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United Kingdom’s Police Fleet Expo

Written by Roger Blaxall

It all started in typical British fashion over afternoon tea at the London Motor Show more than 25 years ago. Following an informal get together of police fleet managers on the British Leyland stand, the fledgling National Association of Police Fleet Managers (NAPFM) was formed, bringing together UK and foreign car, motor bike and light commercial manufacturers along with vehicle equipment suppliers and police fleet personnel. Each had a vested interest in the British police market. From small beginnings, the UK 999 market has grown to an annual $100 million business!

Emergency vehicles from almost every UK manufacturer and importer are displayed. It has been a long time since British-built police cars have taken the lion’s share of the UK 999 market. In the domestic market, importers boast over 60% penetration with many “British” police cars, in fact, made abroad. To their credit, British police managers still buy cars from manufacturers that have a substantial presence in the UK, with Ford and Vauxhall (GM) still proving the most popular buys.

Audi

Part of the mighty Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG), Audi has increased its UK market share in some very specific areas. Cars like the Audi S3, a hot hatch based on the A3, are sold to a handful of forces for specialist covert work. The Greater Manchester force has given Audi some great free advertising thanks to a BBC program focusing on its stolen vehicle squad where the S3 plays a leading part the fight against auto criminals. With over 200 hp at its disposal in a compact body shell, the charismatic S3 packs a powerful four-wheel drive punch. It is a hot favorite with many undercover cop drivers, thanks to its maneuverability, unburstable turbocharged engine and typical Germanic build quality.

The stakes are high at this end of the auto crime spectrum with thieves routinely stealing powerful cars like the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru Impreza to carry out inter-county crime “ram raids” on shops and offices or simply baiting the police with joyriding tactics. The police need a car that can nip those activities in the bud, and a well-driven S3 is more than a match for most reckless drivers; some of them in their early-20s show no fear in their criminal behavior, part of the “What have I got to lose?” culture prevalent in some parts of inner city Britain.

BMW

One of the biggest exhibits at this year’s event was BMW, and for a good reason. With its range of cars, motors and the Mini Cooper range, it boasts a wide-ranging line-up from the economical Mini 1 diesel and BMW 1 series to the over-the-top M5 touring, a wagon based on the M5 saloon with over 400 hp at its disposal. Specially invited guests were also shown what makes a BMW police car so special in a screened-off security area where I half expected to see the new James Bond (Daniel Craig) behind the wheel.

BMW cars and bikes are well represented in a growing number of UK forces where they’re used in a variety of roles from armed response, road policing and diplomatic protection. My personal “car of the show” was a BMW, but it wasn’t on the BMW stand. The Sussex Police have recently taken delivery of a dozen 530D Tourers, which have replaced a mix of aging Volvos and Mercedes Benzes.

What is significant about the new liveried cars is their high-tech conversion by Ricardo, whose UK base is in Sussex County. Despite having only five years of experience in the competitive 999 market, Ricardo has made its mark by expertise learned from work in the military vehicle field, and the 530s are state-of-the-art police cars fit for the increasing level of demand placed on patrolling officers.

Each car is fitted not only with the normal road policing kit but a plethora of computerized technology that can deal with everything from ongoing incidents, make instant Police National Computer inquiries, or plot the car’s exact position with sophisticated satellite navigation. Also fitted are a day-night camera (with 26x zoom), speed detection system and Tracker anti-theft device. The force reckons that it is the most sophisticated police car fleet in the UK, with conservative estimates about $100,000 per car.

Ford

Ford’s SVP operation has had a busy year with a number of new products offered for 999 users in a variety of roles. It was the first show outing for the new S Max and Galaxy models, (sports utility and multipurpose vehicles, respectively), the revised C Max from the growing Focus family, updated light commercial, the Transit Connect (made in Turkey) and the fifth generation Transit, which has won a number of significant awards after only a few months on sale.

And there was much more from Ford—its latest bigger, faster and more sophisticated Mondeo was previewed in saloon and estate (wagon) form. It looked very classy, too, although some have pointed out that the new model is now as big as the Ford Granada from seven years ago; such is the price of progress from customers who want faster, safer and better-looking cars.

General Motors and Vauxhall

It’s goodbye Vauxhall and hello GM Special Vehicles as the Vauxhall, Chevrolet and Saab brands are all brought under one roof. The company is boasting a new state-of-the-art conversion facility at Millbrook in Bedfordshire County. Its novel exhibit showed the popular Astra hatch—Britain’s best-selling police car—before, during and after conversion work. Also on show were variants of the Vauxhall Vectra, a popular choice with road policing and motorway units, while Saab displayed its innovative bio-diesel range.

It’s been a busy year at Vauxhall, which has posted record retail sales in the UK and has introduced a number of new models including the Antara SUV. GM will soon quietly drop the unpopular Signum hatchback after lackluster sales. Part of the company success can be attributed to its heavy investments in a range of powerful, refined and economical diesel engines, which are some of the cleanest in the UK…its Corsa, Astra, Vectra, Meriva, Zafira and Antara models all available with a choice of 1.3L, 1.7L and 3.0L engines with five-speed or six-speed manual transmissions or six-speed autos.

Honda

Honda has built up its 999 business very nicely after its decision to build cars in the UK a decade ago. It now manufactures its best-selling Civic and CR-V ranges in Swindon, a half-hour drive from the Wroughton expo site. Honda vied with BMW for the biggest and most professional stand. It can even outdo most manufacturers thanks to its wide range of two- and four-wheeled machines, including cars, off-roaders, SUVs, quad bikes, bikes and urban scooters.

Hyundai

Big plans for the UK are under way by Hyundai. The importers were out in force with the new i30 range taking pride of place on its stand. An i10 minicar, a new i20 supermini, and i40 and i50 models to replace an aging Sonata saloon, its price recently slashed by $6,000 to revive sales, will soon supplement the new range. There was no talk of any discounts on the good-looking i30 range though, which was fresh from the Korean production line. There will soon be Hyundais made in Slovakia as the company seeks to boost its European credentials.

Jaguar

Thirty years ago, Jaguar was a popular choice for a number of high-profile roles on the UK’s main roads, motorways and as chief officer transport. Times have changed despite the many technology breakthroughs by Jaguar in diesel technology. And in March 2008, Ford (Jaguar’s parent company) sold Jaguar and Land Rover to the India automaker Tata Motors. At the conference, Jaguar showed off a face-lifted XJ saloon and X-TYPE saloon and estate. The S-TYPE was unchaged. The 2009 XF, which replaces the S-TYPE, has had a promising launch and looks like it might be Jaguar’s last chance saloon. Only time will tell if UK police fleet managers can have their faith restored in the legendary brand.

Land Rover

Land Rover can hold its head high since the introduction of a raft of new models including the Range Rover, Discovery, Defender and Freelander, all of which are either recently new or improved. The brand is a favorite of the Highways Agency (HATO) fleet, whose officers now drive in a fleet of almost 50 Discoverys around the UK’s 2,000-mile motorway system.

Lexus

Best known in the UK for its innovative approach to larger hybrid saloons and SUVs, Lexus’s leading-edge technology now means that police authorities can buy the RX400h for highway patrol and armed response work; while the state-of-the-art 5L GS600h is a breath-taking addition to the luxury saloon fold…a rumored price of over $185,000 means it’s an expensive buy for senior officer transport, no matter how loudly they want to shout their “green” credentials! Meanwhile, the South Wales Police are one of the latest forces to buy a fleet of RX350 SUVs for motorway and armed response work.

Mitsubishi

Japanese importer Mitsubishi has decided to set up its own bespoke 999 vehicle SVO special operation center to deal with a growing number of forces that like what they see under the red triangle. Latest additions to the police fleet are the newly revised Shogun, the last of the line Evo models, its innovative Outlander SUV (which also shares much of its components with French sister vehicles from Citroen and Peugeot), the handsome Grandis people carrier and quirky Colt models. The latter shares its technology with the Mercedes Benz Smart “forfour” saloon, regrettably no longer imported into the UK.

Star of the stand, though, was one of the importers smallest yet most innovative cars, the new “i,” which boasts a 660 cc petrol engine, seating for four in an egg-shaped body and cute, friendly “face” Only a few hundred cars are being imported into the UK this year, but they have all been sold. Mitsubishi reported lots of interest from police fleet managers to try the car in city policing situations.

Mercedes Benz

Mercedes Benz withdrew from the police passenger car market after its German parent company refused to help subsidize prices for UK police fleet orders. Police customers now have a choice of their highly regarded light commercials from the Vito, now available with a barnstorming V-6 diesel engine, to the range of Sprinters now used by many forces as personnel carriers and more specialized transport for armed response officers and riot police.

Nissan

The Nissan success story just goes on and on in the UK. New models like the Brit-built Qashqai prove there’s still room for innovative police cars despite the very conservative approach of some fleet managers. The new model has been a roaring success in the UK and Japan and will soon be built in China, too. It takes the best elements of an estate (wagon), hatchback and small SUV to mould them into the distinctive urban crossover, which is well suited to a number of contemporary policing roles. Meanwhile, its recently revised X Trail has furthered its 999 credentials with a highly satisfactory four stars in the latest NCAP (European crash rating) findings.

Peugeot

Peugeot’s star is on the descent after a recent decision not to include its police cars in “preferred supplier” status. It means the French company now concentrates on specialist one off conversions of wagon models for police dog duties along with light commercials for urban policing where its Partner range is used for CCTV work by forces like Merseyside.

Proton

Proton takes a miniscule share of the Brit car market, mainly through its supply of cars to the Humberside force in Northeast England. Its future as a manufacturer is looking shaky after VW and GM both decided to back out of a buyout deal for the Malaysian company. Not that the news worried a bullish sales team from the company who had three new product lines to show off, its high-end Impian saloon liveried for duty.

Proton’s are best known for their pioneering work with Humberside in adapting patrol cars to run on LPG liquefied petroleum gas, which is currently half the price of regular British petrol (gas) although fuel consumption rises slightly. The iconic British sports car manufacturer Lotus, also owned by Proton, tunes its saloons’ handling for the UK market.

SEAT

As the Spanish arm of the VW Audi Group, SEAT is aiming for big things in the UK 999 market thanks to its range of cars, which emphasize the marque’s sporting looks and performance. New for 2007 was the Altea Freetrack, yet another mid-sized SUV with off-road capabilities due to its raised ground clearance and on-demand four-wheel drive. The car certainly looked good in the flesh on its UK police debut. I particularly liked the interior treatment with its deep bucket seats, bold instrumentation and roomy cabin.

The company is also exploiting a niche in the UK market for a fast response multipurpose vehicle with its Alhambra, now made specifically for the UK emergency services market with a 200-hp V-6 petrol engine. A number of forces have already expressed an interest in this unique flying machine for ARV duties.

Skoda

Skoda has enjoyed steady growth over the past few years from its four strong model line. The Fabia is a supermini in hatchback and estate forms with a mix of frugal three- and four-cylinder petrol engines and VW’s renowned TDi power plants. The recently introduced, the Roomster has been a slow seller to date due to its oddball looks. Next up is the Octavia, which is available as a saloon, hatchback or estate. The company recently announced a new range of four-wheel Scout estates ideal for police, fire and paramedic duties.

Finally, the top of the range Superb is a thoroughly modern saloon, which recalls Skoda’s glorious design heritage. The most expensive version comes with VW’s acclaimed 2.8 V-6 engine and has been bought by a number of forces as senior officer transport. About 49 out of 53 UK forces now use Skoda cars, the most popular of which are models like the Octavia vRS saloons and estates, which come with either potent petrol or diesel power; the petrol version is a favorite for covert use in road policing roles. It has a top speed of over 140 mph, superb handling, impressive build quality and spacious interior.

Subaru

Subaru boasts a small but dedicated number of customers who opt to buy its range of high-performance saloons and hatchbacks, which pack a powerful punch. Subarus are rarely seen in force livery. Road policing units prefer the “iron fist in a velvet glove” approach with perhaps the ultimate police Q car, an Impreza STi finished in anonymous blue or black.

Volkswagen

VW’s Golf is one of the best-selling cars in Europe. All the more puzzling then is that so few are ever seen in Brit police fleets. In fact, that goes for all VW cars with the new Jetta, Passat and Polo conspicuous by their absence on police duty—in liveried form anyway. The NAPFM would have been an excellent opportunity for the company to show of its new range of potent R variants. The latest of which, the Passat R32, should debut in the UK later this year.

VW has instead been concentrating on its range of Caddy, Transporter and Crafter light commercials. The Transporter is the best-selling light commercial in Europe. It has a wide model range, with petrol and diesel models and automatic and four-wheel drive versions. The new Crafter is already in service with the PSNI in North Ireland as a rapid deployment vehicle and in Tayside, Scotland, as a state-of-the-art CCTV vehicle.

Volvo

The fact that Volvo chose a motor show to reveal its new V70 range says a lot for the audience at the event. A fully kitted out display area—for invited guests only—was rigged up at Wroughton and Volvo brought along a Swedish spec estate to show the main differences between Euro police cars and those destined for the UK. Main highlights of the new V70 are more load space, with a longer load bay and bigger interior, unique suspension and brakes for police use and a useful payload increase of 185 kg to cope with the police kit, which is carried around nowadays. The smaller S60 range, meantime, is finding favor as a motorway patrol car with the Lancashire Constabulary, which bought a seven strong fleet of 150-hp diesels in silver livery.

What about some of the manufacturers who weren’t there this year? The sad MG Rover saga carries on, but hopes are high that by 2009, a new range of MGs and Rovers (if Ford will sell on the name) will be back where they belong on police duty. Mazda, too, has a superb range of high-performance cars under the MPS Mazda Performance System, which has shades of muscle car America from the ’60s and ’70s in the name. Fiat, Renault, Citroen and Mercedes Benz have all recently withdrawn from the market due to the high cost of having cars evaluated and passed fit for duty.

Roger Blaxall is a former public relations officer with Greater Manchester Police and the Lancashire Constabulary in the North of England. He is now specializing in writing on police fleet matters and has reported on the National Police Fleet Managers’ Show (NAPFM) for the past six years. He can be reached at rogertblaxall@hotmail.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, May/Jun 2008

Rating : 8.0


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