2002 Ford Thunderbird Review

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TCC Team TCC Team
May 28, 2001

We head south along the shores of the Monterey Peninsula, climbing the steep and craggy cliffs of the Big Sur coastline. The gloomy fog suddenly lifts off the sparkling waters of the Pacific, a blue as brilliant as our turquoise T-Bird.

Traffic is sparse, yet we can’t help noticing the way heads turn in the cars heading north. Pulling into the Coast Gallery for a few minutes break, we’re quickly surrounded by curious onlookers who’ve stopped to check out our retro-styled two-seater.

Only a few vehicles have managed, over the years, to cross that invisible line separating mere transportation from iconic status. But in the nearly half a century since the first Ford Thunderbird rolled off the assembly line, the T-Bird has become an essential part of American pop culture. It has inspired movie makers like George Lucas—who gave the car a central role in his early film, American Graffiti—and songsters such as the Beach Boys—who immortalized the ‘bird in their Top 40 hit, “Fun, Fun, Fun.”

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That’s despite some truly awful incarnations, when the Thunderbird name was applied to a series of overweight and ill-inspired coupes, the last of which was mercifully pulled from production at the end of the 1997 model-year. At the time, Ford officials hinted the ‘bird would be back, and a few years later, they pulled the wraps off a slick, retro-shaped roadster that quickly became a hit on the auto show circuit. Emboldened, the automaker promised to put the prototype into production.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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But that left observers wondering whether the production version would maintain the concept car’s distinctive styling, so clearly reminiscent of the original ’55 two-seater. And with so many other roadsters on the market, how would it stack up against the competition?

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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Finally here

The long wait is over. The first of the new Thunderbirds are starting to roll off the assembly line. Ford officials are coy about the on-sale date—currently set as “late summer.” But TheCarConnection.com eagerly accepted an opportunity to drive the new T-Bird on a winding, two-day journey down the central California coast. And while we found a few nits to pick, we must give Ford high marks for an effort that now seems worth the wait.

The original T-Bird was an expression of ‘50s optimism, a styling exercise in line with the Chevrolet Corvette, which remained far more true to form over the decades. Designers are a proud and independent lot, and so, by nature, they eschew the word “retro,” which implies they’re merely remaking what came before. The more acceptable term is “heritage,” which suggests they are building off of, rather than merely borrowing, history.

But let’s face it, the 2002 T-Bird is retro in every respect. Now, put the ’55 alongside it, and you’ll see plenty of significant differences. The cabin of the new car, for example, is far more centered than the long-nosed original. That frees up space for a surprisingly cavernous trunk offering more than enough room for luggage, or two sets of golf clubs.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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Staying true to the concept car was a primary mission for Ford designers and engineers. They maintained the unusual, “reverse wedge” shape, which flows almost like a teardrop from the oversized chrome grille—perhaps the car’s most controversial feature.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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They debated adding the chrome headlight “eyebrows” of the original ’55, but backed away. In the end, the modifications were minor, at most. The rear Thunderbird emblem was raised a few millimeters, for one thing, which had a surprisingly positive impact on the vehicle’s aerodynamics.

Wind flow is a critical consideration in a convertible. Obviously, it affects fuel economy. But it also impacts ride comfort. Without a rear screen in the passenger compartment, there’s surprisingly little buffeting. And even at 70 mph, it’s possible to hold a conversation with your passenger in a normal voice.

Small touches

The interior itself is attractive and about as elegant as any product bearing the Ford divisional badge. Much of the instrument panel is derived from the Lincoln LS—more on that in a moment—including the basic gauge cluster and center stack. We found that stack to be perhaps the weakest link in the T-Bird’s design. And so did Ford’s own engineers, who’d hoped to come up with something a little more distinct. They tried using aluminum appliqués, like those used elsewhere in the interior, but discovered some durability issues. We’re promised the radio/climate control stack will be upgraded in the near future.

One of the neatest touches is the use of lit turquoise needles in the gauge cluster. But the small digital odometer readouts wash out in bright sun.

Kudos to Ford for providing a roomy, 1.6-cubic foot storage space behind the seats, more than enough room for a briefcase or purse. The two bucket seats are comfortable, especially on a long cruise, though we’d like to see a bit more bolstering for those times when we test the T-Bird’s mettle on some twisty back roads.

We earlier mentioned the Lincoln LS, which serves as the base for much of the new ‘bird. To be more precise, the front half. The rear floor plan and chassis is derived from the Jaguar S-Type. Overall, the Thunderbird is 7.3 inches shorter than the production LS. It shares much of the Lincoln’s mechanicals, though there are unique shocks, stabilizer bars and other suspension components.

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2002 Ford Thunderbird

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Finding the right balance

In developing the T-Bird, the suspension proved to be one of the biggest challenges, and a key reason why production was delayed the better part of a year. Cutting the top off a sedan automatically reduces its stiffness by 70 percent or more. You complicate matters when the new convertible is offered with both a ragtop and a removable hardtop.

Despite a lot of bolstering of the body and chassis, it is not a match for the Big Three European roadsters, the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster or Mercedes-Benz SLK.

The automaker ultimately crafted a compromise that’s about half as stiff as the LS with the hardtop off. Ford engineers describe the results as “relaxed sportiness.” It’s still a pleasantly solid car, even on rough roads or while crossing obstacles like railroad tracks. And with the hardtop in place, the Thunderbird’s manners become notably more aggressive.

Overall, the car is a pleasure to drive. Steering is predictable, with good on-center feel and a nice level of road feedback.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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Considering the ’02 T-Bird’s weight—a hefty 3775 pounds, 3863 with the hardtop in place—it helps to have Ford’s big, 3.9-liter 32-valve V-8 under the hood. It puts out a solid 252 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque, that power coming on quickly and smoothly. We’d have appreciated a manual transmission, or at least an auto-stick package, like the one available in the LS, but the five-speed automatic is smooth and intuitive, seldom having trouble picking the right gear, even on steep climbs up the rugged hills of Big Sur.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

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Giving it legs

Everywhere we drove in our turquoise T-Bird, we were quick to collect a crowd. Even those who have no memory of the original convertible seem drawn to gawk and admire its old-is-new lines.

With a starting price of $35,495, all signs point to a successful start-up. A limited-edition package, offered by Neiman-Marcus last Christmas, sold out in a matter of hours, even though customers were told they’d have a long wait to take delivery.

The biggest question is whether the reborn ‘bird will have “legs,” whether it will continue to excite after it's been on the market a couple years. Ford plans to hold down production to about 25,000 Thunderbirds a year. And it hints that it will be making subtle, running changes to maintain demand. We’ll reserve judgment on the Thunderbird’s staying power, but we have no doubts it’s going to be one of the hot products of 2002 for those looking to have fun, fun, fun.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
Base Price Range: $35,495, $37,995 with removable hardtop
Engine: 3.9-liter V-8, 252 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107.2 inches
Length: 186.3 inches
Width: 72.0 inches
Height: 52.1 inches
Curb Weight: 3775 lb; 3863 lb with removable hardtop in place
EPA (city/hwy): 17/23 mpg
Safety equipment: anti-lock brakes, dual front and side airbags, emergency trunk release
Major standard features: one-touch convertible top, CD audio system, power windows, power door locks
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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