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2003 Ford Thunderbird Review

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SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

2003 Ford Thunderbird
Base price: $40,355
Price as tested: $41,890
EPA mileage: 17 city/23 highway

By Des Toups
The Thunderbird is a far better machine than Ford has been given credit for 
-- poised, gutsy and well-built -- and even after two years on the market, 
it still turns heads at every stoplight. What's amazing is that it's 
considered a flop.

Ford aimed to move 25,000 of the $37,000-plus two-seaters a year, a goal it 
missed by 20 percent. Even so, it's the third best-selling convertible on 
the market, behind the Ford Mustang and Chrysler Sebring, and by far the 
best-selling two-seater.

Already, Ford has announced it will pull the plug in a year or two. A 
platform shared with the Lincoln LS, though, means the T-bird won't simply 
coast to its demise. For 2003, the 'bird finally got the options of heated 
seats and a manually shiftable automatic, a more attractive dashboard, and, 
oh yes, 28 extra horsies under the hood  enough to turn a quick car into a 
fast one.

Not that many people are buying the T-bird for its performance, however 
competent. No, it's all about the looks: the classic proportions, the 
captivating view of curving fenders from the driver's seat, the traditional 
T-bird taillights and egg-crate grille. Space is wasted shamelessly in this 
pursuit; if the T-bird is to be your only car, you'll learn to pack light 
and have your groceries delivered. You'll also learn to park at the end of 
a row, so you'll have room to open one of the longest doors in existence. 
If you like the look  I sure do  they're all worthwhile sacrifices.

If only the interior were as successfully rendered. Instead, it's a clearly 
identifiable version of the Lincoln LS, itself no triumph of interior 
design. Lincoln perked up the LS with a coating of brushed aluminum trim 
that's missing here. Even with the optional Torch Red package to spice up 
the seats, shifter, steering wheel and console, the blandly styled, 
dull-black dashboard still looks cheap and out of place.

At least the ergonomics are right; the top goes down with the twist of a 
handle and the push of a button in less than 20 seconds. Steering-wheel 
controls for the radio and six-disc CD player are easier to use than most. 
The Thunderbird accommodates tall drivers better than most two-seaters, and 
the seats, like those in the Lincoln, are simply wonderful, just cushy 
enough to feel luxurious, but firm enough to hold you in place.

A good thing, for the T-bird is capable of hurling its occupants around 
corners at a shocking rate. Though the suspension is tuned softly to keep 
the car from shivering over bumps, it still comes straight from the LS, and 
this time, that's a good thing. The Thunderbird rides less harshly and has 
more body roll, but it's unruffled by bad pavement and sticks as well as 
the Lincoln, regarded as a fine-handling sedan.

This 3,800-pound cruiser is no Porsche-chaser, certainly, but it's easy to 
drive quickly and has no surprises lurking. Like any powerful rear-driver, 
the back end comes around easily; a little more right foot puts it back 
into line with no drama. Here's where you really feel the 3.9-liter V-8's 
extra punch (now 280 horsepower and a beefy 286 foot-pounds of torque, the 
muscle that actually moves the car). We recorded a 6.1-second 0-60 time.

Power is put to the ground through a silky-shifting five-speed automatic; a 
manual-shift feature is optional and fun but largely superfluous. Left in 
drive, the transmission downshifts quickly enough to satisfy all but 
fleeing felons. With the traction control turned off, the 'bird can lay 
down rubber as it shifts into second.

A few runs through a Sunday autocross course (where, among Porsches, 
Corvettes and BMWs, it was unquestionably the center of attention) proved 
the T-bird more agile than anyone, including me, would have guessed, 
recording competitive times even on its all-season tires.

I love the heart in this car, that in its pursuit of style and comfort it 
still remembers its roots.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested a 
Thunderbird, but the Lincoln upon which it is based merits a "Best Pick," 
its top rating. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency gives the 
Thunderbird four of five stars for driver protection in frontal crashes, 
five stars for the passenger in frontal crashes, and five stars for 
side-impact crashes. The EPA recorded mileage of 17 city/23 highway; we saw 
17 mpg. The Thunderbird is a Low Emissions Vehicle (the third dirtiest of 
the EPA's six emissions classifications) and rates a 6 on the EPA's 
10-is-worst pollution scale, about average for medium-sized sedans.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer who has written for the Seattle 
Times, AutoWorld and Driving Sports magazine and newspapers nationwide.