Machine Design

2003 Ford Thunderbird

I had been anxiously waiting to get my hands on a Thunderbird since it reappeared last year. And, this summer, my wait finally ended. The first thrill of driving this beauty came after I turned the key: the throaty growl emanating from dual, chrome-tipped exhaust pipes is enough to get nearly anyone excited. To add to the thrill, dropping the top requires only a simple latch release and a push on a button.

There is no better way to test this roadster than to hit the open road. And hit the road I did, cruising the seemingly endless Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes. The T-bird handled curvy roads and hills with no problem, delivering a smooth ride even over construction-riddled roads. According to Ford, the smooth ride comes from a combination of low spring rates and large-diameter coil-over-shock absorbers. The T-bird carries independent SLA-type suspensions front and rear, strengthened with stabilizer bars that give it a nearly 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution.

Stabilizer bars have molded-in flat sections on the bar and bushing that fit together. The close fit is said to give quicker responses to steering demands. This, together with power rack-and-pinion steering, makes maneuvering the T-bird a walk in the park. For added body strength and stiffness, there's a cross-car beam behind the seats and three steel X-braces bolt to the underbody in the front, middle, and rear.

For 2003, the V8 aluminum powerplant increases in horsepower from 252 to 280, and torque goes from 267 to 286 lb-ft. According to Ford, variable-cam timing improves engine performance, power, and fuel economy. The 3.9-liter V8 packs enough power to satisfy most drivers, myself included. However, there has been grumbling amongst some automotive media who claim the T-bird is not "powerful enough." I disagree. The Thunderbird is a new take on a classic roadster, not competition for the Corvette or BMW Z4.

The powerplant teams up with a five-speed automatic transmission. To throw manual-transmission lovers a bone, Select Shift has been added to the 2003 roster of optional equipment. For a mere $130 more, this system lets drivers shift gears without being bothered by a clutch which, in my mind, is a crime. That being said, to help keep this rear-wheel beauty on the road, all-speed traction control comes standard as well. Other amenities on our test vehicle included a removable hard top, heated leather seats, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and 17-in. chrome wheels.

The T-bird carries an 18-gallon fuel tank, requires premium fuel (91-octane minimum), and is fairly thirsty. Base price is $40,260 and, adding on optional equipment and destination charges brings the price to $41,290. If I had some disposable income, I would immediately buy two T-birds: one in basic black and one in Vintage Mint Green, a new color for 2004. Good things don't last forever and neither will the T-bird. Rumor has it the T-bird may be reentering retirement as early as 2005.

-- Sherri L. Carmody

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