“I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered.”

From Bob Seger's Night Moves, copyright 1976, Gear Publishing Co. (ASCAP)

MONTEREY, CA — How far off, indeed.

Ford Motor Co. can't say precisely when Job One for its ’02 Thunderbird will be, saying only that the event will take place sometime during the third quarter. Cars will go on sale at that time, largely missing the summer selling season.

But it doesn't matter. The car already has stoked anticipation to a fever pitch — and it promises to sell out this year, and perhaps next, as dealers flood Ford with orders for the 25,000 units it will build in Wixom, MI. — birthplace of the first ’Bird.

The automaker goes so far as to suggest the car's guttural exhaust growl — subtle, but still inspiring — is like an anthem to its admirers. In keeping with customer interest, chief engineer Nancy Gioia's team studied recordings of Mustang, Jaguar and the ’57 T-Bird.

Eventually, they settled on a duet — harmonizing the Mustang GT's snarl with the smoky voice of Lincoln's LS to replicate the car's original rumble.

The hauntingly familiar tones create a sight-sound experience, luring the curious to the vehicle's rear, where 3-in. (8-cm)-diameter tailpipe tips peek from distinctive cutouts in Thunderbird's rear fascia.

Meanwhile, as Ford works through an Explorer-style “batch-and-hold” rollout to refine T-Bird's manufacturing process, legions of long-suffering fans seem content to wait patiently, relishing with gusto every glimpse until the American icon debuts in dealer showrooms. Witness the buzz Thunderbird causes in trendy, import-oriented California:

  • In Carmel's restaurant district, a boomer-aged couple poses for a photo beside a parked ’02.

  • A Toyota Tundra driver pulls up at a red light near Santa Cruz, flashes a hungry, gap-toothed grin and asks: “How much?”

  • After maneuvering to view it from all sides, a motorist who spent at least twice Thunderbird's base MSRP ($35,495) on his Mercedes-Benz SL 500, gives an approving nod and a thumbs-up.

2002 Ford Thunderbird
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive, 2-door convertible
Engine: 3.9L DOHC V-8, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power: 252 hp @ 6,100 rpm
Torque: 261 lb.-ft. (354 Nm) @ 4,300 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.6:1
Bore & stroke (mm): 86 × 85
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107.2 ins. (272 cm)
Overall length: 186.3 ins. (473 cm)
Overall width: 72 ins. (183 cm)
Overall height: 52.1 ins. (132 cm)
Curb weight (convertible): 3,775 lbs. (1,699 kg)
Curb weight (w/removable top): 3,863 lbs. (1,738 kg)
Market competition: Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK

But don't be misled by the car's backswept curves: T-Bird's performance won't set road-racers on their ears. And despite its 2-seat configuration, rear-wheel drive (it's platform is adapted from Lincoln's LS) and thrusty 252-hp V-8, it's not a true roadster, either.

Ford executives such as Chris Theodore, vice-president-North America car, are loath (perhaps conveniently so) to lump it in with cars such as BMW AG's Z3. So instead of saddling Thunderbird with a segment, Ford has adopted a mantra: “relaxed sportiness.”

It's a suitable label.

T-Bird exhibits power but doesn't flaunt it, reflecting a maturity consistent with its demographic target. Ford expects it to attract buyers who were born about the same time as the original: 1955.

“If it was a coupe, it would be considered a grand touring (GT) car,” says Mr. Theodore, suggesting “grand cruiser” is more suitable.

Yet the Thunderbird package — notably its clean “reverse wedge” profile, trademark grille, smooth acceleration and surprisingly comfortable ride — compares favorably with vehicles of similar sizes and price, such Mercedes-Benz SLK ($38,900) and the more elemental Z3 ($31,300).

“Z3 is a great car,” admits Mustang/Thunderbird marketing manager Mickey D'Armi. “It's a lot of fun. You can toss it around. But you get out of it after about an hour and you're kind of beat up.”

Adds lifestyle vehicle line director Mary Ellen Heyde: “What we want is a balance between holding the road and still having some plushness. It's a tradeoff.”

Thunderbird wins both ends of that deal, cornering capably thanks to its much-fettled fully independent rear suspension and a radically reinforced body structure featuring three “X-braces.”

Located below the engine compartment, at mid-car and at Thunderbird's rear, the bolted-on X-braces provide the stiffness which usually goes wanting in convertibles because they lack the structural integrity afforded by fixed roofs.

The roof is another area where T-Bird is tops. Its hydraulics are commanded by a single, center-positioned one-pull handle to unlock the soft top before lowering and to secure it after raising. Cycle time, the measure of automatic-top prowess: 10 seconds or less — quick enough to change driving environments while stopped at a traffic light.

The only feature that rankles is the high-end two-tone interior package. But only in “Thunderbird Blue,” one of two fashion colors (along with “Inspiration Yellow”) that will be discontinued after this model year.

T-Bird's easy-listening exhaust is glory to the ears, but the mismatched aqua-accented interior is hard on the eyes.