1989 Ford Thunderbird

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$2,335–$5,303
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Expert Reviews

    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

By 

Los Angeles Times

There's something about the supercharged Ford Thunderbird SC that catches the subtle essence of a television commercial for Mercedes.

You know the one. A German businessman is at the wheel. His American counterpart is riding in back. They are quite at ease and clearly in plenty of time for their multinational business meeting at Bad Anywherehof.

"We will be there in 20 minutes," the German says.

"Twenty minutes?" the American asks. "I thought you said we still had 40 miles to go."

"Yah," replies the German. "So we will be there in 20 minutes."

The Mercedes 560SEL,moving elegantly, powerfully, smoothly at 120-miles-per-hour, then swooshes off into the distant sunset on an Autobahn wider than Kansas.

The message is simple: Given the technology, the environment and the intelligence to handle both, there's neither derangement nor derring-do in high-speed, inter-city commuting these days.

The message of the Thunderbird SC is equally uncomplicated: Here is a vehicle built in that fine tradition of European grand touring.

'Absolute Comfort'

"It's a car made for traveling great distances in absolute comfort," agreed John Clinard, a spokesman for Ford.

That cozy, quick efficiency also cost Ford $1 billion and six years of development before the SC (take your pick: Super Coupe or Supercharged) was deemed ready to join Thunderbird's34-year-old bloodline. Last month, the Thunderbird SC moved into showrooms to replace last year's Thunderbird Turbo Coupe.

The differences: The SC costs $2,000 more than the Turbo but is quicker off the line and faster by 10-miles-per hour at the top end. The Turbo Bird wore a 2.3-liter engine giving 190 horsepower. The Big Bird was hatched with a 3.8-liter engine developing 210 horsepower.

And, of course, the top of this year's Thunderbird line is supercharged, an elderly method of boosting engine performance, stirring sights and sounds of Cord, Bentley and the B-17 Flying Fortress.

A turbocharger is driven by exhaust gases spinning a turbine that forces air into the engine's intake manifold at a pressure higher than atmospheric.

A supercharger performs similar service but is spun mechanically through a belt driven by the crankshaft.

Both systems feed compressed air to the engine. That provides increased power output and the feel of additional cylinders. A turbocharger, however, only cuts in at about the mid-point of an engine's performance curve. A supercharger starts blowing from idle.

Development Spending

So why is Ford the only domestic manufacturer getting serious about supercharging?

Initial cost, Clinard explained.

Most automobile turbochargers are adaptations of units used for other industrial purposes. Superchargers, on the other hand, aren't a fixture of modern technology. To bring them to that level would require a multimillion do llar investment in research and development.

"I guess other automobile manufacturers just weren't ready to spend that kind of money," Clinard said.

It certainly is impressive to toe the SC at start-up speeds, to watch a dash gauge dialing boost in pounds-per-square-inch--and to sense not a raw kick in the pants, but certainly a firm and increasing shove in the back while accelerating cleanly from stoplight neighbors.

And with no roaring, huffing screeches from hard-working metal--just a low, authoritative growl from that blower.

Our review Thunderbird came in titanium, a color that used to be battleship gray until today's domestics began performing more like a Concorde than light cruisers.

Hardly the Lithe Athlete

Yet it's a mistake to see the SC as a whippet. It is fast, very fast, and quicker to 60-miles-per-hour than, say, the Pontiac Grand Prix or the BMW 635CSi. It also will stay with a Mustang GT and outrun a Jaguar XJ .

But it is too heavy to be nimble, too long to thrash through a rush-hour slalom, too wide to be sneaky and slick. And the automatic, when a hefty dollop of boot and boost coincide with the downshift you weren't expecting, can get a little irritable in a heavy exit from a slow corner with a so-so surface.

Such bulk, however, only re-emphasizes the true concept of the Thunderbird SC and Ford's delivery of a handsome, high-performance luxury car with precious little of the slush associated with that domestic category.

Fit and finish aren't up to imported standards; on a brand new car one really shouldn't need Hulk Hogan to remove the key from the trunk lock. The quality of interior plastics and fabrics isn't exactly Park Plaza, especially the tacky velour fur on the door panels.

Long-Distance Desires

But the SC's mechanical appointments certainly are everything you'd want while gliding from Anaheim to Albuquerque without developing a spastic back. Seats with adjustable lumbar and torso support. Cruise control. Tilt steering. CD player, power seats, security system, adjustable ride control that actually offers a difference, and speed-sensitive power steering. The steering wheel is fat, leather-padded and the tactual feedback is one of solid power looking for long stretches at full gallop.

And it's definitely a 20+ car, i.e. when you think you're doing 65-miles-per-hour, add 20 and you'll be right on the mark.

Credit for that comes from sticky-fingered, speed-rated tires on 16-inch wheels and the SC's independent rear suspension. Ford also has realized that what goes up to 140-miles-per-hour must also come down, and the Thunderbird's somewhat medieval front disc/rear drum brake setup has been replaced by 10-inch discs all around. Anti-lock braking is standard.

Clinard knows the heft of this car. "It is called 'good rolling feel' in Fordese," he said.

Elegant stability would be a little more poetic.

Just like the Mercedes 560SEL.

But with a cash rebate of around $40,000.

1989 Ford Thunderbird SC

The Good Supercharged power from idle. Low, lithe, performance looks. Four-star comfort at high speeds over long distances. European big car handling.

The Bad Fit and finish by low bidder.

The Ugly Fuzzy interior fabrics.

Cost Base: $19,823. As reviewed: $23,018.

Engine Supercharged, 3.8 liter V6 developing 210 horsepower.

Performance 0-60, as tested, 7.7 seconds. Top speed, as reported by Road & Track magazine, 140 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city highway average, 17 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,770 pounds.


    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

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