Beautiful plumage for high-flying new bird: the 2002 Ford Thunderbird

Remember American Graffiti? Guys were probably ogling the mysterious blonde, but I was checking out that gorgeous white T-bird. At long last, Ford has revived the Thunderbird as a limited production, V8-powered, two-seater roadster evocative of the original 1955 classic sports car design, yet thoroughly modern in specification and execution. Buh-bye to 44 years of a languishing, less-than-desirable coupe. This retro beauty breathes new life into the Ford line, increasing its convertible choices to two (with the Mustang) and providing a new luxury car for FoMoCo. In those early years from 1955-"57, the Thunderbird forged its reputation by outselling its rival, the Chevrolet Corvette, 4 to 1. Its premise was elegant styling with an obvious Ford lineage, a balanced touring car feel, limited production and liberal plundering of the corporate parts bin.

Forty-plus years later, the recipe hasn"t changed: The T-bird remains a "parts bin" car. Recognize a little Jaguar styling in the chrome grille? As a "platform" car (unlike its Chevy competitor), the Thunderbird shares basic underpinnings and the design of its 3.9-liter V8 engine with the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-Type.

The engine, lifted from the Lincoln LS, is modified to fit in and under the car. At less than 240 cubic inches, the V8 is smaller than the smallest one available in 1955, but meets all modern emissions criteria. It produces a healthy 252 horses, but the car"s 3,775 pounds of curb weight diminishes much of the "v-v-v-vroom." If it weighed 500 pounds less, it would be quicker, but even with mostly plastic body panels (Thunderbird"s doors and rear quarter panels are the only body parts made of steel; all others are made of SMC plastic), the new T-Bird feels heavy. Thunderbird"s power-to-weight ratio of 14.9 pounds per horsepower is overshadowed by the Corvette"s potent 350-horse V8 at 9.2 pounds per hp.

Considering its power and weight, the Thunderbird"s estimated 17/23 EPA city/highway ratings aren"t bad, but don"t beat the Vette"s at 18/26 mpg.

Available only in a five-speed automatic transmission borrowed from the Lincoln LS, the T-bird doesn"t offer a manually interactive function. Shifts are not as smooth as I expected, hoped, wanted. It seemed reluctant to deliver quick, timely downshifts, and upshifts were abrupt. I also wish this dual-exhaust engine had more bottom-end torque.

But mere speed isn"t the Thunderbird"s main attraction - never has been. The Thunderbird is a luxury cruiser that makes no pretenses of being a sports car. It"s sporty looking, but it is not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination.

The Thunderbird handles well and responds to driver input, with soft spring rates for a comfortable ride. All-independent suspension, derived from Jaguar, provides a smooth, mechanically quiet ride. The Thunderbird offers a combination of decent (if not breathtaking) acceleration and good, solid handling. Good balance, responsive steering and ample grip combat a fair amount of the body roll at high speeds. Stops are smooth and clean, but the front end tends to nose-dive.

The reverse-wedge styling captures the relaxed sportiness of early T-birds. Nothing, however, is retro about the Thunderbird chassis. Its unit-body design is based on the Lincoln LS, reinforced with three bolt-on X-shape underbody braces and a cross-car beam. However sleek its exterior, the T-bird carries a high drag coefficient of 0.38.

Both the Deluxe and Premium trims come configured with and without the removable top. The hard top - with its trademark porthole window - is an attractive, but expensive, option. The 83-pound top is not easily removed or installed, even with two people. Ford supplies the required T-handle tool for removal and tube-frame carrier to keep the roof off the floor; you supply the storage space.

It looks compact, but it"s nearly a foot longer than the 1955 steel-bodied model. Even so, it offers only 6.9 cubic feet of trunk space, compared to the Corvette"s 14 cubic feet. But who cares about cargo space in a car like this?

So why doesn"t everyone choose the Corvette? It"s a matter of personal preference. I"m not going to argue the bowtie vs. blue oval issue here. Not everyone likes to drive on the edge. Driving the new Thunderbird is an exercise in being seen.

The Thunderbird looks dramatic. It"s a beautifully detailed car in almost every respect, and will attract attention wherever it goes. It"s the perfect car for a parade. Since all 25,000 2002 T-birds have been spoken for (at $5,000 to $10,000 over sticker), you guys ogle the beauty queens perched on the fold-down top, and I"ll check out that smiling T-bird grille.

2002 Ford Thunderbird

Engine: a quad-cam 3.9-liter V-8, a 32 valve aluminum block powerplant with iron liners, chain-driven camshafts and cylinder heads with pentroof combustion chambers

Five-speed automatic transmission

Four-wheel independent suspension with gas-charged shocks

Traction control

Seventeen-inch painted cast aluminum wheels and tires are standard on the Premium models

Fuel mileage: 17/23 mpg

Lockable remote switch for the trunk

Standard power tilt and telescope steering wheel

Brushed aluminum trim panels on the dash and door panels

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