Next of (Lin)Kin By Ed Hellwig When Lincoln rolled out the Navigator in 1998 it was met with more than a few snickers and furrowed brows. Sure, some of its famed Continentals were big enough to qualify for their own ZIP codes, but a full-size Lincoln truck? Traditionalists' fears of brand dissipation and public ridicule were quickly set aside when the Navigator began racking up huge sales numbers right out of the gate. Everyone from corporate executives to professional athletes flocked to the big Lincoln, attracted by its endless amenities and commanding presence. Its popularity was so strong that even Cadillac was forced into building a full-size luxury sport-ute of its own. With the Navigator firmly entrenched in the luxury sport-utility scene (a redesigned version debuted for 2003), Lincoln decided to expand the franchise. This time, however, it would be a smaller, more agile and less expensive sport-ute — an SUV for those who want all the luxury but don't need the biggest vehicle on the block. Thus, the Aviator was born. Built on the same chassis as the recently redesigned Ford Explorer, the Aviator features a fully independent suspension, third-row seating and class-leading V8 power. Like the Navigator, the Aviator offers amenities galore and an upscale interior intended to rival even the most exclusive European and Japanese luxury brands. After spending several days behind the wheel, we were more than a little bit impressed with the Aviator's overall feel and performance. More than just an Explorer dress-up job, the Aviator delivers a plush ride and a quiet, comfortable cabin that should make it a strong player in the midsize luxury SUV segment. Don't go throwing away those Lexus brochures just yet, but don't be surprised if you drive this newest Lincoln and come away thinking that maybe it's finally time to buy American again. With a base price starting at just under $40,000, the Aviator is positioned against some pretty stiff competition. Notable rivals in this price range include the Lexus GX 470 and Acura's MDX, both of which offer third-row seating and similarly luxurious accommodations. European contenders include BMW's X5, the Mercedes M-Class and Land Rover's Discovery. These formidable names obviously weren't overlooked by Lincoln as the Aviator stacks up favorably in nearly every comparable category. Take its engine, for instance. With 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, the Aviator easily outmuscles its competition by a wide margin. Its maximum tow rating of 7,300 pounds (7,100 pounds on all-wheel-drive versions) is over one ton more than either the Lexus or the Acura (only the Land Rover Discovery's is higher at 7,716 pounds). With power like that, the Aviator can handle a good size ski boat that would leave the others gasping for breath. Around town, the powerful V8 moves the Aviator with authority. Any anxiety about passing or merging is quickly forgotten in this vehicle as it builds speed quickly and smoothly. The standard five-speed automatic transmission moves between the gears with little disturbance, but we did notice that it can be lazy at times, hesitating to downshift a bit longer than we would have liked. Our test vehicle was a preproduction prototype so this shortcoming may get worked out on production models. As impressive as the engine is, what really gives the Aviator an upscale feel is its combination of a precisely tuned suspension, stiff chassis and smooth steering. Lincoln went to great lengths to strengthen the Aviator's chassis, a goal that not only reduces body flex but also allows the suspension to work more effectively. The result is a vehicle that soaks up even the biggest road hazards with minimal intrusion into the cabin and a suspension that tracks well over just about any surface. The steering moves between generous levels of assist at low speeds to virtually no assist at highway speeds, all the while maintaining a smooth progressive feel with just enough feedback to give you a good idea of what's going on down below. Cabin noise is also kept well under control thanks to an extra thick windshield and side windows as well as a stronger crossmember supporting the dashboard to reduce squeaks and rattles. Engine noise is intrusive at high rpm but Lincoln claims that this is deliberate. The idea is to let the sound of the burly V8 filter through to reinforce the feeling of power. It's a well-intentioned gesture, but we can't help but think buyers in this category would prefer that the engine stay as quiet as possible at all times. There's little to complain about with the rest of the cabin. As a sister vehicle to the Navigator, the Aviator not only shares its exterior appearance with its larger sibling, it also uses a similar interior theme. The waterfall design of the center stack creates a clean, stylish look complemented by the contrasting wood and leather trim. The dual-zone automatic climate controls are neatly arranged and simple to use, while the equally user-friendly stereo can be hidden away by lowering the "Lincoln"-emblazoned cover. The instrument panel features large analog dials with brilliant white numbering and red needles that not only look classy but are easy to read as well. Unlike some of the more sporting European SUVs, the Lincoln's bucket seats lean toward the softer side, a trait we think makes them more appealing to a wider range of drivers. We found the seats comfortable for all body types, and the door-mounted controls make adjustments easy. Our Premium-trimmed model included climate-controlled chairs that provided both heating and cooling for the driver and front passenger. Although the feature seemed a bit gimmicky at first, long drives in the hot summer sun proved the cooling system to be a worthwhile feature. Soft leather and sharp-looking wood accents highlight the Aviator's modern, upscale interior. Other convenient aspects of the Aviator's cockpit include ample storage thanks to a large center console and multiple door compartments, well-placed cupholders and satellite steering wheel controls for the audio, climate and cruise control systems. The comprehensive trip computer provides useful information like miles-to-empty and multiple trip meters as well as allowing for easy personalization of the vehicle's various features like the automatic door locks and delayed exit lighting. There are two configurations available for the second row: a 40/20/40 split bench seat or individual captain's chairs with a center console. We found the captain's chairs in our test vehicle a little short on legroom, but otherwise comfortable. (Specs show second-row legroom in the Aviator is equal to the GX 470 and an inch shy of the MDX.) An optional DVD rear entertainment system will be available as a late-year addition, but until then, rear-seat passengers can spend time fiddling with their very own climate controls located at the rear of the front-seat center console. Both second-row chairs fold and tumble forward for access to the standard third-row seat. Passenger room in the third row is expectedly tight. With 34.8 inches of legroom, the Aviator far surpasses the Lexus (24.9) and Acura (29.3), but you better be skinny, as shoulder width measures just 47.3 inches compared to 56.8 inches in the Lexus and 58.6 inches in the MDX. With the third-row seat folded, the Aviator offers up to 78.5 cubic feet of storage space, slightly more than the GX 470 (77.5), but slightly less than the MDX (81.5). With so much space for the family, it's not surprising that the Aviator also features multiple passenger safety systems. The Personal Safety System combines dual-stage front airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and energy management retractors to keep the driver and front passenger safe in a severe frontal collision. A standard Safety Canopy provides side-impact protection by covering most of the first- and second-row side windows upon deployment, as well as remaining inflated for extra protection if the system senses an impending rollover. A second-generation version of Ford's AdvanceTrac stability control system will be available as a midyear addition. Overall, the interior is a well-designed, attractive-looking package that lives up to the luxury sport-ute moniker, but there are a few minor areas that could stand some improvement. Although the leather and wood trim are both top quality, the Aviator's satin-finished plastic trim still lacks the high-quality look and feel exhibited by its Lexus, BMW and Mercedes counterparts. We could also do without the center console-mounted window switches, and the door handles would be easier to find in the dark if they were placed higher up on the door. Obviously, our complaints are minor. Credit this to the fact that nearly every editor who got behind the wheel came away pleasantly surprised with the Aviator's level of refinement and overall athleticism. All too often, American luxury vehicles fall into the trap of substituting new features for better engineering. While the Aviator does offer a substantial list of upscale amenities, it also serves up a class-leading engine, excellent driving dynamics and a quiet, comfortable cabin. As the younger look-alike sibling to the popular Navigator, the Aviator may take some time to emerge from its big brother's shadow (it's a very big shadow), but it has all the right hardware, not to mention a more manageable size, more nimble handling and an equally luxurious interior. If this sounds like the kind of upscale SUV you've been looking for but you never liked the idea of something as big as the Navigator, this new Lincoln might surprise you. It might take awhile to realize it, but this is no Navigator. Xenon headlights and 17-inch machined aluminum wheels came standard on our Premium test model.