"The new Thunderbird isn't particularly sensible. It's an indulgence, pure and simple."
Good: good-looking, roomy interior
Bad: small trunk, heavy doors, lousy in snow

 

This is a swan to ugly duckling to swan story. Make that a fat, ugly duckling. You can almost imagine how the new Thunderbird got started. Two guys were standing around in the Ford design studio when one of them said, "Hey, why does everybody hate the way American cars look? Remember back in the 50's when everyone loved the way American cars looked?"

And the other guy says, "Well, why don't we just get some of those 50's car bodies again and plop them on top of modern car chassis?"

As obvious as it was brilliant, Ford is doing just that -- well, not exactly "just that," but pretty close. And GM and Chrysler both have retro projects in the works, too. Maybe Tom WILL get another shot at his 65 AMC Ambassador convertible.

To make the 2002 Thunderbird, Ford started with the chassis of the Lincoln LS. That's a pretty nice small- to mid-sized, four-door sedan. So the Thunderbird is not a small car -- and not a cheap car either. It's only got two seats, but it's long, and as wide and heavy, as today's two seaters go. And that gives it a pretty decent ride as well as seat room for wide, 2002-style American butts. It's designed for looks and relative comfort. If you're looking for anything else, look elsewhere. In fact, if you're not in love with the way this car looks, don't even bother. Automotively speaking, there's nothing spectacular about this car, no engineering marvels, no handling tricks, no engine you can't get elsewhere. But for those who love the looks, Ford has delivered an exotic looking two-seat convertible, with all the modern benefits of 2002 technology and reliability. The Cars.com target price is $36,360 -- which also happens to be the sticker price. You don't have to be Alan Greenspan to know that with a hot car like this, there won't be any discounts until supply starts exceeding demand.


The Thunderbird comes with the same smooth 3.9-liter V8 and five-speed automatic that's used in the Lincoln LS. Like the Lincoln, and like the original T-bird, this is a rear-wheel-drive car. The 252-horsepower engine is more than enough for the Thunderbird's 3,900 pounds. And we think Ford intends that there to be more than enough power. We don't see people drag racing these things. But people who covet this car will want to touch the pedal and feel the car take off. A powerful V8 is part of the retro appeal of the T-Bird.

The ride and handling are decent. The ride is firm but comfortable. It's neither marshmallowly and softly decadent nor feel-every-pebble-in-the-road sporty. The cornering is surprisingly good, especially considering the size and weight of the Thunderbird. The car is comfortable for long drives on the highway. It's less comfortable going fast on twisting mountain roads. As we said: Retro.

 

Like most convertibles, the Thunderbird is, of course, a lot more fun with the top down. And, like most convertibles, it's somewhat claustrophobic and has lousy visibility with the top up. The visibility is especially crummy with the $2,500 optional hardtop that's got those silly little porthole windows. We drove the Thunderbird with the removable hard top in place and also noticed a number of annoying squeaks and rattles that we attribute to it. To be fair, test cars get driven pretty hard (and mostly by morons like us). But we think those kinds of annoyances are unacceptable for a $40,000 vehicle with just 13,000 miles on the odometer.

The Thunderbird's got a small trunk -- you can't even offer your mother-in-law a ride in the trunk, unless she takes up seven-cubic feet or less. By way of comparison, that's just two-cubic feet more than the Mazda Miata's trunk, and about half the size of a trunk in a Ford Focus sedan. That's the price owners will pay for the stylishly low- and short-rear deck.


 

The inside is stylish. The car we drove had a very 50's red-and-white color scheme over the doors, seats and transmission tunnel. If you want this two-tone treatment, though, you'll need to cough up an extra $800.

The Thunderbird's doors are long and heavy, which is something to bear in mind. In fact, you might want to alternate getting in from the left and right sides, so that your upper arms develop evenly.

 

We found the interior cozy but still designed with fat butts like ours in mind. There was plenty of room for our shoulders, legs and (with the roof down) heads. When the hardtop is installed, headroom is adequate. This is a far larger car than the other popular two-door convertibles on the market like the Mazda Miata (small), the Porsche Boxster (smaller) and the Toyota MR2 Spyder (jeezus!).

The Thunderbird comes equipped with all the creature comforts you would expect on a luxury cruiser: power adjustable seats, antilock brakes, automatic climate control, a six-disc CD changer, cruise control, a power tilt/telescope steering wheel, power windows, mirrors and door locks (so you don't have to reach all the way across to unlock the passenger's door). Unfortunately, side air bags can't be had for love or money.

We would not recommend the Thunderbird for anyone who drives in the snow more than two or three times a year. Like every other heavy, rear-wheel-drive cars, it's probably going to be lousy in snowy conditions. If you ever have to deal with snow, at least do yourself a favor and get the optional traction control.


Most of the controls are on the console, where they're easy to operate. In a disappointment to chiropractors everywhere, the convertible top goes up and down with the push of a button. There's no turning and twisting required. Taking off the hard top, however, requires an advanced degree from Cal Tech and a gym membership.


We find this to be a great-looking car. We think that Ford got the proportions just right. The Thunderbird looks great from any angle. Some colors look better than others, though, so make sure you see the car itself before choosing a color. Don't count on a paint chip. Somewhat curiously, we found that the T-Bird looks the same from the front as it does from the back. So if you're a collector, you can drive around backwards half of the time and really keep the mileage low.


{C}

The Thunderbird uses the same 3.9-liter engine that's also used in the Lincoln LS. Based on the LS's track record, we would expect the Thunderbird to be about average in terms of reliability.


{C}

There's a lot of stuff under the hood of the Thunderbird -- and there's not a whole lot of room. In other words, the Thunderbird is going to be a very hard car to work on. Even routine service will be more difficult, so expect to pay somewhat more for service and maintenance.


The new Thunderbird isn't particularly sensible. This is not a vehicle that claims to do many things well. It's not thrifty, or efficient, or good at hauling much of anything.

It's an indulgence, pure and simple. How do you know if you should buy one? If your heart goes pitter patter when you see one, or if you wistfully imagine yourself cruising down the boulevard with the top down, and are transported back in time when you had more hair on your head, less hair on your back, and less girth around the waist -- and if you can imagine Claudia Schiffer in the passenger seat, then go for it. Ford made this car for you, baby.


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