I don't often call a car a current fashion statement.
But Ford's new Thunderbird, with its nostalgia-inspired styling—complete with porthole windows—and awfully fashionable, bright colors, is a rare, rather playful bird that seems as much at home on the pages of a fashion magazine as it does on a showroom floor.
In fact, the best way to look fashionable this year may just be by just sitting behind the wheel of your own 2002 T'bird.
Get in and drive
Best of all, the new T'bird is easy to drive.
Many times, the newest, jazziest cars on the market turn out to be sports cars that provide a jarring, uncomfortable ride, overwhelming, raucous power and a strange interior.
Not the new Thunderbird.
There are no ill-mannered body motions here. No jarring, uncomfortable ride and no overbearing power.
Rather, the T'bird ride is decently damped over bumps and feels almost plush on some road surfaces. The independent, short- and long-arm suspension, front and rear, works subtly to manage the car in the curves.
Cowl and body shake is minimized by weighty body reinforcements, and steering response via the variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering is predictable and confidence-inspiring. It's also not touchy—so it won't pitch you off the road if you partake in some sightseeing from behind the wheel.
The T'bird interior, even with the top down, is designed to be passenger-friendly. It's quieter than I expected, in fact.
"What [focus group] people talked about is, 'I invited someone into my Thunderbird, I'm gone for a drive [and] I'd like to talk as I drive,'" explained Nancy Gioia, chief engineer for the 2002 Thunderbird. "So, one of the objectives we set is it would be nice if you're going 70 miles an hour down the freeway with the top down and still have a conversation with the person next to you."
The test Thunderbird's smooth transmission shifts and steady V8 power were impressive.
Both the five-speed automatic transmission and the engine come from the Lincoln LS sedan, Gioia said, explaining that with just 25,000 Thunderbirds scheduled for production annually, Ford needed to find ways to control costs on such a low-volume car. Sharing components is one solution.
"About 50 to 60 percent of the components [in the Thunderbird] are carryover parts [from other Ford Motor Co. vehicles]," Gioia said.
In the rear-wheel-drive T'bird, the 3.9-liter double-overhead-cam V8 develops a maximum 252 horsepower, and torque is 267 lb-ft at 4300 rpm.
I felt it—and heard it—come on steadily, yet not forcefully, during the test drive as I zipped around slower cars on the highway with ease.
It was only during acceleration—even a slight press on the accelerator—that I heard the Thunderbird engine under the hood. It was strong sounding, but not at all a boy-racer tune.
When I just maintained a steady speed or coasted, there was nearly no engine sound. This, plus occasional noise over rough pavement, were the only intrusions into a surprisingly quiet interior—with either the soft-top or hardtop on.
Obviously, there was wind noise when I rode with the car open to the wind, but I found I still could hold a conversation.
Color, color everywhere
Note that different wheels (17-inch) and color packages are among the options for T'bird buyers. Remember the baby blue T'birds of the '50s? Gioia said color is important to T'bird buyers.
In focus group discussions, "people keep telling us, 'I want to make it my Thunderbird,'" she said.
So, buyers can opt for a full accent package that swathes the door interiors, the lower dashboard and the center console in bright colors like Thunderbird Blue and Inspiration Yellow.
Note these two colors are only offered for the 2002 model year, while three others will be offered again. Gioia said each year Ford expects to offer special, one-year colors. Again, this responds to consumers interested in having a vehicle that's unique, she said.
She said they told her, "'I want to know exactly how many are built, so I know how special my car is.'"
This year, my pick would be the Thunderbird Blue color. It was the color of the test car, and the blue paint matched the blue needles inside the instrument cluster. These blue needles in the gauges are in all 2002 T'birds, but it only looks color-coordinated in the blue car.
This and that
The Thunderbird is a two-seater, with a 6.7-cubic-foot trunk that can accommodate two standard-size golf bags, but not a lot more.
There's an airbag on/off switch so drivers can bring along a youngster in the front passenger seat.
The T'bird seat cushions are a bit short in length, flat in their overall shape and not well bolstered, so I slid around some during aggressive driving.
If you take a long drive and want to get some sleep, note that the seat recline can be limited.
But the dual-zone climate control system is a nice touch, and the Ford-issue stereo system provides strong sound. Too bad the speakers on the sides of the center transmission tunnel looked stuck on and not well integrated in the test car.
I also find something's not quite proportional between the front and rear ends of the car, at least in my eyes.
Note that the Thunderbird's automatic transmission doesn't include a sport shift mechanism that would allow drivers to shift manually, sans clutch pedal.
And the hardtop, which adds $2,500 to the price of the car, is heavy. It weighs 83 pounds, but thankfully it comes with a wheeled cart.
Watch as you adjust the rearview mirror in the Thunderbird. I found that each time I grabbed the mirror to move it, I inadvertently turned on a reading lamp that's installed at the bottom edge of the mirror. And one time, the lamp stayed on for hours before it was noticed.