The world has been waiting patiently for this all-new two-seat Thunderbird roadster for at least five years, ever since Ford announced it was dumping the old coupe and taking the Thunderbird back to its original limited-production roots in the Fifties. It gives new life to Ford's whole line of passenger cars, adds a second convertible choice in addition to the Mustang, provides a new luxury car that Ford hasn't had, and promises lots of dealer showroom traffic for the next year or so as the curious stream in.
The new Thunderbird features design aspects of the original 1955 car, the 1962 car, and some other, earlier Thunderbirds, but Ford doesn't want to talk about this car in terms of "retro" design because it has so much modern equipment going for it.
The exterior design is extremely smooth, to the eye at least, but the wind tunnel says it has a drag coefficient of 0.38, which is quite high these days when a Mercedes sedan cheats the wind with a rating of 0.28.
The trunk is big enough, despite the small numbers, to carry two golf bags, but that's about it. This car is made for what Ford calls "relaxed sportiness," a term we translate into "cruising." It's sporty looking, but it is not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination.
Two reasonably comfortable bucket seats are independently adjustable with power switches located on the side of the seat. Because this is a two-seater, with a sort of open cargo bay and a wall behind the two seats, there are limits to the adjustability of the seats, and if you are very tall or very long in the torso, the car will not fit you well with either the soft convertible top or the removable hard top in place.
Instruments are beautifully rendered in the T-Bird, much like the 1955 car, with long Sea Foam Green needles pointing the way instead of red, white or black needles. The center stack, that portion of the instrument panel at the center of the dash that carries the vents, the sound system controls and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls, is taken almost directly from the Lincoln LS, one of the Thunderbird's two sister cars (the other is the Jaguar S-Type); it's made up of five different small panels, though it appears that one nicely done cover panel for all five elements would have sufficed.
In such a small interior, everything falls readily to hand, you don't have to stretch to reach anything, and for couples, especially, the interior is intimate and romantic, with the T-Bird's spreading wings portrayed on the two door panels.
The example that I drove was all black, including the entire interior. But the Bird is available with a set of red, yellow, or blue color accent packages for the interior, as described above. I liked the red, but did not care for the look of the plastic on the lower dash panel and door trim panels with the yellow or blue packages. The red, and the smaller packages in yellow and blue, without the door panels and lower dash, are fine.
The brawny, thick steering wheel, complete with cruise control buttons built in, feels terrific in your hands, even after an all-day white-knuckle high-speed cruise, and there is a standard power tilt and telescope feature to help you feel one with the car.
Driving the new Thunderbird is and will be first of all an exercise in being seen. It's a beautiful car that will attract attention wherever it goes. But how it goes is just as important, and it does pretty well in this category.
The engine is a direct lift from the Lincoln LS, with only a few modifications to make it fit in and under the car. It's a small V8, only 3.9 liters, or less than 240 cubic inches; it's a smaller V8 than the smallest one you could get in 1955, but it meets all the modern criteria for emissions and gets good fuel economy while producing 252 horsepower, more than one horsepower per cubic inch.
It's smooth, mechanically quiet, and ready to go whenever you need passing power, and the engineers have given it an interesting combination of air intake sound and exhaust sound. It burbles at idle like an old big-block engine, and that's part of the car's charm. The transmission, a Ford 5-speed overdrive, seemed a little reluctant to deliver quick, timely downshifts when we wanted them, but was transparent in normal driving. Expect 0-60 mph performance in the range of 7 seconds flat, which ain't bad, but then, you're supposed to be relaxing in this car, not racing around from place to place. If it weighed 500 pounds less, it would be quicker, but even with its mostly plastic body panels, the new T-Bird weighs almost 3800 pounds, and it feels like it.
The chassis that the T-Bird rides on is a combination of Lincoln LS sedan parts and a few new parts, including a steel tubing brace under the engine bay and a second brace under the passenger compartment and a third behind the seats to add stiffness and integrity to what is essentially an LS with no roof. Over a variety of paving types at high to very high speeds, we found the Thunderbird to be stiff, smooth and quiet, with very little evidence of cowl shake, that thing that usually happens when you drive a convertible over a large bump and the dashboard moves from side to side. The all-independent suspension, derived from the Jaguar, is slick and smooth without letting the car wallow.
The big, thick steering wheel is great to use and the rack-and-pinion steering is quite nicely weighted, giving you a pretty good idea what the Michelin P235/50R-17 quiet-ride luxury tires are doing at any given time. The car wants to understeer, of course, but there's nothing objectionable in the way the car handles, and in a couple of mountain passes with blind corners and tricky turns, the car behaved very well in correction and recovery, even though we were going way too fast for the corner. Yes, there is body roll, but not much. Traction control is available, but yaw control or electronic stability control is not available.
We had to jump hard on the brakes several times during our road test period with the T-Bird, and we can tell you that the all-disc system with ABS works very well, with nice, progressive pedal feel and lots of power in emergencies.
Here is a two-seat convertible with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, a posture that would normally make it difficult to stand up, but not this car. Although it could be accused of being a parts-bin car, with lots of pieces borrowed from Lincoln LS, Jaguar S-Type, Ford Taurus, and other Fords, the Thunderbird is a beautifully detailed car in almost every respect.
The new Thunderbird offers a combination of decent if not breathtaking acceleration, progressive and positive braking, and good, solid handling that will not make you nervous even at very high speeds.
In its first year, only some 25,000 Thunderbirds will be produced, and almost every one of those already has a deposit against it. But if you can find one at the regular retail price, it will be a very good buy that could be a collector car of the future.
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