At 6'2", Officer Matt Wentzel of the Madison Police Department spends most of his days folded up inside a Ford Crown Victoria, patrolling Madison's south side with an aching back. But he seems rejuvenated when I meet him last Friday, stretching his legs under the steering wheel of a Dodge Charger, the newest addition to MPD's fleet of squad cars.
"There's so much more leg room in these," Wenztel explains, looking down at his feet sprawled over the floor mat. "The difference between [the Chargers] and the Crown Vics is like day and night."
Ford has discontinued the Crown Vic, forcing law enforcement agencies everywhere to shop around for an alternative. Many are choosing the Dodge Charger, an update on one of the original "muscle cars" from the 1960s. The Duke boys drove a Charger in The Dukes of Hazzard.
Wentzel paces around the Charger, opening doors, switching on lights and raving about the car like a salesman. He points out the molded plastic back seats, which unlike the plush fabric in the Crown Victoria, leave no room for stashing contraband and make cleaning up bodily fluids much less revolting. He shows off the tidy dashboard, which is a lot less cluttered than its Ford predecessor thanks to the windshield-mounted radar and camera.
Then Wentzel pops the hood to expose the ferocious engine. The new Chargers come with a 5.7-liter Hemi, dual-exhaust and a host of other mechanical ammenities that would make an auto-phile's heart rev. If you don't speak mechanic, allow me to translate: This car is an animal that devours blacktop like two-for-one tacos.
"I'm not a Dodge kind of guy," says Wentzel, who drives a Pontiac Grand Prix with over 160,000 miles when he's off-duty. "But the first time I drove one of these, I went home and started looking at used Chargers online."
Unsurprisingly, Wentzel isn't the only officer who's become enamored with the MPD's newest toys. Some cops are pulling rank, using their seniority to secure dibs on a new Charger for their long, sciatica-inducing shifts. And it would seem the Charger's horsepower is hardly the only selling point.
"I'd be in that car right now if I wanted to," jokes Officer Mark Kinderman, a seasoned veteran of the MPD, who was on patrol that day in a Crown Victoria. Kinderman explains that taller officers tend to appreciate the extra room offered by the Charger. "Personally, I think the seats are too stiff," Kinderman quips.
The new Chargers have become fodder for jokes in the MPD's South District. On a whiteboard in the station's briefing room, Wentzel had written a note in preparation for the day of my arrival.
"Please reserve a Charger for Officer Wentzel for a ride-along on Friday," he wrote. Underneath his note, someone snidely added, "So he can look cool."
And while Wentzel really seems to enjoy his shift in the Charger, his biggest complaints about the car are amusingly pedestrian. He's bothered his clipboard doesn't fit snuggly between the two front seats like it does in the Crown Victoria. But something peeves him even more.
"This really irks me," Wentzel complains as he carefully balances his steaming cup of coffee between his legs. "I can't believe there's no cup holders in this car."