Initial reviews of the new Ford Thunderbird were largely positive. Some taller testers felt the cockpit a bit tight, and rough roads could induce unwanted body flex and cowl shake. The biggest gripe was lack of sports-car-level handling.
But as Ford repeatedly emphasized, the '02 T-Bird was never intended to be a pure sports car. Rather, it was built for "relaxed sportiness" just like the "personal" '55: two-seat jaunty, but also comfortable and well-appointed. Viewed in that light, it was excellent, with more than enough performance to make a fun drive.
Indeed, Road & Track reported a respectable 0.83g on the skidpad and only moderate understeer in corners. "Dynamically, this is the best T-Bird ever," said R&T, "by no means just a...stylish cruiser. Hustled down a twisty canyon road, [it] responds well to driver inputs. Sure, its soft spring rates translate to a comfort-oriented ride with a fair amount of body roll and even a bit of floatiness at high speeds, but neither is excessive as the Thunderbird hangs on in corners, aided by good overall balance, communicative steering, and ample grip from [standard V-rated P235/50 tires]." Acceleration wasn't lacking either, with most testers timing 0-60 mph in a brisk 7.0 seconds or so.
The reborn T-Bird came two ways: a Deluxe model initially pegged at $34,965 and a Premium version with standard traction control and chrome wheels for $1000 more. Of course, buyers expected a load of equipment at such prices, and Ford didn't disappoint. Besides those already mentioned, the no-cost features list showed leather-covered power seats, in-dash CD changer, dual-zone automatic climate control, tachometer, and remote keyless-entry door locks with antitheft alarm.
Yet for all its feel-good qualities, the retro T-Bird would prove something of a flop. At launch, Ford promised to build no more than 20,000 a year, hoping that an "exclusive" aura would preclude the need for profit-draining incentives and prop up resale values. But only in 2002 did sales come close to that mark: 19,085 for the calendar year.
Though some "early adopters" willingly paid well over sticker, transaction prices soon dropped right along with orders. Sales fell to 18,100 for '03, to just under 12,000 the year after, and finally to 9548. One problem was a growing band of like-priced import-brand droptops, some of which had more speed and/or greater cachet. Upward price creep did nothing to help, especially as there was little to justify it.
A few useful changes did occur for 2003, Ford Motor Company's centennial year. Higher compression and variable intake-valve timing added 28 bhp, trimming 0-60-mph runs to 6.5 seconds. Ford also installed more-legible gauges and added a $130 Select Shift option, a manual shift gate that could be used to delay upshifts to max rpm, when a rev limiter cut in.
But it was already too late. Come 2004, Ford was saying the T-Bird name could soon go into limbo again, though it might return on a different limited-edition vehicle -- emphasize might. It was a subtle admission that Ford Motor Company was back in crisis mode. The underperforming T-Bird was doomed.
Sure enough, the 2005s were the last of this flock, unchanged from '04 except for an expected 50th Anniversary Edition. Impudently priced at $44,355, the birthday memento should have been more special -- like one of the slick-looking 400-bhp supercharged concept T-Birds Ford had shown in 2003-04. Instead, it was just a gilded Premium model with Select Shift and the hardtop included, plus specific trim -- a sad farewell for a car that had seemed so promising a mere four years earlier.
The Thunderbird name is still too good to lose, but does it have a future? Hard to say just now. But if there is another Thunderbird, we hope it meets a better fate than the last one.
For more on the amazing Ford Thunderbird, old and new, see:
- Ford Thunderbird Prices and Reviews
- Ford Thunderbird New Car Reviews and Prices
- Ford Thunderbird Used Car Reviews and Prices