2003 Ford Thunderbird Review

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery
2003 ford thunderbird review

First impressions last. Wrong. Psychologists say humans develop their strongest positive feelings to someone or something if they hated it at first. For instance, I once detested Hondas. After spending some time driving various Hondas, the brand earned my no-longer-grudging respect. The converse is also true: we reserve our most negative assessments for someone or something that we loved at first. The human psyche doesn't like to be disappointed. Sadly, the 2003 Ford Thunderbird falls into this latter category.

The history of the T-Bird is littered with hits and misses. It is hard to argue that the "Classic Birds," "Square Birds," "Bullet Birds," "Flair Birds" and "Glamour Birds" of the fifties and sixties aren't momentous automotive designs. And then the seventies happened.

Back when bottoms had bells, Ford sacrificed art for gargantuan proportions, crude boxy angles and shameless badge engineering. During the eighties and nineties, T-Birds regained some lost ground. But the models were so stylistically removed from their classic ancestors that they defied comparison. Literally.

In the short-lived thirteenth generation, Thunderbird rediscovered its roots. Produced from 2002 through 2005, the "Retro Birds" were Camelot-on-wheels. The model resurrected the classic American two-seat convertible. The round headlights and fog lights, hood scoop, large checkerboard grill and long tapering lines returned, coordinated in a thoroughly modern package. So what if the last T-Bird projected a little more Jackie-O than JFK. Is that really so terrible?

My 2003 tester with 25K miles in Mountain Shadow Gray looked like no other car on the road. In a good way.

From the first glance, the interior impresses. Embossed leather seats comfortably coddle. The dash is organized with elegant simplicity. But then you begin to notice that the Blue Oval beancounters wreaked haptic havoc. The T-Bird's switchgear and gauges are fashioned from cheap brittle plastic that could have been recycled from a bin of '88 Tempo parts, that were (in fact) shared with the already ageing Lincoln LS. The ‘Bird's foot well leaves no spot for the left foot to rest, and the elbow rest on the center console is too high. Forty large for this?

Turn the engine over and you are greeted with a rich V8 burble. Equally impressive: Ford's 180 watt, eight-speaker audio system. You'll want to turn that stereo up to obscure all the squawks and squeaks that plague this bird. The seal between the top of the windshield and the front of the removable hardtop roof eeks like ten-year-old Docksiders®, especially at parking lot speeds. Above 80 mph that same seam begins to howl in the wind. And the steering wheel of my tester moaned like a squeegee on glass with every turn.

For the last T-Bird, Ford sourced the 3.9-liter Jaguar AJ-V8 DOHC engine. From 2003, the powerplant was good for 280 hp and 286 ft-lbs of thrust. The engine features a two-stage variable valve timing system that really launches the 3700lbs. T-Bird when it engages from 3,500 rpm to redline. Sprints from rest to sixty take 6.1 seconds. Rolling starts are much more impressive. So much for paper stats. In reality, ugh.

Ford mated that delightful Jag powerplant to the most dim-witted five-speed automatic I have ever driven. The T Bird's ponderous shifting algorithm is even slow at processing manual inputs from the Tiptronic-style shifter.

The Ford's suspension poses another conundrum that I could not resolve. It provided too little relief from road surface imperfections at low and moderate speeds to make a good boulevard cruiser. At the same time it lacked the tautness required to be an athletic corner carver. The T Bird rolls through the corners deeply from side to side AND up and down. Quick maneuvers elicit poorly dampened yaw angular inertia.

Is the T Bird supposed to be a sports car or a stylish tourer? It certainly doesn't move with Miata's lithe elegance or bob and weave like a Boxster. Yet its ride is too unrefined and interior too cheap to compete on the luxury front with the likes of Lexus or anything hailing from das Vaterland. It's too expensive to be an economical alternative, yet evidence of cost cutting is everywhere. Why? Affluent Yuppies would have paid ten thousand dollars more for a well built machine.

Ford started with a great design but utterly failed in execution; the company never developed a coherent definition of "relaxed sportiness." And then did nothing to rectify its mistakes. In its final years, Ford made trim and paint changes, including 2005's 50th-anniversary badging.

The retro Thunderbird betrayed the market. It lured pistonheads with drop-dead looks and performance potential- and failed to deliver on anything other than exterior aesthetics. Whittier could have had the "Retro Bird" in mind when he rhymed:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

Test vehicle provided by CarMax

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2 of 73 comments
  • Len Jeffrey Len Jeffrey on Jan 28, 2018

    I agree fully with your comments. I'm in the Toronto, Canada area and am anxiously waiting for the better weather in March before I take my '03 for out of 'hibernation' again.

  • Ron Wogan Ron Wogan on Oct 12, 2022

    I just saw the review and comments on the T-Bird! I find it interesting that I see truth in all the comments! I am 70 and I have wanted a Jag XK 8 for a long time, but rationality struck and I decided that a Jag was maybe a bit too much of a young man's car so I opted for the T-Bird. So I purchased a 2003 Black on black bird that I affectionately call the "RAVEN". I was selling Fords at a Ford dealer in 2002 - 2006 and I actually did not like the new T-Bird very much - looked too much like a 1953 -54 Corvette! But as time passed so did my judge mentalistic view of the car. I really like the overall lines but do wish it had T-bird fins! Yes, it has a few squeaks, it's 19 years old! So does my 19 year old Mustang convertible! A 400 watt amp for the stereo will help overcome that issue along with some seal lubricant. Yes, it pitches and rolls way too much for a roadster - I think a good firm set of coil overs and better sway bar bushings will help with that. The engine performed nicely in showroom form but performs and sounds better with a free flow air induction, Borla exhaust and a Thorton performance chip. Boosted my ponies to about 320 instead of the stock 280. As for comfort, no, it is definitely not my 2008 Mark LT! But I can drive it for at least 500 miles before the seat gets tired of my a... ! Plastic? Yip, way too much, but so do most cars under $60K! All in all, I like the "RAVEN"

  • VoGhost So, it's a slow, expensive, cramped Plaid with less range?
  • Dukeisduke Why the hell doesn't Farley just resign? Why hasn't Bill Ford fired him? I lay all this at Farley's feet.
  • Dukeisduke I tried watching the livestream (I'm a MT+ subscriber), but after 15 minutes of jawing by the presenters, I got bored and turned it off. I may watch it this weekend, when I can fast forward through that stuff, to get to the reveal.
  • Dukeisduke Electric power steering, I assume. First-gen Chevy Cruzes can suffer from similar issues, usually traceable to a flaky battery negative cable, a $10 OEM part. Weird, huh?
  • Kwik_Shift Once 15 Minute Cities start to be rolled out, you won't be far enough away from home to worry about range anxiety.