver base color is inoffensive enough, but it is the tacky gold leaf design which really puts them into the category of police cars which could never see the light of day.
However, even this current design is an improvement on the old Aspen PD vehicles which had a few mountains painted on their side panels – just in case anyone forgot what the area was famous for…
Police forces, like other public services, have to think about lots of different factors when it comes to buying vehicles for their officers. Not only do they have to consider how much the cars are going to cost the taxpayer, but these days they also have to think about the environmental impact that their choice is going to have – which explains why police forces are increasingly choosing hybrid cars or even all-electric vehicles for their officers.
The police force in Berlin, the capital of Germany, have acquired a large fleet of Toyota Prius cars, an uninspiring if environmentally-friendly choice.
The Dodge Nitro could be said to be the US evolution of the Suzuki Jimny, a compact SUV which wouldn’t be much use if you actually wanted to go off-roading. Built on the same platform as the Jeep Liberty, it has a boxy appearance that makes it look older than its years.
The Nitro might look as though it dates from the 1990s, but it was actually in production between 2006 and 2012. Although not in widespread use as a cop car, the Brentwood Police Department in California does have a few Dodge Nitro vehicles in its fleet, despite its cheap manufacturing standards and poor fuel economy.
Compact cars tend to be more popular among police forces in Europe, and the Renault Zoe isn’t just small, but it is also one of the few all-electric vehicles to be widely used as a cop car.
First launched in 2012, the latest model of the Renault Zoe has an impressive range of 250 miles and a top speed of 80mph, but it does have a couple of very obvious drawbacks; its bland appearance, and its slightly effeminate name, which is hardly likely to strike fear into the hearts of criminals in Portugal and Spain, where the Renault Zoe has been used by the local police for the last few years.
Like the Aspen Police Department, it isn’t so much the vehicles that are in use by the Sao Paolo police force that are the problem, but rather the very dated and uninspiring design which the city uses on its fleet.
The geometric design looks more like something which was drawn up in the 1980s, rather than being used on 21st-century police cars, and let's not even get started on the ridiculous font the city uses on its vehicles to announce proudly to the world that they belong to Sao Paolo Policia. This is one fleet which drastically needs a design update.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Bulgaria still gives its police officers the rather unreliable and unstable Lada Niva in order to chase down criminals, Russia – the home of Lada cars and therefore a country which really should know better – still uses the Lada Samara as the backbone of its police fleet in many parts of the country.
Production on this boxy and unattractive car came to an end in 2013, after thirty years of serving the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. The Samara wasn’t just used by the regular cops, but also by the feared intelligence services in the years before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Sao Paolo Policia cars may look as though they’re stuck in the 1980s, but they’re still ten years ahead of the unattractive color scheme on the cars driven by the Tennessee State Troopers. Their fleet of vehicles, from their SUVs to their high-speed pursuit cars, all have the same brown and beige paint job, which certainly gives the impression that it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s.
In fact, the color scheme goes back even further than that, to the 1940s and 1950s when Tennessee first started to employ their fleet of vehicles on a large scale across the state.
Production on the Citroen C4 compact car started in 2004 and only came to an end in 2018 after 14 years and hundreds of thousands of units sold, mainly in Citroen’s domestic market in Europe. The car may be cheap, cheerful and reliable, but they don’t rank highly when it comes to style and sophistication.
It may not be pretty, but police departments can buy a car like the Citroen C4 in bulk and get themselves a real bargain – which is probably why the Policia Nacional in Spain use it to patrol the country, despite its rather unimpressive appearance and cheap fixtures and fittings.
The Toyota Prius may be the best-selling hybrid, but it is a rival from Japan, the Nissan Leaf, which is taking the all-electric market by storm. Launched in 2012, the Leaf is a compact car with a range of 151 miles, which makes it better suited to city patrols than chasing criminals up and down the UK’s network of motorways.
The world’s best-selling plug-in electric car in 2016, several police forces around the world are looking at the Nissan Leaf as a green option for their fleets of vehicles, and the West Midlands Police in England is just one organization which has embraced the Nissan Leaf for its officers.
Police departments are just one way in which cities can market themselves; choose the right color scheme or corporate identity, and even cop cars can help to boost a city’s reputation with visitors and even its own residents.
However, get this corporate identity wrong, and a city’s cop cars can just end up being an embarrassment – rather like the vehicles used by the Detroit Police Department which have an over-dramatic visual representation of the city’s skyline painted on the side panels of all their cars. Detroit cop cars are a classic example of how sometimes less is more when it comes to visual design.
Sources: The Car Expert, Thrillist, Gov News, Inside Sao Paulo