Driving a Ford Thunderbird on a summer night takes you back to a simpler era. The V8 engine burbles as you cruise comfortably back in time. With two seats, a convertible top, and rear-wheel drive, it sometime feels like driving a vintage car, only it's brand new.
Ford introduced Thunderbird as a 2002 model, but has revised it each year since. Electronic throttle control and variable cam timing improved performance, power, and fuel economy for 2003. Thunderbird's 3.9-liter V8 now produces 280 horsepower and 286 pound-feet of torque, giving it stronger acceleration than the 2002 model. Traction control is standard on all models, and the instrument pod was redesigned. A Select-Shift automatic transmission was added that allows semi-manual shifting. Heated seats were added to keep driver and passenger toasty-warm, even with the top down in chilly weather.
For 2004, Ford has restyled the seats, and added three new wheel designs, new appearance packages, and new interior appointments.
Ford Thunderbird Deluxe convertible ($36,925); Premium convertible ($38,575); Pacific Coast Roadster ($43,995)
The Thunderbird combines design features from early Thunderbirds, including the original 1955-57 two-seater and the 1961-63 Rocket Bird. A V8 badge has been added to the front fenders of 2004 models to further the retro theme. Yet Ford doesn't describe the 2004 Thunderbird as a replica, or retro, because it has so much modern equipment in it, on it and underneath it.
The exterior design is extremely smooth to the eye, although the wind tunnel says it has a drag coefficient of 0.38, high when a Mercedes-Benz sedan cheats the wind with a rating of 0.28.
Thunderbird's 6.9-cubic-foot trunk is big enough 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, it's rear-wheel drive, 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. But their range of adjustment is limited by the configuration of the cockpit, whose rear bulkhead is close behind the seats themselves. If you are very tall or very long in the torso, the Thunderbird will not fit you well with either the soft convertible top or the removable hard top in place.
The brawny, thick steering wheel, with cruise control buttons built into the spokes, 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 at one with the car.
Instruments are beautifully rendered in the T-Bird. Long, Sea Foam Green needles point the way instead of red, white or black indicators. The shape of the instrument binnacle reflects the gentle dome shape of the '55-56 original. The door panels feature the spread-wing Thunderbird emblem.
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 (HVAC) controls, is taken almost directly from the Lincoln LS. 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. The stereo is well designed, and the HVAC controls use big buttons that are easy to operate.
In such a small interior, everything falls readily to hand. You don't have to stretch to reach anything. For couples, especially, the interior is intimate and romantic.
Driving the new Thunderbird 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 a steady grip during acceleration.
The engine is lifted directly from the Lincoln LS, with only a few modifications to make it fit in the car. It's a small V8, only 3.9 liters, less than 240 cubic inches. In fact, it's smaller than the standard V8 in 1955, but it produces more power and meets all the modern criteria for emissions and fuel economy. The 2004 Thunderbird's V8 is rated 280 horsepower, more than one horsepower per cubic inch. The 1955 edition coaxed only 198 horsepower from 292 cubic inches, and that's gross horsepower, with all accessories removed; modern automotive engineers quote only the net horsepower you can actually use on the road.
Just as importantly, the modern engine is smooth, mechanically quiet, and ready to go whenever you need passing power. The engineers have given it an interesting combination of air-intake rush and exhaust thunder. It burbles at idle like an old big-block V8, and that's part of the car's charm.
Ford's five-speed overdrive transmission is responsive. Expect 0-60mph 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, the Thunderbird 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 crossbeam behind the seats ties the structure together, and three steel X-braces are bolted to the underbody in the front, middle, and rear. The result is a body structure with the strength and stiffness that helps provide good ride quality and handling. The Thunderbird isn't a sports car, however, and the suspension bobs when working out. Also, there is some cowl shake when driving over bumpy pavement. 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 of what the Michelin P235/50R17 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 it handles. In a couple of mountain passes, where we drove way too fast for the blind corners and tricky turns, the car behaved very well in correction and recovery. Yes, there is body roll, but not much. Traction control is standard, but yaw control or electronic stability control are 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 beautifully detailed car in almost every respect. Cruising along in this car can be a joyous experience.
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.
Yet, compared to even the 2002 model, the latest 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.