The Lincoln Motor Company is reinventing itself. After a generation of MK-thises and MK-thats that struggled to differentiate themselves from high-trim Fords, we got the one-two punch of Continental and redesigned Navigator. These aren't just a return of proper nameplates, either. Instead, Lincoln finally has some compelling luxury vehicles that don't just feel like upscale Fords.
Enter the 2019 Nautilus, Lincoln's newest entry in the popular midsize luxury SUV market. Lincoln says midsize SUVs represent around 27 percent of the brand's sales, so there's a lot weighing on the success of this replacement for the Edge-based MKX. The improvements have to reach beyond just a new name and refreshed look; the new Nautilus has to feel like an all-new vehicle.
New look, new attitude
The Nautilus uses a new exterior design that brings the SUV's look in line with the Continental and Navigator. But fun fact: Lincoln's representatives told me the Nautilus is actually the behind-the-scenes pioneer of the brand's new design language, so this is more than just a face-lift.
It's not a bad-looking thing, either. Standard LED front and rear lights give the SUV a very premium feel, and optional steering-sensitive adaptive lighting improves nighttime visibility. The lighting also plays heavily into what the automaker calls the "Lincoln Embrace" where the the cabin, exterior and Lincoln Star puddle lights all automatically illuminate when the driver approaches the vehicle.
The Nautilus' look still has a lot of the angular profile of the MKX and you can still see its Ford Edge roots in the slope of the D-pillar, but the details of this generation are much smoother and less in-your-face. In a world filled with overly aggressive vehicle design, it's nice to see the Nautilus sporting a classy, reasonably sized chrome grille and tasteful proportions. Sure, it's not exactly daring, but I think subtle look will age nicer than, say, the too-sharp Lexus RX.
Upgraded cabin, familiar tech
My test Nautilus is a fully loaded Black Label model in Burgundy Velvet Metallic paint with the new Gala interior theme -- which debuts on the 2019 SUV -- with deep red and black leather and aluminum trim. The cabin is super quiet and looks amazing with very comfortable heated and ventilated seats that also feature two-zone massaging. Details like the L-shaped interlocking pattern on those seats add a nice drama to the interior design.
The dashboard builds on shape of the outgoing model with a sloping design that culminates in the return of Ford's familiar 8-inch Sync 3 infotainment system flanked by push-button transmission controls.
Sync is as good as ever here, featuring solid organization and quite good onboard navigation with voice control and traffic data. Standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity give customers alternatives, should they so desire, and baked-in integration integration with Amazon's Alexa service and apps like Waze and Tidal round out a solid software suite.
New for 2019 is a 12-inch LCD digital instrument cluster that is controlled by buttons on the steering wheel. Lincoln's tech allows a mild degree of customization, giving the driver the choice between displaying a tachometer, speedometer or eco gauge, and toggling between sport and normal layouts. The instrument cluster can also display navigation prompts, audio source info and controls for the powertrain and suspension settings.
Co-Pilot 360 driver aid tech
The Nautilus introduces Lincoln Co-Pilot 360, which basically takes the automaker's various driver aid technologies and rolls them into one easy-to-digest package with radar and camera sensors.
The suite includes blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto high beams, a rear camera, adaptive cruise control and precollision assist with automatic emergency braking. Full-surround proximity sensors and pedestrian detection aid in low-speed safety when parking and were augmented by an optional 360-degree camera system in the sample I drove.
Lincoln has paid particular attention to steering assist technology for this generation, upgrading its lane-keeping system with a lane-centering function that takes a more active role in keeping the SUV between the lines on the highway. The automaker is quick to point out that lane centering is a hands-on tech that requires the driver to touch the wheel.
Optional upgrades include available evasive steer assist, another new feature that debuts on Nautilus. This technology adds steering support to help avoid collisions in emergency lane change maneuvers that braking alone can't prevent. Understandably, Lincoln discouraged me from testing the system on public roads.
Two performance options
The new Nautilus comes standard with a new 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine under its hood mated with an eight-speed automatic transmission. In this trim, the SUV makes 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque -- healthy numbers for a vehicle of this size that translate into smooth and potent performance on the road and decent fuel economy at 21 miles per gallon city, 25 highway and 23 combined.
Most of my time, however, was spent with the optional 2.7-liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine -- a carryover from the last-generation MKX that boasts internal efficiency improvement but the same 335 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque as before. This engine is also paired with an eight-speed auto, but with different gear ratios. Speccing the larger motor steps fuel economy down to 18 city and 21 combined mpg. However, the V6's 27 highway mpg is surprisingly better than the I4, possibly due to its better low-end torque and taller gearing. I averaged 25.3 mpg, according to the trip computer, during a morning of testing at moderate highway speeds, which dropped to 19.8 mpg after an afternoon spent exploring the performance limits. Of course, I'll need a longer stint behind the wheel to really experience real-world fuel economy.
On the road, the V6 boasts smooth and confident acceleration when tasked, but mostly has a very laid-back feel and very quiet operation. Paddle shifting or selecting Sport mode wakes it up a bit, but the Nautilus' performance and handling feel very comfort-oriented even in its sportiest settings.
Speaking of handling, my model features an adaptive suspension with three selectable modes. The default Normal mode is probably the best setting for daily driving given the Nautilus' comfort goals. In this setting, the SUV absorbs bumps well while offering surprisingly responsive steering. However, the lack of feel and abundance of roll and dive when pushed hard were disconcerting on faster corners.
The Comfort setting is what I'm calling "pothole mode," perfect for slow-paced driving over poorly maintained roads, but much too soft at speed for my liking. Sport mode offers the best responsiveness without much tradeoff in ride quality, reining in much of the body movement and waking up the steering a bit, which makes the Nautilus feel more confident at speed.
Differentiation through customer contact
In an effort to stand apart in the ever-more-crowded luxury SUV segment, the Nautilus experience comes with all sorts of extravehicular perks to entice buyers.
For example, the automaker offers its Lincoln concierge service that helps owners with restaurant recommendations, travel booking and more. Vehicle pickup and delivery for service keep owners from wasting time in dealership waiting rooms. The automaker is also piloting a personal driver service -- an Uber or Lyft alternative that shuttles owners to the airport or out for drinks using their own Lincoln car -- and other subscription-based models in select markets.
The Nautilus also comes with six months of Clear membership, which grants owners fast-track service through airport security and into certain sporting arenas. Black Label models up the complimentary subscription to one year.
Something old, something new
The Nautilus will start at $41,335 (including a $995 destination charge) for the base model and stretch to $57,890 for Black Label models. Close to fully loaded, my example stickers at $66,635.
When it hits the road this fall, the Nautilus will find itself squared up against the Cadillac XT5 and Lexus RX. Lincoln's representatives say they didn't consider the Acura RDX a competitor, but I'd toss the new 2019 model into the mix considering its recent growth spurt and comparable pricing.
Looking closely, this "all-new" model feels more like the sum of many small improvements; a refresh rather than a reinvention. From the powertrain to the cabin tech and interior design, this still feels like an MKX with a new name. That's fine because, at the macro level, the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus is overall a better, more luxurious vehicle than the MKX it replaces and a much better fit, both stylistically and in terms of content, with current stable of Lincoln vehicles.
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