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Silvio Calabi: Lincoln's big-daddy Navigator needs help

 
Silvio Calabi
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updated: 2/1/2016 11:23 AM

Ford likes to say its Lincoln division spearheaded the full-size luxury sport-utility class when it rolled out the first Navigator in the fall of 1997. That was 19 years ago, but the current version is only the third generation -- and it's still being sold as a 2015 model, with rear- or four-wheel drive and in XL or XXL lengths. Unfortunately, the Navigator has several millstones around its neck: First, it's a tarted-up Ford Expedition, one of the last big, body-on-frame SUVs, which in turn is an F-150 pickup truck with a passenger shell stretched over it -- and not one of the new, better-behaved aluminum F-150s, at that. This would be OK if Navigator owners wanted to mount snowplows or anti-aircraft guns on their vehicles, but that's rarely the case. The fact that it's a Lincoln isn't really helping the Navvy either. Lincoln has wandered the automotive wilderness for years, searching for an identity that would let it stand up to Cadillac, not to say Audi, Jaguar, Volvo, Lexus and all the other flash foreigners. And finally, like its competitors, Lincoln is staring down the barrels of the dramatically higher, and emissions-driven, federal fuel-economy standards that will take effect by 2025.

(Carmakers here and abroad are rooting for Republican candidates in hopes that our next President will roll back these rules.)

Presumably for this reason, the engine room is where the third-gen Navigator has gotten its biggest upgrade. Lincoln swapped out the previous 5.4-liter V-8 for one of Ford's smaller but turbocharged EcoBoost Sixes, a 3.5-liter good for an impressive 380 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque. On paper anyway, this improves the Navigator's fuel efficiency rating by 2 MPG, to 17 overall. (By the trip computer, we averaged 15.4 MPG--but it's cold and we didn't do much highway driving.) Between the power and a 6-speed automatic transmission that shifts smoothly and at the right times, the Navigator feels less sluggish than its size and three-ton mass would suggest. However, it's best to save all that power for towing (up to 9,000 pounds, with 4WD), because foot-to-the-floor acceleration--or just speed--on anything but smooth pavement can lead to lurching, hobbyhorsing and other spastic behavior. This despite the self-adjusting, electronic Drive Control shock absorbers, part of an available $6,850 Reserve Equipment Group. I wonder how it feels to drive a Navigator without this suspension option?

Other "Reserve" bits include special trim, leather seats, running boards that automatically fold down on each side, to help milady climb in and out, and gargantuan 22-inch chrome-plated rims fitted with massive tires that protrude outside the front fenders. Even NBA stars have progressed beyond this particular fashion statement; then again, the Navvy bulks so large that smaller wheels might look dinky.

Well aware of consumer hunger for entertainment and connectivity, Lincoln has liberally spooned wireless digi-ware from Ford's inventory onto the Navigator, but the new technology sits uncomfortably alongside old-school switchgear and trim. Some functions don't seem fully thought out, either. The driver of a luxury vehicle should be able to program the seat heaters to switch on automatically in cold weather--and where's the steering-wheel heat? Why doesn't the driver's seat retract when the door opens, in concert with those running boards? The Navigator has blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, as well as front and rear parking sensors, but it won't yet stop or steer itself.

I hadn't seen a Navigator in so many years that I half thought Ford had done away with it. But now I understand why they're so scarce, and the final straw was the bottom line on our example's sticker: $73,895! That kind of money buys an optioned-up Volvo XC90 or Audi Q7, both the very latest word in automotive technology and big SUVs, or a far-better-modernized standard Cadillac Escalade. Readers sometimes accuse me of liking every car I drive; not so--I look for their strengths, is all. And the Navigator's strength? It's a collector's item, a ready-made antique for people who miss the old days of Detroit land yachts. Get yours before Lincoln completely overhauls the Navigator next year and turns it into a paragon, as Ford did with the F-150 and the Explorer Platinum.

--Silvio Calabi

Plus

EcoBoost Six

Brilliant headlamps

Underneath, it's a body-on-frame workhorse with good towing capacity and available flexible 4WD

Minus

Everything else