2003 Ford Crown Victoria
2003 Ford Crown Victoria Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The traditionalist's choice.
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.
The Crown Victoria is available in just one body style, the large four-door sedan. Three versions of the Crown Vic are available, the standard model, the more highly equipped LX, and the sport-oriented LX Sport.
Only one engine is offered, a 4.6-liter V8, but it comes in two states of tune: Standard and LX models get the 224-horsepower version, while the LX Sport gets a higher-tune 239-horsepower version.
Crown Victoria ($23,805) comes standard with air conditioning, ABS, power windows, power door locks (including a remote locking), power mirrors, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, and an AM/FM stereo/cassette sound system.
Crown Victoria LX ($27,175) adds more standard equipment, such as automatic climate control, cruise control, an integrated in-dash CD player, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, power-adjustable pedals, and alloy wheels.
LX Sport ($28,795) gets firmer suspension tuning, beefy P235/55HR17 tires on special five-spoke alloy wheels, a lower-ratio rear axle for quicker acceleration, dual exhausts, leather-trimmed front bucket seats with floor-mounted shifter, an armrest/central storage compartment with twin cup holders, a mini-storage bin below the center of the dash, and a monochrome exterior appearance.
The Ford Crown Victoria's appearance requires a conservative taste in automobiles to appreciate, and a very critical taste to dislike. It's big, mostly bland but also oddly admirable in its tasteful 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 excursion to the theater on Saturday night with another couple. The long hood says power and direction; the traditional chrome-ringed grill denotes an elevated station in life. And 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 conservative LX rolls on new alloy wheels while the standard model receives redesigned wheel covers for 2003.
The LX Sport version, with its more aggressive wheels, tires, and monochrome appearance makes a subtle pitch for the hot rod fan out there (with family obligations, apparently). The monochromatic scheme, in a choice of colors, extends to the grille, bumpers, taillights and deck-lid applique. Mechanically, the LX Sport includes dual exhausts (helping to add 15-horsepower to its output), firmer springs, stiffer anti-roll bars, a standard air spring rear suspension (optional on LX), 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 behind.
Once seated, drop your left hand to the side of the driver's seat bottom and you'll feel the control for 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 (standard on LX). Not only is this adjustment convenient, but it's a significant safety factor in moving shorter drivers away from the steering wheel's frontal 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 and climate controls. (The LX model features 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 of it 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 bested 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 seat 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 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 rear axle 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 victim is that rear knee room we mentioned, another is its trunk configuration. It may sound silly to criticize the the trunk because the Crown Victoria leads its class in trunk capacity, but clearly it could be both larger and longer if the Crown Vic enjoyed a modern, space-efficient rear suspension.
Outward vision is a mixed bag. The big windows provide a panoramic view of all that's good, bad and ugly around you. But the mirrors are much too small, particularly the rear-view mirror which has to be adjusted just so to barely do the job. The driver's dual sun visors can be arranged to effectively defeat late-afternoon glare.
For 2003, safety is enhanced by a load sensor within the front (outboard) passenger seat that can prevent its airbag from deploying if no occupant is detected, plus a chime to remind that occupant to buckle-up if detected. These represent two more ingredients in what Ford calls its Personal Safety System which already provides dual-rate airbag deployment depending on driver-seat position (and vehicle speed), plus pre-tensioning and energy-managing belts. Even ABS (with panic assist) is now standard, as are rear LATCH-system child seat anchors, while front side air bags are now available on the LX. If this sounds like an impressive compliment of safety equipment, it is.
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.
Standard ($23,805); LX ($27,175); LX Sport ($28,795).
St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
leather interior ($795), leather seating discount (-$795); driver/front passenger side airbags ($255); traction control ($175); trunk-mounted six-CD changer ($165); P225/60TRX16 white sidewall tires ($80).
Ford Crown Victoria LX ($28,555).
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