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Driving a Ford Thunderbird on a summer night takes you back to a simpler time. The V8 engine burbles as you cruise comfortably back in time. Two seats, convertible top, rear-wheel drive, at times it feels like driving a vintage car, only it's brand new.
Introduced as a 2002 model, the Thunderbird has enjoyed solid sales, but there are important changes to this big-image car for 2003. The Thunderbird has a great powertrain and this year there's more on tap: Horsepower from the 3.9-liter V8 has been increased to 280 and torque to 286 foot-pounds, 28 more horsepower and 25 more foot-pounds of torque than before. That means much stronger acceleration performance. Electronic throttle control and variable cam timing borrowed from the Jaguar engine improve engine performance, power and fuel economy all at once.
Also new for 2003 is an optional Select Shift transmission, which allows gear changes similar to a conventional manual transmission without a clutch pedal. All-speed traction control is now standard on all models, where last year it was only on the Premium version. A heated driver and passenger seat option has been added for 2003 so you can drive with the top down and still be toasty warm on cold mornings, a pleasant pastime in the Thunderbird.
Inside, there's a new analog instrument cluster design. Two-speed, variable-interval wipers with a heated wiper parking area are also standard for 2003. A new Saddle interior package includes full leather saddle seats, saddle leather steering wheel insert and a saddle leather shift knob. New exterior colors, Mountain Shadow Gray and Desert Sky Blue join two new interior colors: Black Ink and Whisper White.
Driving the new Thunderbird is and will be first of all an exercise in being seen. It's a beautiful car that attracts attention wherever it goes. But how it goes is just as important, and it does pretty well in this category. There's plenty of power to drive the rear wheels and the traction control ensures controlled acceleration.
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, less than 240 cubic inches. In fact, it's smaller than the smallest V8 you could get in 1955, but it meets all the modern criteria for emissions and gets good fuel economy. Thunderbird's 240 cubic-inch V8 produces 280 horsepower, more than one horsepower per cubic inch. The power and torque increases made for the 2003 model are more than welcome in a car of this price and history.
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. Ford's five-speed overdrive transmission is responsive.
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.
This is a comfortable cruiser on the interstate. A cross-car beam ties the structure together just behind the seats and three steel X-braces are bolted to the underbody in the front, middle, and in the rear. The result is a body structure and chassis with the strength and stiffness that helps provide good ride quality and handling. It isn't a sports car, however, and the suspension bobs when working out. Also, there is some cowl shake when driving over bumpy sections. But for the most part, the all-independent suspension, derived from the Jaguar S-Type, is slick and smooth and the Thunderbird is enjoyable to drive.
The big, thick steering wheel is comfortable 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 still not available.
Slam on the binders and the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) work very well, with nice, progressive pedal feel and lots of stopping power in emergencies.
The Ford Thunderbird is eye candy, a two-seat convertible with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The Thunderbird is a beautifully detailed car in almost every respect. Cruising along in this car can be a joyous experience.
The 2003 Thunderbird offers much-improved acceleration and passing power, progressive and positive braking, and good, solid handling. It's well short of a real sports car, but it will cruise with anything out there.
Now that the newness has worn off and there is more competition on the market, Thunderbirds can be had for much more reasonable prices than in the crazy gotta-have-it-now first year of higher-than sticker sale prices. Ford is relying on the Thunderbird to help recreate the company for its second hundred years.