2003 Ford Thunderbird Review

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Bob Hall Bob Hall Editor
November 17, 2002

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VEGAS — This is not Las Vegas glamour, but it is Las Vegas growth. As I pilot a 2003 Ford Thunderbird through one new housing development after another in the northern arc of suburbia sprouting beyond the Las Vegas Strip, the T-Bird’s new-for-’03 chassis and steering improvements are evident. So is the fact that, if this town grows any more quickly, it’ll need implants of an aqueous, not the more common saline, kind.

The original reincarnated T-Bird received high marks for pleasantly retro-styling and classy interior when it finally hit the streets in mid-2001. But the rear-wheel-drive two-seater’s driving dynamics were better suited to the Strip than to any winding back roads.

No more, thanks to suspension bits shared with Lincoln’s equally revised LS and new ZF steering, this Thunderbird is far more capable on twisty bits and rough roads or uneven surfaces — for example, the diabolical road dips engineered into the streets connecting the numerous prefab neighborhoods that soon will cover every acre of scrub desert in Clark County. Hurrying back to catch a waiting Ford shuttle, my passenger (a public affairs person held against his will) and I didn’t spot the first of them until it was almost too late. But judicious application of the four-wheel, vented, 11+-inch vented disc brakes slowed us enough that the larger, twin-tube shock absorbers keep the T-Bird’s lower body out of harm’s way.

“We added the internal rebound springs in the shocks to keep the car more stable,” J.D. Shanahan told us earlier. “They reduce the tendency for pitch and flow in the rear.”

The Thunderbird’s low-speed tuning shocks in the rear were slightly revised to better handle bumps, and its spring rates lowered to LS (read sport sedan) levels. The T-Bird’s engineering manager also mentioned its reduced braking effort and more assist at low speed provided by ZF’s Servotronic II variable ratio rack-and-pinion system with speed sensitive variable assist that replaced the previous Visteon system.

According to Shanahan, varying both the ratio and the assist provides the precise, linear steering feel that his team sought for both the T-Bird and LS. We liked the feel, but having opted for two street drives rather the Las Vegas Motor Speedway road course, we had to try some aggressive 90-degree turns to really test it. It passed. The previous T-Bird could be wrestled around curves and corners and driven aggressively on back roads if you knew what you were doing and didn’t ignore the laws of physics. But the body roll reminded you just how heavy a 3800-pound convertible can feel, even with a fine 53/47-weight balance. Wresting is no longer required; this car is lots of fun to drive.

Power gamble

There’s one other reason why, more power. That’s right, thanks to variable cam timing and electronic throttle control (ETC), Ford’s 3.9-liter, dual-overhead cam V-8 now produces 280 horsepower and 286 pound-feet torque, 28 more horses and 25 additional pound-feet. Both are noticeable, especially from a standing start. Ford touts ETC’s smooth and efficient power delivery as superior to “pedal-follower” systems. The Ford system factors vehicle and engine speed, the selected transmission gear, and degree and rate of pedal travel to deliver the intended acceleration. Power transfer to the rear wheels is still via a five-speed automatic, but an optional SelectShift automatic is available for $130.

Back to those good brakes: anti-lock is standard and its wheel-speed sensors are part of T-Bird’s all-speed traction control system, also standard on ’03 cars. Also new for ’03 are two-speed variable wipers with a heated “wiper park;” a restyled analog instrument cluster; optional heated seats; two new exterior colors and Black Ink and Whisper White as interior colors. A bit more adventurous is the new saddle-colored interior package with matching leather seating surfaces, steering wheel insert and shift knob.

2003 Ford Thunderbird 007 Edition

2003 Ford Thunderbird 007 Edition

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Available next spring will be 700 limited edition “007” Thunderbirds that mimic the coral color on the Die Another Day T-Bird driven by Halle Berry in that film. The coral paint ¾ similar to the Sunset Coral hue offered on the 1956 Thunderbird ¾ also matches the bikini Ms. Berry wears in her role as the villainess Jinx; the special T-Bird also has a unique white leather interior. For your approximately $43,000, you’ll also get a white removable hardtop, 21-spoke chrome wheels that match the A-pillar and trim accents, and an “understated” 007 badge. The rocket launcher is your own prerogative and cost.

Understated might be a good way to describe Thunderbird’s new performance and handling capabilities. It’s certainly not a BMW Z4 or Mazda Miata in those categories. But now it can venture off the boulevards in search of exciting roads, while still looking mighty good doing it.

2003 Ford Thunderbird
Base prices: $35,945 (Deluxe); $39,945 (Premium w/removable hardtop)
Engine: 3.9-liter DOHC V-8, 280 hp/286 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 186.3 x 72.0 x 52.1
Wheelbase: 107.2 in
Curb weight: 3775 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver & passenger front airbags; front seat side-impact airbags; anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution; all-speed traction control
Major standard equipment: Passive anti-theft system; automatic climate control; AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system; power windows, seats, door locks and mirrors; cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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