Every year, it seems that one or two new models capture the imagination of the car-buying public. For the 2002 model year, one of those cars is the all-new Ford Thunderbird. Although Ford shuns the retro label, designers gazed backward to a dramatic era of the companys heritage to revive the Thunderbird convertible. Seen in concept form at 1999 and 2000 auto shows, the 2002 Thunderbird was introduced in January 2001 as a production model at Detroits North American International Auto Show. Like its long-ago predecessor, the new Thunderbird seats two occupants and has rear-wheel drive, but it incorporates all the benefits of modern technology. Beneath the skin lie certain components adapted from those in the current Lincoln LS sedan.
Launched in 1954 as a 55 model, the first Thunderbird had a 292-cubic-inch V-8 engine. Two-passenger Thunderbirds lasted for three seasons only, giving way in 1958 to a series of bigger models that seated four or more people. The Thunderbird remained in production until 1997, but it bore no resemblance to the original.
In September 2000, Neiman Marcus offered 200 special-edition Thunderbirds in its Christmas catalog. Priced at $41,995, they sold out in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Intended for sale in late summer of 2001, regular-production Thunderbirds actually began to trickle into dealerships late that year.
With a folding convertible top, the T-Bird stickers for $35,695 (including the destination charge), but a version with a removable hardtop lists at $38,195 (including the destination charge). Both are available in premium form, with traction control, different wheels and unique interior trim, for an additional $1,000. Ford plans to build about 25,000 Thunderbirds annually at its plant in Wixom, Mich. Because Thunderbirds will be in short supply for a while, discounts at dealerships arent likely.
Styling kinship to the original Thunderbird is obvious, including an egg-crate grille, round headlamps, a hood scoop and porthole-style quarter windows. The basic reverse-wedge profile and taillight shapes also hark back to the past. Still, the 21st-century version of the two-seater is definitely not a copy of its ancestor. Fords design team attempted to take the best of the styling, the design cues, and create a modern interpretation, says Thunderbird Marketing Manager Mickey DArmi.
The new Thunderbird measures 186.3 inches long overall and has a 107.2-inch wheelbase, vs. a 175.3-inch overall length and a 102-inch wheelbase in the original. The 2002 Thunderbird stands 52.1 inches tall and is available in five colors: Inspiration Yellow, Torch Red, Thunderbird Blue, Evening Black and Whisper White. A fabric convertible top is standard, but buyers may request an optional removable hardtop that incorporates classic porthole windows. Designed for easy installation and removal, the hardtop weighs 83 pounds. Cast-aluminum wheels hold 17-inch all-season tires.
According to Ford, the two-seat cockpit reflects the exterior design and the cars romantic heritage with bold style combined with the comfort and convenience todays customers demand. Interior trim comes in four colors Inspiration Yellow, Torch Red, Thunderbird Blue and Midnight Black which depends on the body color. Standard features include automatic dual-zone air conditioning, a tachometer, six-way power drivers seat, leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel, an in-dash six-CD changer and a remote keyless entry system with an anti-theft alarm.
Under the Hood
An aluminum, 3.9-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-8 engine produces 252 horsepower and drives a close-ratio five-speed-automatic transmission. Like the original Thunderbird, the 2002 model appears to be aimed at energetic performance but not at trying to beat the competition in acceleration contests.
The Thunderbird is the first Ford convertible to be equipped with head and chest side-impact airbags. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard, and all-speed traction control is optional.
Looks can get you a long way a lesson that most of us learn early on. But prettiness isnt enough to produce lasting appeal. What matters even more is whats underneath.
Without a doubt, the revived Thunderbird scores big on the appearance meter, drawing an abundance of envious glances. A session behind the wheel of a pastel T-Bird, painted yellow inside and out, feels surprisingly like a flashback to the Fifties even more so than with a Volkswagen Beetle or Chrysler PT Cruiser. Still, a couple of flaws rise to the surface.
The Thunderbirds ride quality isnt bad on smooth highways and its handling is agile enough, but its suspension is on the stiff side and it takes some bumps rather hard. Acceleration from a standstill is outstanding, and you can expect brisk passing/merging, but the automatic transmission in our pre-production model was occasionally awkward when downshifting.
Slipping inside demands a significant twist of the head. Seats are cushioned beautifully, promising both comfort and support. Mirrors are ample in size, but some serious blind spots make lane-changing dicey.
Imperfections aside, youre likely to want to keep on hauling after completing your first Thunderbird outing. And thats the impression Ford would like to convey. Even though its more ordinary than the flamboyant shape suggests, this two-seater delivers an enjoyable experience all-around, and its style and image do make up for a shortcoming or two.