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Ford Thunderbird

Ford Thunderbird (2002)

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Ford's Thunderbird has a long and checkered history. The nameplate has graced many very different vehicles for more than 45 years, but none are as fondly remembered as the original. Introduced in 1955, and produced through 1957, the first Thunderbird was a svelte two-seat roadster that has become a highly-collectible classic automobile. It was one of the first American "personal luxury" cars, not quite a true sports car in performance and handling, but rather a two-place fast American- style touring car.

The first-generation two-seater was replaced by a larger car with a back seat, and sales increased significantly. Over the years, the T-Bird remained a personal luxury car, in convertible or coupe form, but it grew larger, and less sporty. Sportiness re-entered the picture in the early 1980s, but by the mid-`90s Thunderbird sales dwindled along with those of most other personal luxury coupes, and production ceased in the late `90s.

Ford had too much history invested in the Thunderbird name to permanently retire it. There's nothing like an audaciously- styled show car to grab people's attention, except maybe a production version of that show car. So, when the Thunderbird concept car debuted in 1999, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be put into production. When the first orders were taken, for the Neiman-Marcus edition, in September 2000, the 200-vehicle production run sold out in two hours even though the cars wouldn't actually be available for many months. Popularity didn't look like a problem for the new Thunderbird.

Like the 1955 original, the 2002 Thunderbird is a two-seat roadster designed for fast touring in luxury. Like a number of other concept cars that have made into production recently, demand is far greater than supply in the early stages of production, and anyone driving one is guaranteed to be the center of attention. I have been fortunate enough to have been driving one for the past week, and the car has attracted a crowd wherever I've been. It's not just a car for those who remember the original, it gets admiring looks from people of all ages and walks of life. It's the T-Bird most like the original, a great car for a mellow ride with the top down. If the weather is less than perfect, the standard power convertible top with heated glass backlight keeps the occupants snug and dry. And the available removable hardtop has quarter-vision portholes just like the 1956 T-Bird's, for better vision and better looks. There is plenty of substance to go with the style, too, with serious V8 power, a five-speed automatic transmission, and all of the expected conveniences.

APPEARANCE: The newest Thunderbird emotionally evokes the first without being a copy at all. It is much more contemporary, even futuristic, than retro, but does have an undeniable, instantly- recognizable Thunderbirdness to its style. The massive chromed egg-crate grille and small hood scoop are the main cues, followed by the faux fender vents and lithe proportions. It's larger than it looks, and, interestingly, the body has a reverse-wedge shape, highest at the front fenders and tapering down toward the rear. This, and the short front and long rear overhangs, give the new T- Bird a sporty but relaxed look. It's not a hyperkinetic racer, it's an all-American cruiser. It looks great even with the top up, and especially with the portholed hardtop.

COMFORT: Soft, plush seats and good visibility - to both see and be seen - help make the T-Bird a relaxed cruisin' machine. The interior is as stylish as the exterior, with tasteful use of brushed aluminum trim and good space for two people. In standard trim, the interior is black, but an option package that matches the seats, lower instrument panel, steering wheel top, and shift knob to the exterior color is available. Good instrument and control placement enhances the driving experience, and wind buffeting with the top down is minimal thanks to the well-raked windshield. Interior storage is reasonable, with a medium-sized glove box and door pockets and a small console box. There is a little bit of space behind the seats for storage, maybe of one small grocery bag. The trunk allegedly holds two sets of golf clubs. I didn't try that, but, at 6.7 cubic feet, it's tight. You may have to travel light, but you'll be traveling in style.

SAFETY: A crash-absorbing chassis structure, second-generation front airbags, and seat-mounted side airbags are some of the new Thunderbird's standard safety features.

ROADABILITY: Like the original, the 2002 T-Bird is more a personal luxury car than a "real" sports car. So its fully- independent short-and-long-arm suspension is tuned fairly softly, for comfort, not for maximum cornering speed. There is plenty of body roll when cornering hard, and fore-and-aft motion on bumps, but it is well-controlled. It is a unibody convertible, with a hole where the top would be, and so is not as rigid as a coupe. There is noticeable cowl shake, but no more than expected. The new Thunderbird is still a pleasure to drive on a scenic road, albeit more slowly than an serious sports car. Hey, put the top down, relax, and enjoy the scenery. Oh, yes - for a while, until production satisfies demand, you will be the scenery....

PERFORMANCE: Again like the original, today's Thunderbird shows its stuff best in a straight line. The thoroughly-modern 32- valve dual overhead cam 3.9-liter aluminum alloy V8 makes 252 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 4300 rpm, and is matched to a five-speed automatic transmission. The torque spread is wide enough that there is really no need to shift manually, even on twisty secondary roads. The T-Bird is indeed a relaxing car in which to cruise. Power and acceleration are not problems, and the engine has the classic American V8 rumble.

CONCLUSIONS: With a nod to the past, Ford heads into the future with the new Thunderbird.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

Base Price                $ 35,965 (Premium trim level)
Price As Tested           $ 37,020
Engine Type               32-valve dual overhead cam 
                            aluminum alloy V8
Engine Size               3.9 liters / 237 cu. in.
Horsepower                252 @ 6100 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)            267 @ 4300 rpm
Transmission              5-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length        107.2 in. / 186.3in.
Curb Weight               3775 lbs., 3863 lbs with removable 
Pounds Per Horsepower     15.0
Fuel Capacity             18.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement          unleaded premium gasoline, 91 octane
Tires                     P235/50 VR17 Michelin HX MXM45 Pilot
Brakes, front/rear        vented disc / vented disc,
                            antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear    four-wheel independent short-and-
                            long arm
Drivetrain                front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      17 / 23 / 19
0 to 60 mph            est 7.8  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)      0.379

Traction control                    $ 230
Steering wheel and
shift handle black accent package   $ 295
Destination charge                  $ 530