For decades, Detroit’s automobiles used design to evoke an aura, a glamor that would entice buyers into the showrooms. Sure, one needed the functionality of a car, but its function came secondary to form.
Too many cars these days fulfill their mission in life with a bland utilitarianism – fuel efficient, dependable, comfortable, convenient, perfect.
Notice the word emotion in there? You won’t.
Cars are designed for function first. These days, a car’s glamour is in its perfection, not its stylish allure.
But with all cars reaching the same state of reliability, how does an automaker make its product stand out?
Style. Heaps of it.
With cars such as the PT Cruiser and VW Beetle, car makers are rediscovering their styling heritage.
Enter the 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Its simple, elegant shape recalls the original 1955 Thunderbird without duplicating it. The design captures the car’s essence eloquently.
It certainly captures the hearts of onlookers with its gentle curves, 17-inch wheels and perfect stance. It prompted doubletakes wherever it went. The car was especially captivating to women.
The same loving reaction never happened while I was driving the Lincoln LS, the sober, sensible sports sedan that donated most of the Thunderbird’s genetic material. But, the Thunderbird shares the most important aspect of the Lincoln’s genetic make-up: it’s a hoot to drive.
This bird flies off the line. The 3.9-liter, double-overhead-cam V-8 sports 252 horsepower and strong acceleration. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available. While it’s smooth most of the time, there is some hesitation before downshifting for more power. That’s typical of Ford transmissions.
The exhaust note is perfect, a blend of low-end rumble and high-pitched power.
Suspension is independent at all four corners. The ride is firm enough, but not sports car jarring. There’s a nice balance between ride and handling. Thrust this rear-drive ‘Bird into a corner and its balance is tremendous. Enthusiasts will appreciate that applying the brakes or throttle at the right moment will make the back end twitch when desired. It’s really fun and helped overcome some gripes I had with the car.
There’s good bump absorption, although some softness is dialed into the ride. Although some may criticize this, it’s certainly in character with the car’s boulevardier demeanor.
The bigger problem is that despite additional bracing to the platform, there is too much cowl shake over bumps. This should improve if you order the optional hardtop.
On the plus side, the car’s convertible top didn’t leak, even in massive downpours. The top is fully lined, has a glass rear window with integral defogger and offers an incredibly quiet environment when it’s in place.
The bland interior is a little disappointing compared to the car’s stylish exterior. Most of this is because Ford used the Lincoln LS dashboard with very little alteration. While it is appropriate in the Lincoln, it fails to excite here. Ford does add unique gauges with teal pointers on the speedometer and tachometer. Also included are some body-colored materials and a strip of brushed-aluminum trim, which help offset the hard plastics that line the cabin.
One major problem cropped up: Ford has announced a recall of 16,500 Thunderbirds for a seatbelt that can be cut in a front-end crash. Two minor fit and finish problems were: a boot cover over the handbrake was loose, as was a door-mounted radio speaker grille.
The leather-covered bucket seats seemed firm, but supremely comfortable for long trips. Strangely, the car lacks seat heaters. This is the perfect indulgence when driving with the top down in chilly weather.
The interior doesn’t have a lot of storage space, but map pockets, a glove box and mini console prove sufficient. The car lacks an ashtray.
The convertible top goes down quickly. Unhook the center latch, hold a button and it’s down in seconds. But you’ll have to put down the windows separately. Unlike some convertibles, the windows stay up when the top goes down. It would be nice if Ford equipped both power windows with express down, something only reserved for the driver’s side.
While this is one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve had in a long time, quality issues continue to plague Ford. It blemishes an otherwise fine set of wheels.