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Motorists hoping to avoid the CHP on Sonoma County highways will soon need to look out for a beefy new, tricked-out SUV.

The all-wheel-drive Ford Police Interceptor Utility vehicles are replacing the CHP’s fleet of Crown Victoria cruisers, a move officials hope will give the agency more versatility on and off roads.

“The handling is better,” said Curtis Lubiszewski, a CHP officer assigned to train other officers on the new vehicles. “The all-wheel drive runs circles around the Crown Vic on a soft shoulder.”

Basically a Ford Explorer with a few high-tech modifications, the Interceptor is gaining favor with law enforcement agencies around the country. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office bought four of the SUVs last year, along with 14 Interceptor sedans. The Rohnert Park Public Safety Department has four.

The CHP has been rolling out the Interceptors statewide for the past year. Sonoma County, one of the last areas to receive them, recently got two of them. Eventually, as the CHP’s Crown Victoria cruisers age out of service, the Sonoma County office will replace them with 28 new Interceptors.

CHP officers who have been driving the Interceptors for months in other counties, including Marin and Napa, have reported that drivers aren’t noticing the SUV patrol cars, despite their higher profile.

“People don’t see it as well,” said CHP Officer Jeremy Finnerty. “They don’t recognize it as a police vehicle.”

The Interceptor’s higher profile also prompted questions about stability on turns. But the car’s electronic stability control, one of the tricked-out features of the $26,000 vehicle, gives the driver superior handling, even at high speeds and through tight curves.

CHP officers put this feature to the test on a closed course at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this week. Lubiszewski floored the accelerator and barreled toward a group of cones at 45 mph. Just before hitting the cones, he performed a series of turns, dodging the cones in a high-speed slalom maneuver. The car began to slide, then the stability control kicked in, locking the left front brake and allowing Lubiszewski to handle the vehicle through the tight turns.

“When you feel that tire dip down, that’s what you want to feel,” he said. “It lets the officer know he still has control of the vehicle. It’s a blast to drive.”

The SUV, with its burly front grill guard, sports a more aggressive profile than the Crown Victoria. The first models that the CHP received actually looked too threatening, prompting complaints similar to the criticism about the militaristic-appearing law enforcement response to the recent riots in Ferguson, Mo. As a result, CHP officials removed the pit bar — a thick bar that wraps around the front bumper and protects the front of the car during a ramming tactic known as a pit maneuver — from later models.

“The upper brass said the pit bar looked too aggressive,” Lubiszewski said. “They discontinued that.”

Officer Quintin Shawk test drove the new Interceptor on Wednesday. He said he was impressed with the rear-view camera, among other features.

“The camera is pretty cool,” he said. “You can see right up to the bumper. I like the handling much better than the Crown Vic.”

Still, after two decades of driving the Crown Victoria, some officers are having trouble letting go. Even though he prefers the new Interceptor, Lubiszewski passed up a chance to pick up one of the first cars that the Sonoma County CHP office received. He said he will hang on to his Crown Victoria until the mileage is high enough to take it out of service.

“I’m going to run it out,” he said. “It’s a sentimental thing. I’ve had it since it was new and I want to drive it until the end.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.