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Published: 01/15/2002 - by John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
Back in 1955, the days of sock hops, malt shops and Elvis Presley, Ford brought out its Thunderbird as an answer to Chevrolet's Corvette. Like the Corvette, the T-Bird was a compact and sporty two-seat convertible. But unlike the 'Vette, the Thunderbird had real side windows, standard V8 power and a choice of luxury features, such as power windows and air conditioning. By contrast, the Corvette had vinyl side curtains, a standard six-cylinder engine (V8 was optional) and a tighter and less luxurious cockpit. In short, the Corvette was more of a sports car, whereas the T-Bird was more a two-seat cruiser. The Ford's performance options, however, later included a rare supercharged V8 that made for a Thunderbird able to shame most pure sporting machinery when sprinting away from a traffic light or blasting down the highway.
Through the years, the Thunderbird underwent more changes than Michael Jackson's nose. In 1958, it became a bigger, heavier car, a four-seater available as a coupe or convertible with a blocky body that gave rise to the nickname "Square Bird." A much cleaner fighter jet-inspired body design debuted in the early 1960s and the sleek, missile-like profile earned these cars the moniker "Bullet Bird."
The mid-'60s saw sharper-edged lines for the body, though the basic platform remained mostly unchanged. A neat feature of the 1966 model was the sequential rear turn signals that blink-blink-blinked in the direction the car was about to turn.
Things really started to get weird in the later '60s, '70s and early '80s. Within this span of time, the Thunderbird convertible was dropped, a four-door version with suicide doors and landau irons was offered briefly, the car grew to the size and shape of a Lincoln Mark IV and was then downsized twice, first in 1977 and again to a Fairmont-based platform in 1980. Yep, the Thunderbird "celebrated" its 25th anniversary in fine style, riding atop an economy car's chassis and sporting less than 130 horsepower from its V8 engine. But it did have a heavily padded landau top complete with opera lights as well as a digital dashboard, so things weren't that bad, right?
It could only get better from that abysmal point, and interesting things happened during the mid- and late 1980s, when style and performance returned in the form of the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and in 1989, the Super Coupe that had a supercharged V6 underhood. The Thunderbird stayed with this format (standard coupe with V6 or V8 power and the hyper Super Coupe) through the late 1990s, at which point the Thunderbird died a quiet death due to general disinterest in the personal luxury coupe market and slow sales.
OK, we're done with the history lesson, and you can all dry your eyes, because the T-Bird is back, in more ways than one.
In a bold move, perhaps inspired by America's strong interest in all things retro, Ford has brought back the Thunderbird as an evolved version of the original 1955-1957 two-seater, complete with a convertible roof. The designers did such a great job that the 2002 Thunderbird manages to preserve the styling cues of the original without looking like a four-wheel caricature while still meeting the dizzying number of current safety standards. We could go on about the details, such as the front "bumperettes" which now house fog lamps, or the angle of the side window's trailing edge that accurately recalls the cant of the original, but we'll provide the pictures and let you see for yourselves. In the steel, it's even more stunning.
In the cabin, criticism has been leveled at Ford for using components from the Lincoln LS, on which the new T-Bird is based. Yes, the center stack has no retro value whatsoever and is the same as the Lincoln's. But considering that a dashboard, with its many intricate pieces, is one of the most costly items to manufacture and that most folks who ogled the 'Bird overestimated its price tag, this may be forgiven. That said, we still feel that this car deserves a unique dash and console treatment, and that the market would have accepted a higher sticker price in exchange. The pleated seats and door panels, however, do their part to echo the days when auto upholstery resembled the seating in a diner's booth.
The 2002 Thunderbird measures in with a 107.2-inch wheelbase and tips the scales at a rather portly 3,775 pounds, 40 pounds more than the Lincoln LS, which seats five to the T-Bird's two. As stated before, the new T-Bird shares its basic chassis with the Lincoln LS and has that car's 252-horsepower 3.9-liter V8 and five-speed automatic gearbox. A four-wheel independent suspension boasts 17-inch alloy wheels wearing 235/50 rubber, front and rear stabilizer bars and disc brakes all 'round with ABS.
Plenty of plush plumage is standard, as well, with leather seating; power seats, windows, mirrors and door locks; power tilting/telescopic steering wheel; cruise control; a 180-watt audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer; dual-zone climate control; and a power roof with glass rear window. All of this is included in the Thunderbird's $35,495 base price. We had the pleasure of piloting the Premium edition, which adds traction control and chrome-finished alloy wheels. Springing for a removable hardtop will cost you an additional $2,500. Other options are few, consisting of traction control (for non-Premium cars) and a trio of interior color accent packages that jazz up the cabin with contrasting color schemes. Two features conspicuous by their absence (either as standard or optional) are stability control (a feature available on the LS) and a wind blocker.
Safety features include the expected (and government-mandated) dual front airbags, a LATCH system on the passenger side for securing a child seat and the aforementioned antilock brakes and traction control. Side airbags are not available as of yet.
Though we thought the seats were comfortable, with the power lumbar support earning brownie points with a few editors, there were some demerits for the cabin. Specifically, the displays for the stereo and climate controls are mostly unreadable in direct sunlight and a center visor (similar to what Volkswagen uses) would help keep the bright rays from pelting one in the Wayfarers. And while we're picking nits, the climate and stereo controls could benefit from larger and simpler control layouts and there should be more than 6.9 cubic feet of trunk space in such a large two-seater.
Dropping the top is a breeze that involves but one release handle located above the rear-view mirror and a pushbutton on the console. Pull the handle, hit the switch and the top is down in less than 10 seconds. There is also a tonneau to cover the top when it's stowed, and putting that in place takes a bit more time and patience.
Take flight and the heavy weight of the Thunderbird becomes apparent in both positive and negative ways. Immediate step-off from a light won't pin you to the seat, as the engine copes with the task of moving nearly 3,800 pounds from rest. But once you're rolling along, a poke to the throttle thrusts the 'Bird forward with a solid midrange rush that's a great ally when merging into freeway traffic, where opportunities are usually few and far between. The hard numbers are respectable, with a 0-to-60-mph time of 7 seconds flat and a quarter-mile performance of 15.2 ticks at 92.6 mph.
And although we had our reservations about the five-speed automatic transmission, based on its schizoid performance (and ultimate replacement) in our long-term Lincoln LS V8, the unit in the T-Bird performed well, delivering smooth gear-changes. The tranny could've been quicker when a downshift was called for, and one editor detected a few slurred upshifts under full throttle, where it seemed as if there were some slippage. But overall, there were no big complaints to speak of.
That same heft that blunts off-the-line acceleration may be to thank for this convertible's impressively solid structure. Bounding over potholed and tar-stripped roads in greater Los Angeles elicited barely any cowl shake from the T-Bird. We did notice some occasional squeaking coming from the front seats and the dash, a quality that doesn't belong in a near-$40,000 automobile. In its defense, this was an early production car that had been subjected to a long tour of duty as a press car, and we all know that means this poor car hasn't been treated with kid gloves.
Running through the snaking canyon roads off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif., the Thunderbird showed us that it can take care of itself when the road gets twisty. Minimal body roll, those chubby tires and accurate steering allow the Thunderbird to make time like a smaller, lighter car. We felt (literally) that the shocks could use recalibration, as the damping action was sometimes harsh when sharp bumps were encountered. But in spite of its capability, the Thunderbird doesn't have that connection between car and driver that, say, a BMW 3 Series has. For example, although there's decent heft in the steering wheel, road feedback is muted. Braking performance was superb for the most part, with the T-Bird posting a 119-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. One driver did notice some fade, however, during his stint in the canyons.
But then again, the T-Bird doesn't make any claim at being a sports car; its mission in life is that of a comfortable cruiser. And taken at that, it succeeds. At freeway speeds (75 mph) with the top up, the interior is nearly as hushed as a coupe's, thanks to the insulated top that seals tightly to the windshield and side windows. In fact, so well sealed is the top that the side windows automatically open a smidge when a door is opened, and move back up once the door is shut, so as not to require a slam to overcome the trapped air when closing said door. Top down, don't expect your hairstyle to remain intact, as there is no windblocker device to quell the swirling air. But isn't that part of the fun?
Nope, this car is not about driving hard. Rather, it's about de-stressing by putting the top down, throwing in a Beatles or Beach Boys CD, taking a long, scenic ride and going back to a time when pleasures were much simpler than they are today.
Overall System Score: 8
Top Up Score: 8
Top Down Score: 9
Components: The 180-watt stereo in the 2002 Ford Thunderbird is an impressive effort. It begins with a standard Ford head unit in the upper quadrant of the center console. Although the head unit lacks a cassette player, it does come with a built-in six-disc CD changer and 12 FM/6 AM station presets. It also boasts an ergonomically pleasing topography, with wide button spacing and a logical layout. The system offers Automatic Volume Control (AVC), which automatically increases system volume with vehicle speed to compensate for wind and road noise, and Radio Data System (RDS), which displays station call letters along with the station number. Lastly, the head unit has a built-in Digital Signal Processing (DSP) unit, which allows the user to alter the signal path digitally to create different psycho-acoustic effects.
DSP works by manipulating the audio signal to create spaciousness and echo through delaying the signal to various speakers, thereby "tricking" the mind into hearing something that isn't there. The T-Bird unit gives you five different settings Talk, Jazz Club, Hall, Church, Stadium and you can also fine tune it for Driver Seat or All Seats. It's fun to play with, and if you don't like it, you can disengage it.
On the speaker side of the equation, this system is equally impressive. You're just about surrounded by speakers in this vehicle: mids and tweets in the doors, a second set of mids and tweets behind the seats and a thunderous pair of subwoofers (rated at 90 watts RMS) secreted in the trunk. There is even a small pair of 4-inch full-range drivers firing into the passenger compartment from the center console, an ideal arrangement for top-down listening.
Top-Up Performance: This system is almost a little too intense with the top up. Bass is wide, deep and boomy, with a touch of sloppiness at higher volumes. Mids are intricate and detailed, while highs on female vocals, in particular are less impressive, producing a hollow and hissy top end that becomes more pronounced as the volume edges up. Horns and strings, however, sound lifelike and unconstrained, so it's a bit of a mixed bag here. The main drawback with the top up is the excessive bass response, which, even at flat EQ settings, seemed a little overpowering to us. If you're a bass hound, you'll love this system.
Top-Down Performance: We actually like the sound of this system better with the top down. The Automatic Volume Control works like a charm, and even at 80 mph this system blares loud and proud. The Ford engineers have wisely built in volume limiting, so that the sound pressure tops out at a certain point and prevents speakers from blowing. The tweets and mids in the doors are positioned low enough to be out of the wind, and the speakers behind the seats reinforce rather detract from the overall top-down sound.
Best Feature: A great top-down system.
Worst Feature: Excessive bass (for some tastes).
Conclusion: This is an impressive system. We marked off points because we felt the system sounded better with the top down than up. However, if you're into heavy bass, you will absolutely love this system. We found the bass overpowering, but that's just our opinion. Scott Memmer
Road Test Coordinator Neil Chirico says:
Knowing that the new Thunderbird is based on the Lincoln LS platform and that it shares that sedan's powertrain, I did not expect a positive encounter with the new Thunderbird. But in the end, I found that I appreciated the car for what it is: an image-making boulevard cruiser.
First, let's enumerate my dislikes. I was disappointed to find that Ford used the same center stack of climate and audio controls as the Lincoln, but felt it worked well with the T-Bird's design theme. The instrument cluster, with its white gauges and turquoise pointers, lent an appropriately retro touch to the cabin, but I found that I had to position the steering wheel much too high for comfort in order to read the speedometer. Other interior concerns centered around quality issues, like the passenger-side door speaker grille that was not properly attached to the door panel. Like the Lincoln LS, the minuscule center console storage area is worthless.
With the top up, the T-Bird did seem to boast one of the quietest convertible cabins I've ever experienced, and the cowl shake usually associated with a drop-top seems well controlled. It was certainly better than a Lexus SC 430 I drove recently. Engine performance is spirited and more than adequate for the Thunderbird's relaxed nature. The suspension offers an impressive mix of good handling and compliant ride. All in all, the underpinnings are better suited to the Thunderbird than they are to the Lincoln.
The Thunderbird has returned to its roots, comfortable being more of the cruiser of old rather than the NASCAR wannabe it had become in the 1990s. I feel that Ford has definitely hit the mark with the new Thunderbird, bringing nostalgia back into full swing.
Contributing Editor Erin Riches says:
Want a romantic two-seat roadster that still feels as big and safe as a rear-wheel-drive American sedan? If so, you're probably an ideal Thunderbird customer.
Having recently driven a Lincoln LS V8, I thought that I already had a fair idea of how the roadster would feel (indeed, even with just two seats and a tiny trunk, the Thunderbird weighs slightly more than the LS). The powertrain was the same, of course, except that the T-Bird lacked the SelectShift automanual functionality. As expected, the five-speed automatic was still confused by abrupt changes in throttle application, though it seemed healthier than the transmission in our long-term 2000 LS.
Unlike my colleagues, I felt that the softer suspension tuning (compared to the Lincoln) allowed plenty of wallow on all but the smoothest surfaces. Furthermore, this is not a car that you'll wish to exercise on winding two-lane roads; I grew woozy as our test roadster rolled lazily around each turn, taking its own good time to respond to inputs from the overboosted steering. If my criticism seems harsh, keep in mind that the T-Bird cruised comfortably up Pacific Coast Highway, its V8 allowing me to sail past slower-moving traffic while enjoying breathtaking views of the ocean. And I think this is what Thunderbird ownership has to be about.
Inside, I was bit put off by the manual adjustment for the seatback recline and the lack of articulating headrests. Although the stereo and climate controls are standard corporate-issue, I was heartened by the distinctive aquamarine-needled gauge cluster and the faux aluminum accents (much preferred to plastic woodgrain inserts). Taken as a whole, the cockpit is comfortable and user-friendly, though the rattle from our nearly new test car's dash and the squeak from its driver seat don't bode well for long-term integrity.
The T-Bird's top-up visibility is mediocre among convertibles. Ford has provided a wider expanse of rear glass, which gives the roadster great rearward visibility. Unfortunately, the extra glass necessitates more fabric along the side of the car and narrower side windows. During my test drive, I had to cross a two-lane highway and found that I was forced to look out the rear window to check for traffic on the far side.
The more I drove the Thunderbird, the more I liked the Lincoln LS. Its deft handling, five-passenger capacity and usable trunk are all more appealing to me. But I know that other people value open-air travel and cutting-edge styling more than I.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
You're going to read plenty of commentary about how soft the new Thunderbird is. Critics are going to complain about the plush ride, the lifeless and disconnected steering, and what feels like leisurely acceleration. In fact, after pushing the car's limits on a twisty road, I thought to myself, If I bought a new Thunderbird, the first thing I'd do is ship it to Kenny Brown down in Indianapolis, have him rework the suspension, and stick a supercharger on the engine.
But then I thought, By the time I spent the money on the car, the shipping and the modifications, I could've just bought a Corvette convertible and saved myself thousands of dollars. After arriving at that conclusion, the new Thunderbird and I hit it off nicely. We even did some speedy, drama-free driving once we got to know one another better.
Nobody who buys this car and wants to take a spirited ride along a twisting canyon, coastal or country road will be dismayed with its performance, especially if the driver knows the nuances of that particular stretch of pavement. The T-Bird is deceptively speedy, the five-speed automatic transmission snapping off quick shifts in a seamless fashion, the suspension doing a fairly good job of controlling squat, dive and roll (though not jounce and rebound). The steering has a satisfying heft to it, but offers little feedback from the road. The brakes work extremely well, but fade with repeated use.
If not for the view of the bulging fenders and fake hood scoop through the windshield, the driver might be led to believe this was a Lincoln LS with the top chopped off (which, I suppose, it is). The dashboard, instrumentation, controls, steering wheel, center console and door panels are all taken directly from the Lincoln, with minor modifications to make them somewhat unique to their application in the Thunderbird.
Unfortunately, the digital displays that work well in the sun-protected interior of the Lincoln get washed out when the T-Bird's top is dropped. There is little interior storage, and the center console armrest is uncomfortably tall. At higher speeds, wind occasionally buffets the backs of the seats, and without a windblocker, hairdos are going to be wiped out anytime the top is down.
I came away from my drive in the 2002 Thunderbird liking the car a great deal. And if reaction from fellow motorists, passersby and various onlookers is any indication, the general public likes it, too.
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