- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

As the song's lyrics say "every cloud has a silver lining" and the Thunderbird is one of the few bright spots in the dark clouds that hang over Ford Motor Company.

The Firestone debacle, quality problems and red ink have dropped the number two domestic automaker into a nightmare that is expected to take two years to straighten out.

The Thunderbird, named Motor Trends' "Car of the Year" for 2002, is one of the prettiest cars to come along in years. Styling is its strong point. Enthusiasts have criticized the ride and handling of the new Bird, but Ford's engineers were not aiming for the sports car market. It offers a more traditional soft ride designed to please older buyers who remember the original Thunderbird with fondness. Its mission is to seduce buyers who want a personal-luxury convertible, not a sports car imitating Corvette and Viper.

Ford took a major gamble that it could recreate the enthusiasm for the two-seat Thunderbird that became a classic during its three-year run from 1955-57 and from all indications has succeeded. Everyone who saw the car during my weeklong test whistled in admiration. A few criticized the bright yellow paint of the test car but everyone loved the styling.

Roughly 11 inches longer than the original, the new Bird reminds one of the past without imitating it line for line. Friends and passers-by were unanimous in their opinion that Ford had succeeded with the new model. Later T-Birds were bigger cars and bore little resemblance to the original and are little remembered.

The new T-Bird is based on the same platform used on Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-type, but don't think of it as a shortened version of either model. Only one powertrain is offered an all-aluminum, 3.9-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V-8 mated to Ford's 5R55 five-speed automatic transmission. The engine provides a respectable 252 horses at 6,100 rpm and 267 foot-pounds of torque at 4,300 rpm.

Economy is certainly good for a car weighing in at 3,863 pounds. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the open road. The test car had mileage in both driving conditions and finished with 19.8 mpg. I found the combination didn't offer large amounts of low-end torque, but close gear spacing between the two lower gears helps the ragtop to move out quickly. The buff books claimed the T-Bird is capable of a smart 0-60 time of seven seconds with a quarter-mile performance of 15.28 seconds at 92 mph.

Ford's engineers also succeeded in the ride and handling department. The ride is supple and it never wallows like cars of yore. The rack-and-pinion steering comes close to perfection. It responds quickly and accurately to fingertip suggestions.

The standard P235/50VR17 Michelin tires deserve some of the credit for the car's excellent steering and handling. Just for the heck of it, I drove the Bird up my favorite mountain roads and while it did not provide the feel and zest of a sports car, I enjoyed the ride. As one writer said: "It provides the perfect top-down weekend toy for two."

The ragtop is easily lowered and raised quickly I've been told it takes 12 seconds each way and I have no reason not to believe the claim. Just unsnap the single lock located in the center and press the down button to lower and then reverse the process to raise it. There is also the optional hardtop that reportedly is easy to remove and store. It is provided with the traditional porthole that signifies that you're driving a Thunderbird. It is a $2,500 option.

The Thunderbird heritage flavors the interior. It provides a feeling that reminds one of the original. Black leather is heavily used in the interior along with brushed aluminum trim on door and dash panels. Instrumentation consists of two large gauges with a 160 mph speedometer and a 7,000-rpm tachometer. Flanking the two major gauges are a small coolant and gas gauges along with the customary warning lights.

Safety equipment includes dual front air bags and side-impact bags deployed from the seat bolsters. A handy carpeted shelf for smaller items is provided behind the seats. The trunk provides 6.7 cubic feet of storage space a tight fit on longer trips.

A few more cars with styling matching the Thunderbird should right things at Ford. The new Bird provides all the features that made the original such a classic.


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