Curvy Thunderbird may forge auto style of the '80s

Will the aerodynamic Ford Thunder-bird, all new for 1983, really performm for Ford Motor Company? Both the T-bird and its companion, the notchback Mercury Cougar, are due to hit the road Feb. 17.

A dramatic departure from the slab-sided, boxy style of the last 10 years, the front-drive T-bird, sporting a low front end and gently curved fenders, will set Ford's styling trend for the mid-80's and beyond - and maybe for other car manufacturers as well.

The new T-bird will sell for $9,197, up more than $700 over the final 1982 price; the Mercury Cougar pricetag is $9,521.

In May Ford will introduce its all-new Tempo and Mercury Topaz, successors to the aging Fairmont and Zephyr, both of which have front drive and a curvy design.

But will the public buy them? Ford president Donald E. Petersen and his design staff believe they will.

Ford's objective is to achieve an overall drag rating of 0.33 by 1990 for a total reduction of 35 percent compared with 1982 models.

''This will result in a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) benefit of more than 2 1/2 miles per gallon, derived solely from aerodynamics,'' says a Ford engineer. The carmaker's overall drag rating has plunged from 0.51 in 1977 to 0. 40 in 1983 - a 22 percent reduction, or a CAFE benefit of more than 1 m.p.g.

''The Thunderbird's dramatic new styling, distinctive and beautifully functional, will solidify our lead in the application of aerodynamics to car design,'' says Louis E. Lataif, head of the Ford division. Too, the new cars will give more identity to Ford products at a time when so many new cars look alike.

Even so, Ford executives are walking on eggs as the release dates approach. If the cars fail to grab the car buyer, Ford's future designs could be jeopardized. If they succeed, the company is ahead of the pack in the ''new-look department'' for the rest of the 1980s.

Jack Telnack, head of Ford's North American design team, acknowledged a cool reception by Ford dealers and consumers to early showings of the car although by early December more than 13,500 advance T-bird orders had been received by the factory.

Telnack sees the squared-off-back-window Cougar, a distinct departure from the Thunderbird, as appealing to the older car buyer, while the T-bird will find space in the driveway of the young adult. Too, he looks for higher corporate interest in the Cougar because he expects it to have a higher resale value than the Thunderbird.

Having driven the Thunderbird-Cougar and Tempo-Topaz at the Ford proving ground in Dearborn, Mich., a few weeks ago, I can attest that the cars dom perform for the driver.

One Ford engineer describes the T-bird as an ''honest car.''

Henry A. Nickol, chief engineer for power train and chassis at Ford, says that, equipped with the standard 3.8-liter V-6 and 3-speed automatic transmission, the Thunderbird/Cougar spring from zero to 60 mph in 13.9 seconds. With the 5-liter V-8 and automatic overdrive, the figure is 10.9 seconds.

The T-bird turbo, which won't reach the road till April or May, sprints from zero to 60 in 8.9 seconds, faster than the Porsche 924 turbo. Thrust starts at about 1,800 r.p.m. and full boost is reached at 2,100 r.p.m.

The turbo also will be an option in the Mustang and Capri.

As for the standard T-bird itself, the ride and handling are smooth as befits the successor car to a historic automotive tradition. The shocks are gas-pressurized, but a heavy-duty-suspension option provides a firmer ride and upgrades the load-carrying capability. The firmer suspension is standard on the turbocharged coupe.

The ride is expectedly plush, with Ford's first fully independent MacPherson-strut rear suspension designed and built in the United States. Rear suspension travel is 8.19 inches, about the same as in most full-size cars.

Standard engine is a 3.8-liter V-6 with an automatic three-speed transmission and locking torque converter. No manual transmission is available at this time - a pity.

Another pity, particularly in the T-bird, is the aerodynamic compromise (money, you know). Ford failed to go to flush glass. In other words, the glass is not flush with the metal surfaces all around. Flush glass would have given a finishing design touch to the car.

Built with a 104-inch wheelbase, down from 108 inches in '82, the new ''bird'' is 3 inches shorter, an inch narrower, and 150 pounds lighter than the car it succeeds. Curb weight, including handling suspension and 3.8-liter engine with automatic overdrive (AOD) transmission, is 3,282 pounds, while the 5-liter Cougar with base suspension and AOD checks in at 3,330 pounds. The Cougar dashboard, I thought, was dull.

The heavy doors were hard to close, but these were not production cars. The gas-filler cap says, ''Check Engine Oil.''

As for the 1984 Ford Tempo, ''it is not an upsized Escort,'' Philip E. Benton Jr. insists, adding that a majority of the parts are unique to the Tempo. ''We learned from the Escort,'' he says. ''There are only a few sheet-metal parts which are common with the Escort.''

The original idea was to aim at the Chevrolet Citation, he says, but it has turned out more like the Cavalier. The Tempo suspension is an improvement on the Escort.

The car has a lot of European flair in the design. The Tempo GLX 2-door sedan with a 2.3-liter high-swirl-combustion engine, automatic transmission, and heavy-duty suspension puts a burst of fun into the driving routine.

With the Michelin TRX handling package and 5-speed transmission, the car grips the road as if it were traveling on flypaper in the tight turns.

Meanwhile, Ford is moving toward a decision on whether to import into the US some performance versions of the new Ford Sierra, which replaces the British-built Cortina and West German Taunus in Europe. The Sierra is considered among the most important new cars ever introduced by Ford of Europe.

If the word is ''go,'' it could be in the US as an '85 model, if not before.

Ford has taken aim at General Motors, hoping to boost the total Ford share of the US market from its present 17 percent to 19 percent a year from now. About 75 percent of the increase is expected to come from Ford's big neighbor across town.

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