The surprise comes from the way in which all these elements have been tuned. Ford tells us that it decided to be true to the original car, which always was better suited to Palm Beach than to Sebring. As a result, the Thunderbird is a soft, heavy car that's happiest at touring speeds. Ford calls it "relaxed." The engineers tailored the springs to deliver a plush ride, then added large-diameter, twin-tube, low-pressure gas dampers to calm the ride motions. The characteristics of the Michelin tires also contribute much to this ideal of a soft, laid-back attitude.
As a result, the Thunderbird always feels like a big car, as if a sedan of the 1950s had been given a makeover. Over the bumps, the T-Bird quickly bends its knees, and the chassis cycles through the full range of suspension movement until the dampers soothe the wheels again. Sometimes harshness will find its way through the suspension, but, generally, the car is fairly plush, and it doesn't have the uncontrolled float that you might associate with softly suspended cars. You're most aware of the soft suspension tuning when the car waddles and pitches over parking-lot speed bumps or when it corkscrews across a hump in the freeway. Think of a two-door Lincoln Town Car, and you'll get the picture.
The Thunderbird delivers some authority when you step into the throttle, as there's a 252-horsepower, DOHC 3.9-liter V-8 under the hood. But this is by no means a quick car. The curb weight conspires against you, for one thing. For another, the V-8 has an impressively flat torque curve, with at least 90 percent of peak torque available from 2100 rpm to 5500 rpm, but this kind of power feels best during roll-on acceleration on the highway. When you hammer the throttle, the engine doesn't show enough eagerness to seek its redline, even with a short, 3.58:1 final-drive ratio. The throttle tip-in is fairly heavy, and the car leaves the line with a pronounced rush, but it lasts only to about 40 mph, when the pace of acceleration becomes more restrained. The five-speed automatic shifts smoothly under part-throttle, but it doesn't respond very well when your foot is hard against the floor.
We were a little crestfallen at the way the T-Bird declined any invitations to race (as were the dozens of dumped and breathed-on Camaros, Civics, and Eclipses that pulled alongside hoping for an informal exhibition of speed). And yet we weren't resentful. We liked driving this car--a lot.
Part of the reason is that the Thunder-bird is such a great place to spend time behind the wheel. The optional two-tone treatment of the interior is dramatic without being overstated, and the thick band of brushed chrome that circles the cockpit perfectly accents the look. The center console has been lifted from the Lincoln LS without much imagination, but the main gauges, with their lighted, aqua-colored needles, recall the formica-and-chrome designs of the 1950s. The seats are comfortable, and the thick rim of the steering wheel fills the hand nicely. The sound of the horn and the click of the directional signals might have been taken directly from a Fairlane of the 1950s. Overall, this is a wonderful cockpit, ergonomically correct and very well detailed.