2003 Ford Thunderbird Review
SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
2003 Ford Thunderbird Base price: $40,355 Price as tested: $41,890 EPA mileage: 17 city/23 highway By Des Toups The Thunderbird is a far better machine than Ford has been given credit for -- poised, gutsy and well-built -- and even after two years on the market, it still turns heads at every stoplight. What's amazing is that it's considered a flop. Ford aimed to move 25,000 of the $37,000-plus two-seaters a year, a goal it missed by 20 percent. Even so, it's the third best-selling convertible on the market, behind the Ford Mustang and Chrysler Sebring, and by far the best-selling two-seater. Already, Ford has announced it will pull the plug in a year or two. A platform shared with the Lincoln LS, though, means the T-bird won't simply coast to its demise. For 2003, the 'bird finally got the options of heated seats and a manually shiftable automatic, a more attractive dashboard, and, oh yes, 28 extra horsies under the hood enough to turn a quick car into a fast one. Not that many people are buying the T-bird for its performance, however competent. No, it's all about the looks: the classic proportions, the captivating view of curving fenders from the driver's seat, the traditional T-bird taillights and egg-crate grille. Space is wasted shamelessly in this pursuit; if the T-bird is to be your only car, you'll learn to pack light and have your groceries delivered. You'll also learn to park at the end of a row, so you'll have room to open one of the longest doors in existence. If you like the look I sure do they're all worthwhile sacrifices. If only the interior were as successfully rendered. Instead, it's a clearly identifiable version of the Lincoln LS, itself no triumph of interior design. Lincoln perked up the LS with a coating of brushed aluminum trim that's missing here. Even with the optional Torch Red package to spice up the seats, shifter, steering wheel and console, the blandly styled, dull-black dashboard still looks cheap and out of place. At least the ergonomics are right; the top goes down with the twist of a handle and the push of a button in less than 20 seconds. Steering-wheel controls for the radio and six-disc CD player are easier to use than most. The Thunderbird accommodates tall drivers better than most two-seaters, and the seats, like those in the Lincoln, are simply wonderful, just cushy enough to feel luxurious, but firm enough to hold you in place. A good thing, for the T-bird is capable of hurling its occupants around corners at a shocking rate. Though the suspension is tuned softly to keep the car from shivering over bumps, it still comes straight from the LS, and this time, that's a good thing. The Thunderbird rides less harshly and has more body roll, but it's unruffled by bad pavement and sticks as well as the Lincoln, regarded as a fine-handling sedan. This 3,800-pound cruiser is no Porsche-chaser, certainly, but it's easy to drive quickly and has no surprises lurking. Like any powerful rear-driver, the back end comes around easily; a little more right foot puts it back into line with no drama. Here's where you really feel the 3.9-liter V-8's extra punch (now 280 horsepower and a beefy 286 foot-pounds of torque, the muscle that actually moves the car). We recorded a 6.1-second 0-60 time. Power is put to the ground through a silky-shifting five-speed automatic; a manual-shift feature is optional and fun but largely superfluous. Left in drive, the transmission downshifts quickly enough to satisfy all but fleeing felons. With the traction control turned off, the 'bird can lay down rubber as it shifts into second. A few runs through a Sunday autocross course (where, among Porsches, Corvettes and BMWs, it was unquestionably the center of attention) proved the T-bird more agile than anyone, including me, would have guessed, recording competitive times even on its all-season tires. I love the heart in this car, that in its pursuit of style and comfort it still remembers its roots. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested a Thunderbird, but the Lincoln upon which it is based merits a "Best Pick," its top rating. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency gives the Thunderbird four of five stars for driver protection in frontal crashes, five stars for the passenger in frontal crashes, and five stars for side-impact crashes. The EPA recorded mileage of 17 city/23 highway; we saw 17 mpg. The Thunderbird is a Low Emissions Vehicle (the third dirtiest of the EPA's six emissions classifications) and rates a 6 on the EPA's 10-is-worst pollution scale, about average for medium-sized sedans. Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer who has written for the Seattle Times, AutoWorld and Driving Sports magazine and newspapers nationwide.