Nowhere is the law of supply and demand more in force than in the auto industry. And this year, the car in most demand is the reborn Ford Thunderbird. Now we brought you a preview test of the new 2002 T-bird a couple of months ago, and we were duly impressed. But due to limited time with the car, we weren’t able to give it our full MotorWeek workout. Well now we have! So pull up your driver’s seat and lets see just how high the T-bird flies!
Well, it didn’t take us long to realize that this new 2002 Ford Thunderbird flys pretty high indeed. The new T-Bird’s looks alone were enough to make us a bit light headed. From every angle, it was indeed love a first flight. Thunderbird designers did a masterful job of blending styling cues borrowed from long hood-short deck T- birds of the 50s and 60s into a thoroughly modern driving machine that is instantly recognizable as a Thunderbird.
The most obvious heritage-inspired details include the chromed egg crate grille that’s topped by the classic long-winged Thunderbird emblem. A distinctive but subtle nonfunctional scoop graces the hoodwhile the also nonfunctioning chrome louvers set high in the front fenders also embrace early T-Bird roadsters. And at the rear, the large round tailights stir up memories of the ‘‘fighter jet’’ school of design, a look that was popular with many cars throughout the ‘50’s.
Another tip of the hat to ‘‘the good ol’ days’’ can be found in the optional 83 pound removable hard top, complete with its nostalgia-feeding T-Bird porthole windows.
But the smooth operation of the fully lined electric soft top instantly propels the T-Bird back to the 21st century. It requires nothing more than the flip of a latch and the push of a switch to release it from the chrome-trimmed header and put you in the wind. There is no windblocker but our driver’s didn’t feel it was much of an issue, as wind buffeting is minimal. But there is a nice and welcomed heated glass backlight.
There’s plenty of 21st century technology under the Thunderbird’s svelte bodywork too. As it shares its platform with the Lincoln LS and Jaguar’s S-Type. In fact, two-thirds of the parts come from other Ford vehicles.
The structural rigidity lost to its topless nostalgia, is somewhat compensated for by the addition of three sturdy X-braces mounted to the underside of the car. And, for the most part, they work well. Cowl shake is barely perceptible, and it’s not until you encounter really rough going that the T-Bird begins to feel a little squishy. Contributing to this T-Bird’s smooth and quiet ride is the generous 107.2 inch wheelbase, and a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution front to back.
Another is the careful tuning of the independent short-long arm suspension found at each corners. Ford engineers targeted what they call a “relaxed ride” by using coil springs with fairly low spring rates. But don’t confuse relaxed with sloppy.
Indeed, our driver’s were pleasantly surprised when maneuvering the T-Bird through our low speed slalom course. Body roll for this softly sprung ride was minimal, and the side to side transitions were very controlled, giving the T-Bird a secure and stable feeling. The variable-assist, vehicle speed sensitive rack and pinion steering unit is precise and offers plenty of useful feedback. And the grippy and quiet 17-inch Michelin tires seem a perfect match. Still, in keeping with the original 55- Bird, this head-turning new roadster is more Sunset strip cruiser, rather than road course bruiser.
Cruising power is also borrowed from the Lincoln LS. As under the hood is the LS sedan’s all aluminum 3.9 liter, DOHC, 32-valve, V-8 with the same 252 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Despite some very hot days during our test schedule, we experience none of the engine overheating problems that stalled early T-Bird production.
With the twin-cam V-8 connected to the LS’s 5-speed automatic transmission, we flew past 60 in 7.7 seconds. Now that’s almost a second faster than the heavier LS, and we crossed the quarter mile stripe in 15.8 seconds at 92 MPH. Now our car’s engine did stumbled slightly upon launch, but then pulled strongly all the way to the 6500 rpm redline. Oddly, there is no manual-shift mode like in the LS, and from a performance perspective shifts could be crisper. But the final drive ratio has been lowered to give the ‘Bird some extra umph.
Momentum is slowed by four-wheel vented discs with ABS and electronic brake force distribution. We averaged stops from 60 in a fine 120 feet. Stability under hard braking is first rate, and to help this rear-drive bird fly in bad weather, all-speed traction control is optional.
While the T-Bird’s exterior design may stir the best memories of days past, there’s far less nostalgia to be found in the up to date interior. True, it is still a two seater. And the door trim panels and the tuck and roll leather seats are unmistakable T-Bird touches. But the driver gets 6-way power adjustable seating with manual lumbar adjustments. And there’s front and side impact airbags. A power adjustable steering wheel which front a set of simple, but clear, analog gauges and the center stack which houses the stereo and climate controls, were more or less lifted directly from the LS and deposited into the T-Bird with just a few subtle tweaks. A competent, functional, approach that while not inspired, is cost effective.
Behind the seats is a richly detailed carpeted cargo shelf for small stowables and the trunk has a capacity of 6.7 cubic feet. Just enough for a drive down the coast.
When it comes to putting your money down, one of 25,000 2002 Ford Thunderbirds can be had in any of five colorful flavors, also drawn from the past. The “delux convertible” is priced at $35,495. For the slightly more optioned “premium convertible” bring $36,495. Add the removable top to the deluxe package and you’re looking at $37,995. Drop it on the premium model, and your price is $38,995. But, even at that, we expect T-Birds to fly off dealer lots for the forseeable future.
So, our first impressions have been confirmed. We are still very high on the 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Ford has done an outstanding job of recapturing everything romantic about the original Thunderbird and putting it in a modern, competent, and thoroughly enjoyable to drive machine. In fact, we think this T-Bird is the only way to fly.
Engine: 3.9 Liter, Dohc, 32-valve, V-8
Torque: 267 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.8 Seconds @ 92 MPH
60-0 MPH: 120 Feet
EPA Mileage: 17 MPG City 23 MPG Highway