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The top-selling cop car is a Ford Explorer

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Nam Y. Huh/AP/File

(Read caption) A 2014 Ford Explorer Sport 4WD is displayed during the media preview of the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place in Chicago. The model is proving to be popular among police departments in the US.

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It's not your imagination: those flashing lights in your rearview mirror are a bit higher than they used to be. That's because America's best-selling police car is actually an SUV: the Police Interceptor Utility, based on the Ford Explorer.

Technically speaking, the Explorer is more of a crossover these days. Purists will tell you that SUVs, like pickup trucks, are body-on-frame vehicles, while crossovers are unibody vehicles, like cars. Though the Explorer was once a bona fide SUV, during the 2011 redesign, it switched to the same unibody platform that underlies the Ford Taurus, the Lincoln MKS sedan, and the Volvo XC70 station wagon.

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But putting aside semantics for a moment, the bigger story here is the demise of the time-honored police car. In 2012, Ford replaced the ubiquitous, law-enforcement version of its Crown Victoria with two new, police-friendly models: the Police Interceptor Utility and the Police Interceptor Sedan. And last year, the Interceptor Utility outsold every other police vehicle in the U.S.

All told, Ford sold 13,556 Interceptor Utilities in 2013. That put the Utility ahead of the #2 police vehicle, a modified Dodge Charger. The Interceptor Sedan nabbed the bronze.

Given the way that crossovers and SUVs have taken off with the general public since the 1990s, we're a bit surprised that it took this long for police vehicles to make the switch from cars to utes. After all, officers have to haul loads of equipment, from weapons to hazmat suits to riot gear, and vehicles like the Explorer are tailor-made for hauling.

They also tend to be easier to get into and out of, and they provide plenty of room for the laptops that nearly all police vehicles carry, mounted to swing-arms attached to the dashboard. And of course, SUVs and crossovers offer a higher seating position, which is important for officers who need to see the lay of the land.

In fact, the only major shortcoming of SUVs and crossovers is fuel economy (gas being a major expense for fleets that are constantly on the move). That may explain why Ford's Police Interceptor Utility is so popular, given its available EcoBoost engine. At tests carried out last year by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Interceptor Utility EcoBoost model outperformed all other vehicles in both lap times and 0-to-100 acceleration.

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