In the recent past, if you thought of Lincoln -- assuming you spent any time at all contemplating Ford's luxury division -- things like airport shuttles, podiatrist appointments and Lawrence Welk reruns likely came to mind. It was a brand that appealed to fleet customers, geriatric drivers and just about nobody else.
But what a difference some time and a little attention can make. Lincoln's latest crop of vehicles is nicely differentiated from rivals, provides a unique luxury experience and brings real substance to the market. The Aviator is a perfect example of Lincoln's new direction.
This nameplate may not be quite as familiar as Navigator or Continental, but it is one Lincoln has used before. In the early 2000s, Aviator was applied to an upscale, Ford Explorer-based SUV. Today, the automaker is following that same strategy, but with a twist. Instead of featuring traditional, body-on-frame construction, the foundation of Lincoln's latest and greatest is an unflinchingly rigid unibody platform, Dearborn's brand-new, rear-wheel-drive CD6 architecture.
Those underpinnings also grace the Aviator with upscale proportions. To this, designers applied clean, tasteful styling, including the brand's signature rectangular grille and a roofline that gently tapers at the back. No, this SUV doesn't break any new ground, but it does fit in nicely with the rest of Lincoln's lineup.
Grab one of its electrically operated door handles -- they're oh-so cool and make a satisfying ca-chunk sound when used -- slide inside, and you're treated to a cabin that's just as thoughtfully crafted as the exterior.
Its overall layout is simple and straightforward, with a low, broad dashboard, tablet-inspired infotainment screen and more than a hint of mid-century design recalling Lincoln's glory days of the mid-1960s. While toned down compared to the Continental sedan, there's still a bit too much chrome inside, even for my, admittedly, eclectic taste. Satin-finished, brushed-metal accents would look more appropriate and reduce glare in bright sunlight. Still, all this vehicle's primary and secondary controls are of high quality, with the tape deck-inspired, electronic gear selector feeling particularly premium.
Even dressed in midlevel Reserve trim there's plenty of low-gloss, soft plastic and premium leather, but this isn't the limit. Spring for a top-shelf Black Label model and you're treated to more, including special, themed interiors and a raft of unique owner benefits, like complimentary car washes at participating dealerships, no-charge vehicle maintenance, and free annual detailing for the first four years of ownership.
The Aviator's available Perfect Position front bucket seats adjust in a whopping 30 directions, they're also heated, ventilated, offer a range of massage options and are totally worth the standalone $7,730 upcharge on Reserve-trim models. Sure, they take a minute or five to get dialed in just right, but once you do, they're all-day comfortable.
The available second-row buckets are also cushy, with plenty of support and nicely angled lower cushions. They, too, can be heated and ventilated for maximum comfort. It's only in steerage where the Aviator falls short.
You'd best reserve the third-row bench for kids because even average-sized adults are going to face a serious legroom deficit if forced to sit there. At least the backrests power fold at the push of a button, significantly increasing the Aviator's cargo-hauling capability.
With all three rows in their upright and locked position, this vehicle offers more than 18 cubic feet of luggage space. Drop the third row and that figure swells to nearly 42. Fold the second row down and the full Monty is yours, just shy of 78 cubes.
In keeping with its overall theme of smooth and quiet, this SUV can be fitted with Lincoln's Air Glide Suspension with Dynamic Lower Entry, which is bundled with adaptive steering and a road-scanning system in the $3,000 Dynamic Handling Package. This nifty feature enables the Aviator to absorb and digest even the nastiest road imperfections without perturbing passengers.
Delivering that buttery-smooth ride, this system features a forward-facing camera that reads the road ahead. It can detect surface imperfections anywhere between 2 and 8 inches high and compensate accordingly so the vehicle just glides along.
I first drove the Aviator in Napa Valley several months ago and wasn't terribly impressed by this air suspension arrangement. It didn't seem to do much on California's generally well-maintained highways. But after testing this vehicle in Michigan, where our roads are more bomb-cratered than the streets of Berlin in the spring of 1945, I quickly grew to love it. The system irons out major bumps and dips all while keeping the body on an even keel. My test vehicle's ride quality was especially impressive when you consider it rolled on massive, 22-inch wheels wrapped in relatively low-profile rubber: 275/40 R22 Goodyear Eagle Touring tires.
About the only downside to that air suspension is the price. Nabbing the system requires you get an all-wheel-drive, Reserve-trim model or higher. On top of that, a couple of pricey options packages are also mandatory. All in, this increases the price tag by more than 15 grand compared to a standard Reserve model.
In motion, the Aviator is pretty much always silky smooth but never sloppy as you might expect. Handling is buttoned down, though, regrettably, the steering is devoid of feel and the wheel reluctant to center itself after making turns, which is a bit annoying. Speaking of the wheel, for some reason, the voice-activation button for the infotainment system is mounted on the rim at roughly the 10-o'clock position. Even though it's slightly recessed, I inadvertently hit it on multiple occasions.
While nowhere near as colossal as the Navigator, there's no mistaking it, the Aviator is still a generously portioned vehicle. The wheelbase measures 119.1 inches while its overall length is 199.3. Size-wise, this puts it right in line with other upscale SUVs like the Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz GLE and Cadillac's brand-new XT6, however, the Aviator has more giddy-up, torque and gears than all these competitors, save the most potent AMG versions of that Benz.
Motivation is provided by a smooth-running, 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V6. With direct fuel injection and other high-tech goodies, it delivers 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque.
Maximizing performance and efficiency, this powerplant is matched to a standard 10-speed automatic gearbox. For the most part, this transmission is refined, smoothly slurring shifts while dawdling along in rush hour and, without hesitation, dropping a handful of ratios when you bury the accelerator. Occasionally, the one-two upshift is a bit jerky, but otherwise, the transmission is pretty much on point, with none of the shifting business you might expect from a gearbox overflowing with ratios.
If you need more than the already-ample performance offered by the Aviator, you can also get a Grand Touring model. It features a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that cranks out 494 hp and 640 lb-ft of twist.
Given its size, and nearly 4,900-pound curb weight, you might be surprised by the Aviator's acceleration, which is effortless in nearly every situation. Whether idling or at redline, the engine is always refined and softly spoken.
According to the EPA, rear-wheel-drive Aviators are rated at 18 miles per gallon in city driving, 26 on the highway and 21 mpg combined. Specimens fitted with all-wheel drive should return 17 around town and 24 on interstate slogs, figures that make for an average of 20 mpg. After a week of real-world, and heavy-footed driving, I averaged around 19.5 mpg, better than expected.
As you might imagine, the Aviator offers plenty of tech. Lincoln Co-Pilot 360 is standard, the automaker's suite of advanced driver aids. Lincoln Co-Pilot 360 Plus, which brings extra functionality to the table, comes with the $4,930 Reserve I package. This includes things like active park assist plus, lane-centering tech and speed-sign recognition as well as evasive steering and brake assist.
Adaptive cruise control is also included. While not the smoothest system on the market today, it, nonetheless, does a decent job of keeping the vehicle in the center of its lane and of adjusting speed according to traffic conditions. It will bring the Aviator to a safe stop as required, though it often feels like the vehicle is charging too quickly at the car ahead, which can be a little disconcerting.
The Aviator's lane-keeping assist system has the opposite problem. It feels a bit too soft, almost to the point of being ineffective, though it does still keep the SUV corralled roughly in the center of its lane. It's just not as assertive as rival systems on the market today.
At first, I thought something was seriously wrong with my test Aviator's adaptive cruise control. Whenever it recognized a new speed-limit sign the velocity I had chosen would shoot up by 14 mph. Understandably, this unpredictable switching was highly disagreeable, but after digging through a couple settings I got to the bottom of what was going on. It turns out there's an intelligent cruise-control feature that, when set, dynamically alters the vehicle's velocity as speed limits change. This feature also has a tolerance setting that allows you to pick how much faster or slower than the posted limit the vehicle will go. And guess what? Someone had increased this to 14 mph. Dropping it to zero or just putting the cruise-control system in standard adaptive mode fixed the issue.
One high-tech feature that audiophiles are sure to love is the Aviator's Revel Ultima 3D sound system, which is available on Reserve models and standard on Black Label trims. With a whopping 28 speakers, it will blast your favorite tunes without any distortion, even when the volume is cranked to irresponsible levels.
The $2,200 Convenience Package brings a few interesting features to the table including soft-close doors, so you no longer have to slam them, wireless device charging, a head-up display and Lincoln's new Phone as a Key system. As its name implies, this last feature enables you to enter, start, drive and lock your Aviator with only a smartphone.
Phone as a Key uses Bluetooth to communicate with the vehicle, allowing you to access it without the fob you'd normally have to tote around. If your handset is lost, stolen or its battery gets depleted, backup passcodes can be entered to gain access to the vehicle and start it.
With the new Aviator, Lincoln has really found its groove. It's deftly moving forward while keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror, offering a modern, luxury-vehicle experience that still tips its hat to the smooth-riding, subtly designed cars it's most famous for. In a world where Lexus is offering track-focused coupes, Lincoln seems to have picked up the mantle of building quiet, comfortable machines.
Dressed in Silver Radiance paint and fitted with a sandstone-hued interior, the Aviator evaluated here checked out for just a few bucks less than $75,000, including $1,095 in destination fees. Eschew many of its niceties and you can drive home in a base model for about $53,000. Check every options box on a Grand Touring Black Label variant and you'll be spending nearly six figures.
In a world obsessed with Nurburgring lap times and novelty features like gesture controls or perfume dispensers, cars that offer a real luxury experience have almost become something of a novelty, but the Aviator delivers. Comfortable, quiet and smooth, it's a rockstar in the Lincoln lineup and will play a huge role in reviving this brand.