Road Test - Lincoln Aviator

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Nov 22, 2002.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Staff Member

    Jul 6, 2001
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    By Larry Webster


    Yes, Lincoln guessed wrong when it polished up a four-door, two-wheel-drive pickup, turned its bed into a kind of impractical upholstered trunk, called it the Blackwood, and asked 53 grand for it. They sold fewer than 3000 vehicles in all and pulled the plug last August.

    We do not think, however, that Lincoln need fear a Blackwoodlike flop with its newest vehicle, the Aviator sport-utility vehicle. In fact, having spent a few weeks with it, we think it may be the best model in Lincoln's four-vehicle lineup.

    The Aviator is like a trimmed-down version of Lincoln's bigger SUV, the Navigator, which is based on the full-size, 17-foot-long Ford Expedition. The Aviator is based on the Ford Explorer, the mid-size 16-footer that's the company's bestselling SUV. Lincoln sells about 30,000 of the big Navigators a year for about $49,000 to $60,000.

    Luxury SUVs are cash cows for the carmakers because they fetch high prices while running on platforms designed for less-expensive vehicles. So there's no mystery in the Aviator's intro. The problem is there's already a spruced-up Explorer in the Ford family, the Mercury Mountaineer. So the question becomes: How have Ford and Lincoln justified a second Explorer spinoff?

    Lincoln, not surprisingly, says the Aviator is the top rung of the Explorer ladder. It does cost the most. The Aviator starts at $39,995 and can balloon to almost $49,000 with options. The Mountaineer, the first step down, runs between about $30,000 and $39,000, and the broad-appeal Explorer runs from roughly $26,500 to more than $40,000. To justify the extra money, Lincoln fitted the Aviator with a more-powerful engine, redesigned the suspension, and gave it all new body panels and a new interior. When Lincoln was done, the list of parts unique to the Aviator stretched far longer than the list of parts it shared with the Explorer.

    Cross-town rival GM once cranked out such a steady stream of copycat cars badged as Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and even Cadillacs (remember the Cimarron?) that we now cringe every time we hear of another badge-engineered product. Then again, Audi convincingly transformed a lowly VW Golf into a chic TT, and we think Lincoln matched that success in making an Aviator out of an Explorer. And it's not simply because it stuffed in a big, honking V-8. It did, but we'll get to that later.

    We forgot the Explorer roots as soon as we cracked open the door and peered inside. The Aviator's interior is nearly a carbon copy of the Navigator's handsome cocoon. Although we're not especially fond of Ford's recent epidemic of me-too styling — can you tell the difference between the old and new Explorers? — it's fine in this case. The interior is swathed in leather, plastic, brushed metal, and wood. It's by far the most stylish and functional of the Explorer triplets. On the outside, the Aviator faithfully mimics the Navigator's shell, sharing only doors and roof with the Explorer.

    It was hot on the day we took delivery of our test Aviator, so we appreciated the optional seat fans blowing the sweat off our backs. Those cooled — and heated — seats are part of the $2950 Premium package that also includes an in-dash, six-disc CD changer and 17-inch wheels.

    Our test vehicle also had the optional $2920 full-time four-wheel-drive system. It uses a viscous limited-slip center differential that automatically distributes the torque to the axle with more grip. During normal driving conditions the torque split is 35 percent to the front and 65 to the rear. On four-wheel-drive Aviators equipped with the combined traction-and-stability-control system, all torque goes to the rear wheels until they slip, at which point an electronically controlled clutch pack sends torque to the front wheels. A low-range transfer case is not available.

    Although much of the Aviator's interior is cribbed off the Navigator, the Nav's power tailgate and power-folding third-row seats are not offered. We didn't miss those features, as it's an easy reach to fold the third row manually. The second row is available in two configurations: a three-passenger bench or two outboard seats with a center console, as in the Navigator. Either configuration folds down, leaving 77 cubic feet of space, 5 less than the Acura MDX offers and 23 less than in the GMC Envoy XL. With all the seats up, there are 12 cubic feet in the Lincoln, 15 in the MDX, and 22 in the Envoy.

    The Acura MDX was clearly wearing the bull's-eye when Lincoln redesigned the Explorer's suspension and steering. Lincoln ditched the Explorer's steering rack and fitted a variable-assist, variable-ratio steering gear manufactured by ZF. It replaced the pressed-steel lower control arms with stiffer cast aluminum units and added a larger, stiffer front crossmember and frame inserts to reduce frame flex and increase steering precision.

    There's also a set of shocks and springs that are exclusive to the Aviator. The suspension bushings were replaced with units that are compliant longitudinally to soften bump impacts but stiff laterally to increase steering and handling precision. In addition, the anti-roll bars use ball joints to connect to the lower control arms. This is a stiffer, lower-friction arrangement than the rubber bushings used in the Explorer and Mountaineer.

    Just one engine is available in the Aviator, a retuned version of the aluminum 4.6-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8 that's sold in the Mustang Mach 1. The Aviator has dual-length intake runners that provide high peak horsepower (302 at 5750 rpm) and torque (300 pound-feet at 3250 rpm) and also help the engine produce 90 percent of peak torque at 2000 rpm. (The Mach 1 makes 305 horsepower and 320 pound-feet.) This motor not only outpowers the 260-hp V-6 that's in the $35,000 MDX but also has two more ponies than the Navigator's 5.4-liter V-8 and 63 more than the Mountaineer's V-8.


    The 0-to-60-mph sprint took only 7.6 seconds, and the Aviator pulled through the quarter in 16.2 seconds at 89 mph. In a comparison of $40,000 utes in December 2000, the MDX was the quickest and took 8.4 seconds to reach 60. This engine feels as strong as a GM small-block and as smooth as a BMW V-8. The standard five-speed automatic transmission is the best Ford slushbox we've ever sampled. Upshifts are transparent, downshifts timely, and it always picks the right gear.

    With the well-tuned suspension and steering, you won't feel tentative about using the engine's grunt. We searched for a bump or dip that would upset the Aviator but never found one. Since it weighs more than two-and-a-half tons (5089 pounds), we're not talking anything near sports-car agility, but the Aviator's legs keep it where you point it. There's no floatiness, either. In fact, the Aviator provides clear road-surface signals and a quiet, serene ride. It pulled 0.74 g on the skidpad — equal to the MDX and well above average for the class.

    The steering, too, has an accuracy you don't usually find in a truck. The effort is light in the parking lot and stiffens at speed. The brakes were enlarged for Aviator duty, and they stopped it from 70 mph in 193 feet, which is again competitive in its group.

    It'll take another comparo to say for sure where the Aviator would end up, but we can't see how it could finish out of the top three. It's quick, it can tow up to 7300 pounds, and it has an agility that belies its girth. Lincoln hopes to sell 30,000 Aviators a year, a target it will surely hit. Looks like the cash cow's back in the barn.

    Highs: Muscular motor, intelligent transmission, swanky interior, more nimble than its size suggests.

    Lows: Looks too much like the Navigator.

    The Verdict: A well-executed upgrade of the Explorer platform.


    Like the recently renewed Navigator, the Aviator has abundant V-8 power. Like the Navigator, it has three-row seating. Like the Navigator, its handsome interior furnishings are well-conceived to avoid any confusion with the proletarian Explorer that shares many of the same underpinnings. And check that sheetmetal. To my admittedly jaundiced eye, the Navigator and the Aviator are all but indistinguishable. Okay, the Aviator's running boards don't retract, but aside from that you'd have to park these cousins side by each to tell 'em apart. So in my mind, at least, this raises a question: What's the point?
    — Tony Swan

    Lincoln has done a great job with the Aviator, especially with its styling. The exterior has just the right amount of chrome trim to make it look upscale without being garish, unlike, for instance, a Cadillac Escalade. But it's on the inside that the Aviator really shines. The interior is a feast for the senses; it's wonderful to look at and to touch. Like the Navigator's, the Aviator's dash, with its twin cowls and simple layout, picks up on styling cues from early '60s Lincolns, and that gives the Aviator the same kind of understated elegance of that generation. Lincoln would be wise to endow the rest of its offerings with the same look of luxury.
    — André Idzikowski

    I have no doubt that the Aviator — even with a price north of $48,000, as our test vehicle's — will find plenty of suitors. After all, it seems what luxury SUV buyers really want are a decadent cockpit and a potent powertrain, and the Aviator's got those in spades. Climb inside the beautifully tailored interior, and you have to remind yourself that you're not in a $60,000 Navigator. Get on the throttle, and the formidable 302-hp DOHC V-8 repeatedly rumbles to redline, propelling this flyboy to 60 mph in just 7.6 seconds. Intoxicating! For me, though, the Prada price tag and ferocious fuel consumption leave me with a hangover.
    — Ron Kiino

  2. JS

    JS United States of America

    Jul 23, 2004
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  3. sams0n

    sams0n $ OT Supporter

    Oct 7, 2004
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    Daly City, CA
    i saw the aviator it was a pretty good movie
  4. P07r0457

    P07r0457 New Member

    Sep 20, 2004
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    Southern Oregon
    I'll pass. For that price, the Nissan Armada LE is smokin an Aviator.
  5. kl

    kl New Member

    Sep 19, 2004
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    They are pretty fun to drive, but wouldn't want to own one (used to be a FLM tech). If I wanted something like that, I'd get an Exploerer with the V8, it's only SOHC, but it's $20k less

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