Erin Mahoney, Contributor
Ford Motor Company has fond dreams for its 2002 Thunderbird the company is already classifying it as "an icon in its own right." And it's easy to get caught up in the excitement after all, the new, completely redesigned T-Bird is nothing short of adorable. But a pretty face is certainly not ground for deification unless, of course, you happen to live in Hollywood.
The Thunderbird was born as a 1955 model, a snazzy two-seater with a base sticker price of $2,695. While it was originally envisioned as a true sports car, it was executed as a personal luxury car the progenitor of that automotive segment. The four-passenger "Square Bird" followed in 1958, and in the early '60s the futuristic "Bullet Birds" were quite popular, serving as the basis for the sports roadster. Distinguished by a molded fiberglass tonneau that transformed the four-seater ragtop into a two-person convertible, the sports roadster made a brief appearance from 1962 to 1963. The T-Bird had a minor growth spurt of 1.5 inches in 1967, offering seating for six. The '70s and early '80s witnessed some questionable decisions on the part of designers, with plenty of conservative, angular body styles. Ford made design history again with the 'Bird with the unique "aero-style" body in 1983; the theme was carried out through 1988. An all-new model was released in 1989 with a completely different look that emulated the BMW 6 Series, but the T-Bird nonetheless suffered an overall decline in popularity until its demise in 1997.
Just two short years later, the Thunderbird was reincarnated as a retro-styled two-seat concept car at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A complete departure from the previous generation T-Bird, the concept harkened back to the nascent 1955 model, with seating for two only.
The 2002 Thunderbird is meant to recapture the romance of the original while simultaneously looking to the future. Rather than create a replica of the '50s classic, designers incorporated distinctive Golden Age design cues into an overall modernistic shape. The new 'Bird's 186.3-inch overall length is 11 inches longer than the original 1955 model, and it, too, features a short front overhang, reverse wedge shape which makes the car appear taller in front than in back and egg-crate grille. A decorative hood scoop, round head- and taillights, understated chrome chevrons and an available removable hardtop with porthole windows tie the 2002 version beyond a doubt to the classic T-Birds of the late '50s.
Seventeen-inch 21-spoke cast-aluminum wheels are standard on the 2002 T-Bird, while 17-inch seven-spoke chrome wheels are available as an option. A 6.7-cubic-foot trunk which is downright voluminous as two-seat roadsters go can swallow two sets of golf clubs, and even features a nifty cubby for shoes, umbrellas and the like. While the Thunderbird comes standard with a black convertible soft top, the aforementioned removable hard top is available. Removable tops can be ordered to match the body color or can be had in white on any model. While the soft top is power-operated, we found that it took some finagling to get it firmly anchored in the front. A central latch controls hooks on either side, but getting the hooks aligned in their proper holes is no easy task. The hard top was simple to install, but reasonably heavy, weighing in at about 88 pounds. Once on, the removable top feels quite secure, but we did notice quite a lot of wind noise coming off the B-pillars at highway speeds.
Underneath its seductive physique, the Thunderbird shares most of its architecture with the Lincoln LS, which is quite a good car in its own right. But the T-Bird is intended to be a cruiser the catch phrase "relaxed sportiness" came up repeatedly during the course of the vehicle's press introduction, in regard to both the vehicle's styling and its driving dynamics. Therefore, the fully independent suspension has been tweaked slightly to provide a somewhat softer ride than in the LS. Stabilizer bars front and rear keep body roll from becoming excessive and a 50/50 weight distribution aids the Thunderbird's handling characteristics. A 3,775-pound curb weight (3,863 with the hardtop) tops the Lincoln LS V8 by 83 pounds, although overall length is slightly shorter, which makes for better maneuverability in the 'Bird.
The T-Bird provides a silken ride on the highway when traveling straight ahead on smooth roads, it really does feel like the ultimate cruiser. Once the going gets bumpy, however, jounce and rebound, especially from the rear suspension, are too excessive for comfort, and this cruiser has a tendency to wallow over bumps and dips.
The Thunderbird's notable curb weight became readily apparent as we tried to power our way uphill. It shares its 3.9-liter V8 with the Lincoln LS, an engine capable of 252 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 267 foot-pounds of torque at 4,300 rpm. Thunderbird's five-speed automatic transmission (no manual is available) downshifted obtrusively, as well as belatedly, whenever we hit the gas for an extra spurt of passing power. The exhaust note was carefully tuned to fit somewhere between the guttural grunt of the Mustang GT and the throaty refinement of the Lincoln LS and is intended (to a certain extent) to duplicate the sound of the '55 'Bird.
We understand that the T-Bird is meant to be a cruiser primarily, but in light of Ford PR's incessant references to "relaxed sportiness," we feel compelled to take them to task for the roadster's lack of steering feel. Maneuvering the Thunderbird along winding roads was anticlimactic at best virtually no road communication is offered through either the wheel or the seat of the pants. To give credit, though, the T-Bird's variable assist rack-and-pinion steering is suitably responsive. The four-wheel disc brakes with ABS don't offer terribly progressive pedal modulation, but do bring the T-Bird to a halt in a consistent and confident manner.
On the inside, the 2002 Thunderbird is unmistakably similar to the Lincoln LS. The mundane waterfall-style center stack features easy-to-read, logically situated audio and climate controls not at all retro, but the simplicity of the layout is appreciated. To give the interior a touch of distinction, Ford offers the option of matching the lower dash, seat trim, top half of the steering wheel and shift knob to three of the exterior colors: Inspiration Yellow, Torch Red or Thunderbird Blue. The red interior package can also be had on Evening Black and Whisper White Thunderbirds. The effect can be dramatic for instance, in the yellow 'Bird, bumblebee references are inevitable. The standard interior is black with leather trim.
Ford's latest sweetheart comes standard with such luxury items as automatic dual-zone climate control, six-way power driver seat with manual lumbar support, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. The seats, however, are a little mushy and don't provide very much support. The roadster's relatively long wheelbase gives occupants plenty of room to stretch out, with 43.7 inches of legroom. However, very tall drivers may find the 37.1 inches of headroom (with either top on) to be slightly claustrophobic. Unlike most two-seaters, the Thunderbird offers a convenient and generously sized parcel shelf behind the seats to accommodate purses, shopping bags and the like.
Large back windows in the convertible and removable tops aid rearward visibility in the T-Bird. The sharply angled windshield, on the other hand, allows for too much reflection off the dash, thereby impeding forward visibility somewhat. According to engineers, the steep angle reduces top-down turbulence. Despite their efforts, conversation in the Thunderbird with the top dropped is a challenge.
Our test drive in the Thunderbird was unfortunately cut short because we got a flat tire. Having picked up a sharp object without realizing it, we exited the car for a quick pit stop only to hear a distinct hissing sound. We attempted to install the spare tire, but had a great amount of trouble getting the bolts to seat properly; it was almost as if the spare didn't quite fit the wheel. Eventually, a couple of knights in shining armor from Ford took over the situation, sending us along our way in the Mustang Bullitt they had been driving. We won't dwell too much on our difficulty in applying the spare tire securely, but only because the vehicle we were driving was a pre-production model.
A couple other build-quality snafus that we hope will be limited to a hastily fabricated pre-production Thunderbird test car were loose tunnel trim and the incomplete anchoring of the rear bumper on the driver side.
The new 'Bird's array of safety features establishes it firmly in the 21st century. Dual front and side airbags (with a passenger-side deactivation switch for small children and babies), a LATCH child-seat anchor system, a passive antitheft system and antilock brakes all come standard. Traction control is available as an option, although stability control is not.
The new and improved Thunderbird will undoubtedly appeal to those who long for the classic styling of '50s roadsters, but can't relinquish their need for modern-day convenience and reliability. But that combination doesn't come cheap with a base MSRP of $35,495 ($37,995 with the removable top), the Thunderbird prices in the same arena as luxury-brand coupes and roadsters. But Ford insists that the T-Bird is in a class by itself. It does have a point; there are undoubtedly those consumers who consider the head-turning ability and nostalgic styling of the Thunderbird to be worth the premium. As long as they don't expect exceptional handling or performance, and they don't mind that the interior design is highly derivative of the Lincoln LS, they won't be disappointed.
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