Future Curbside Classics: 2003-05 & 2019 Lincoln Aviator – One Aviator Flew Under The Radar, One Will Soar

Much was made of Lincoln’s revival of the Continental nameplate on its new flagship sedan. It was just the start: Lincoln is discarding its confusing alphanumeric naming scheme and switching to real names again, both new and old. Another nameplate being dusted off is Aviator. This Lincoln will undoubtedly be more successful than the Continental, and Lincoln hopes it’ll be more successful than the last Aviator.

Alas, for all the buzz it received, the Continental is another sedan in a crossover-hungry market and, although its ATP is higher than that of the old MKS, it’s selling about as well as its maligned predecessor. As the Aviator is a three-row crossover in a market clamoring for them, it has what it takes to become one of Lincoln’s best sellers.

Lincoln has released photos of the “production preview” 2019 Aviator ahead of its debut at this week’s New York International Auto Show. They’re not calling it a concept, indicating this is effectively production-ready and few changes will be made ahead of its launch. Good. The Aviator is stunning, looking suitably upscale and just a tad athletic without looking too aggressive; in that respect, it’s reminiscent of the shapely Range Rover Velar. To quote David Woodhouse, Lincoln’s design director, “We don’t want to be about attack, we want to be about seduction. We want to be more about Monica Bellucci than Predator.” Brilliant quote.

The Aviator will debut Ford’s new, unibody rear-wheel-drive platform, dubbed CD6, which will also underpin the next Ford Explorer. Full technical details are forthcoming but the Aviator has been confirmed to use two engines: a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder and a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder plug-in hybrid, making the Aviator Lincoln’s first plug-in hybrid.

There will also be a third row of seating available, allowing the Aviator to replace the MKT and neatly slot between the Nautilus (formerly MKX) and Navigator; Lincoln also has another new crossover in the works. As with the rest of the Lincoln range (bar the moribund MKT), Black Label variants will be available. There will also be the same sumptuous, 30-way adjustable massaging seats used in the Continental and Navigator and the new Lincoln Co-Pilot 360 safety suite. Yes, the name seems very appropriate.

It’s a nice touch, bringing back the old Aviator name. Alphanumeric names can be used successfully and even those that are roundly criticized on the internet – e.g. those of Infiniti and Cadillac – make sense. Lincoln’s, however, never had any easily identifiable hierarchy or meaning. After the Continental, the next Lincoln to be named is the revised MKX. For its mid-cycle enhancement, it becomes the Nautilus—hey, it turns out there were still some nice names that hadn’t been trademarked! The MKC is also receiving a mid-cycle enhancement, also with the new Continental-inspired grille, but is keeping its alphanumeric moniker as a new generation is rapidly approaching. The MKZ, similarly, didn’t receive a name at its mid-cycle enhancement but will likely receive one in its next generation.

Let’s rewind 15 years to 2003, long before Lincoln entered the Chinese market (and by doing so, hopefully guaranteed its future). In that year, the first Aviator was launched as the Navigator’s smaller companion. The Navigator may have been a thinly veiled Ford Expedition in its first generation but, for its second generation, it was refreshingly handsome and upscale, inside and out. It needed to step up its game: despite being inferior in some respects, the Cadillac Escalade had quickly wrested dominance of the full-size, domestic luxury SUV segment the Navigator had created.

While the Escalade and Navigator were profitable and popular – for the time being, at least, in the Lincoln’s case –both Ford and GM recognized the need for smaller companions for these luxury frigates. The two companies took remarkably different approaches: Cadillac spawned the SRX crossover from its unibody Sigma sedan platform, while Ford took its body-on-frame Explorer and gave it a heavy makeover.

Sadly for the two domestic automakers, neither proved to be the sales sensations they’d hoped for. The SRX was critically acclaimed but buyers never warmed to it as much as they did the BMW X5 and Mercedes ML, perhaps because of its wagon-esque styling. The Aviator sold about as well as the SRX at first but by its third year, sales had fallen off much more than its crosstown rival. Ever since its launch, rumors had swirled the Aviator would have a short life and the Lincoln’s third year would prove to be its last.

It was a surprisingly short run for what was a surprisingly good luxury truck. Critics were impressed with how Lincoln had managed to finesse the humble Ford Explorer; while its silhouette may have been almost identical, the Aviator was extensively overhauled.

The interior was richly appointed in leather with genuine wood trim, as well as plenty of then-trendy “satin nickel” trim. The dashboard had a distinctively retro, dual-cowl design like the Navigator, the audio controls (or optional navigation system) hidden behind a sliding door in the dash. There were even classy, Lexus-like electroluminescent gauges.

The interior alone was worth the extra $4k over a Mercury Mountaineer Premier, which had a comparatively dour cabin. You also couldn’t get features like HID headlights, cooled front seats, or second-row buckets on the Mountaineer or Explorer, while you could on up-level Aviators. The only black mark against the Aviator’s interior was the lack of power reclining front seats.

Inside and out, the Aviator was like a 7/8ths copy of the Navigator. As my colleague Edward Snitkoff pointed out, that strong visual link between models is commonplace with luxury brands nowadays but could’ve hamstrung the Aviator at the time. Even Lincoln advertising at the time played up how similar the two looked and it’s possible some buyers decided to pony up the extra $8k and get the bigger Nav. If you’re buying a flashy, chrome-laden SUV, why not go all the way? The Nav also had even more trick features, like a power tailgate and power retracting running boards.

It’s not as though the Aviator was much more economical than the Navigator, managing a dismal 12/17 mpg in RWD guise while the Navigator was rated at 11/15 mpg. The smaller, lighter Aviator was certainly more peppy though, thanks to its standard DOHC 4.6 Modular V8. Similar to the V8 in the Mustang SVT Cobra, the Aviator produced a considerable 63 more horsepower and 18 more pound-feet of torque than the V8 Explorer/Mountaineer, for a total of 302 hp at 5720 rpm and 300 ft-lbs at 3250 rpm. That meant it reached 60 mph in around 7.5 seconds, which was quick for its time. The Aviator was much more of a Hot Rod Lincoln than the bigger Nav; its drivability was aided by a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic.

While the Aviator’s off-road performance was hampered by the lack of a low-range transfer case, the truck impressed on the road. And really, that’s probably where most of these luxury trucks were driven. Critics lauded the Aviator for its capable handling, the Explorer platform having received extensive suspension tuning for this application with new shocks and springs. Steering had more feel, Lincoln opting for a variable-assist, variable-ratio unit from ZF. Lincoln engineers had done a remarkable job with the humble Explorer, transforming it into something that could run with luxury import SUVs.

But there were a lot of luxury import (and domestic) SUVs vying for buyers’ attention. Some buyers might have gravitated towards the larger Nav but others may have left Lincoln showrooms, if they visited one at all. The Aviator undercut the Mercedes ML500 by around $4k but the ML320 undercut the Aviator and offered more snob appeal, if less power and scarcely better fuel economy. While the Aviator was no shrinking violet, the BMW X5 offered the closest approximation of sport sedan handling in the segment; the Cadillac SRX and Infiniti FX were similarly well-endowed. The Aviator wasn’t unique in offering a third row of seating (see: ML, SRX, GX) and almost everyone else had a more fuel-efficient base six-cylinder (see: RX, X5, MDX, et all).

Aviator concept (top), MKX (bottom)

Large, thirsty V8 SUVs were still very much in vogue in North America in the early 2000s but Lincoln decided to change the trajectory of the Aviator. Lincoln’s version of the upcoming Ford Edge was intended to continue using the Aviator nameplate, and indeed the concept that previewed it wore Aviator badges. But in December 2005, in the wake of sagging sales, Lincoln decided to switch to alphanumeric names. It seemed an abrupt decision considering the mid-size Zephyr sedan was already at dealerships but even that model received a three-letter designation after just a year.

Like the Aviator, the MKX shared its body with its Ford counterpart. Like the Aviator, too, it had more luxury features. But the MKX’s interior was a retrograde step, Ford investing less money in distinguishing the MKX from the Edge. It also was nowhere near as pretty as the cabin in the Aviator concept. The MKX sold a little better than the Aviator but well below the numbers posted by the conceptually similar Lexus RX.

Lincoln has used Ford platforms for myriad vehicles over the years, with varying degrees of effort invested in Lincoln-ifying them. Some transformations have been lazy, for example the Versailles. But even when Ford invests money in a unique engine, suspension tuning and an appropriately upscale interior, there’s no guarantee of success. Ford had made a convincing luxury SUV out of the Aviator but it wasn’t enough to make a difference in a cutthroat segment. Let’s hope the new Aviator soars.

Curbside photos taken in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NY in 2013-14 and 2017; parking lot photos courtesy of Edward Snitkoff.

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