Businesses traditionally have made their money and kept in business by providing customers with things they want. People will pay good money for things they want, and providing them is really an excellent strategy for any company. I know that’s an absurdly obvious point, but it’s easy to lose sight of that when talking about full-size SUVs, since for so many motorists, they are clearly more of a want than a need. How many people do you see using their full capacities? Even more so with the luxury variants, does anybody really need one? How many of us have passed judgement at one time or another on the builders or owners of these rolling monuments to excess?
I’ve been plenty judgmental of luxury SUVs myself, as well as the whole SUV and crossover trend. As a car guy, I’ve lamented the ever winnowing passenger car lines and the takeover of our roads by tall boxes. On the other hand, I am also generally a free market guy and this trend, while embraced and promoted by automakers, has certainly been driven by consumer demand. I believe choice is a good thing and a huge portion of people choose SUVs, including the biggest, poshest ones. They love ’em, so who am I to judge? (Full disclosure: Our family owns a Toyota Highlander, because I’m not about to die on the hill of telling my wife she can’t drive the vehicle she wants to!)
In that spirit of enthusiastic ambivalence, today’s article will kick off a short series on big SUV’s and the flagships that emerged as they slowly started to take over the universe.
The Lincoln Navigator was the first American luxury-brand SUV to come out in the 90’s, and at least in the early years, the most successful. So, we’ll look at it first and some quick highlights of the vehicles that led to it.
First generation Navigators were made from 1998-2002, in large numbers, so even 20 years on they are not too hard to find. It is getting hard to find one in really excellent condition, though. I prefer profiling great looking examples in my articles, but I haven’t run across a primo ‘Gator parked, so I am embracing the fact that these early ones have fallen down to the very bottom rung of the used car ladder and don’t have much old-car hobby interest that I know of. The featured white 1999 model I found is gloriously decrepit, and also sports some extra bling that an owner along the way applied to try to boost the image of a vehicle that was so much about image. The black 2000 is a little nicer and totally stock and the owner was friendly enough to let me photograph the interior.
As a Jeep fan, I think the Navigator’s original DNA started with the Wagoneer, introduced in 1963, and the Wagoneer Limited, introduced in 1978. The Wagoneer was the first 4×4 truly civilized enough for use as a family wagon. The Limited was the first SUV explicitly marketed as a luxury vehicle.
When the original Wagoneer was succeeded in 1984 by a downsized generation, the new compact SUV was almost as ground-breaking as its forebear had been, especially in four door form. There was nothing else quite like it at the time.
The next big jump was Ford’s own 1991 Explorer. It took the basic packaging of the Wagoneer/Cherokee (and Chevy’s S-10 Blazer among others) and added an explicitly street-tuned suspension and enough refinement and features to make it more of a family car alternative to ever-increasing numbers of buyers and a huge hit for Ford. The Explorer and its Mercury Mountaineer clone could be had with leather seats and enough content to be considered near-luxury.
The Explorer was seen by lots of folks as a passenger car alternative, but it was not a high capacity vehicle. It could hold only 5 passengers and not a whole lot of cargo volume or trailer rating. Ford’s full-size SUV was the Bronco, which was a relic from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a cult classic for enthusiasts like us now, but in the 90’s, as a two-door on an archaic chassis, it was not at all a family car alternative.
With the SUV market exploding in the 90’s, GM wisely cut the Suburban down to a more manageable size to create the 1995 Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon. GM then had a very viable four-door full-size SUV for families as an alternative to the traditional wagon. And it was so much hipper than a minivan! Ford hadn’t competed with GM’s Suburban, so they had nothing in the category to work with. They knew they had to get in the game and did so in a big way upon the release of their new 1997 F150.
Ford hit a home run with the 1997 Expedition. It shared much of its clean-sheet design with the new F150, but was said to share only 50% of its parts. Most of those parts were from the dash forward, with the most notable underskin departure rearward being its own coil sprung rear suspension mounted to a unique fully-boxed frame. It was over a foot shorter than a Suburban, but compared to a Tahoe, it was an inch wider, 5.5 inches longer, and approximately 500lbs heavier. Like the Explorer, the Expedition was a big hit, selling more than the Tahoe and Yukon combined for its first three years (though if you throw Suburbans into the equation, GM still sold more large SUVs).
Lest one think the size difference with the Explorer was not substantial, this photo does a good job of dispelling that notion.
The Expedition shared its engines with the F-150, which were new truck applications for the Modular V8 which had been in use with Ford’s rear wheel drive cars for several years. The SOHC 4.6L version was standard for Expeditions, but Navigators all came with the SOHC 5.4L. At introduction, it was rated at 230hp which was a bit meager for a 5,500lb heavyweight. In the Navigator’s second year, it was upgraded to 260hp and then upgraded again the same year to the DOHC version good for 300hp. Still no hot rod Lincoln, but it did make it move out with a bit more appropriate alacrity.
The Expedition advanced the state of the art for large SUVs significantly: comparatively sleek aerodynamics, the aforementioned overhead cam engines and rear coil springs with optional air springs, four wheel disc brakes, available fully automatic four wheel drive, third row seating as well as convenience and safety items like adjustable seat belts, turn signals embedded in heated side view mirrors, rear audio controls and cup holders.
It’s tempting to credit Lincoln with innovation for being the first domestic luxury-badged SUV. They certainly beat Cadillac to the punch (which will be the subject of part 2 in this series), but they were not the first to the U.S. market with a luxury-brand SUV in the 90’s. Lexus, Infiniti, Acura and Mercedes all released theirs earlier, though the Navigator would have been in development well before those hit their dealerships 6-18 months before Lincoln’s. (BTW, if anyone can find an Acura SLX, it would be a real CC prize. It’s an Isuzu Trooper clone, sold in tiny numbers and has never been featured here.)
In any case, the Navigator was released about a year after the Expedition. To my eyes, the first gen Navigator always looked like a very thinly disguised Expedition, so I was surprised after a little research to learn that it has its own hood, front fenders, and tailgate, plus all the non-metallic bumper covers, trim, and cladding are unique.
The interior is where the Navigator really (in)distinguishes itself. The Expedition in top Eddie Bauer trim had leather seats and most everything the Navigator had. The dash, console, and seat structure are the same.
The differences I’ve been able identify are a partially wood steering wheel with cruise, audio and climate controls (Expeditions only have cruise on the wheel), small amounts of real wood trim on the dash, doors and console, a digital clock on the dash, electronic HVAC controls and different seat patterns with softer leather. The jagged hole in the dash seen here on the ’99 is optional.
The Navigator also came standard with rear bucket seats and a three person third row bench, which were both optional on the Expedition (split bench second row was no-cost Navigator option). That’s a center console, not a porta-potty. This certainly looks like a comfy place to log some miles, even without the convenience of a toilet back there.
The Navigator got great reviews when new in terms of its comfort and capacity. It was an overachiever in consuming baggage and highway miles in serene comfort. All that capacity came with the expense of needing about 5,500lbs of vehicle to supply it, with an attendant EPA rating of 12city/16hwy (13/17 with 2WD). Motor Trend’s long term tester averaged 13.1 mpg over 27,000 miles, which included a fair amount of highway trips and towing. It did have a 30 gallon tank, though! As the saying goes, if you have to ask how much it costs [to keep it filled up], you can’t afford it.
According to Motor Trend’s owner survey as part of their Long Term Test, 54% of owners stated they never took their Navigator off pavement and 9% stated they did frequently. That 54% is less than I would have thought, but perhaps some owners are reluctant to admit they never take their four wheel drive truck off road.
So, if the Navigator was not terribly distinguishable from the Expedition, was it a good value? A road test of a 1997 Eddie Bauer Expedition 4×4 loaded with every available option showed a list price of $38,440, add about $1,400 for the rise in base prices in 1998. A 1998 Navigator 4×4 cost $42,660 and equipped to match the loaded Expedition was about $45,000. That’s a shade over $5,000 difference, which netted the exterior and interior differences mentioned earlier, an additional year of bumper to bumper warranty (4/50)/roadside assistance, hopefully a bit more solicitous dealer service experience and the intangible prestige of the Lincoln badge.
A base engine Range Rover started at $56k, a Land Cruiser $41.5k and a Lexus LX $49k, all of which were less capacious and slower than the Navigator. The GMC Yukon Denali cost almost exactly the same (more on that in a future article). The Lexus RX300, Infiniti QX4, Acura MLX and Mercedes ML were all less expensive, but were in a smaller size class.
I think a case could be made that the Navigator was not an unreasonable value if a fancy, roomy longroof truck was your thing. Enough shoppers agreed to make the Lincoln a big hit. They sold well over 40,000 the first year, which was enough to push Lincoln’s production past Cadillac in 1998 for the first time ever (a big deal to both parties!). The first year was its best year ever as it enjoyed the relative lack of competition. Lean times would come later, but the first generation Navigator created a very strong brand and even a cultural phenomenon. The brand was strong enough to keep its real name when all the other Lincolns save Town Car went to MKwhatever names.
The Navigator was a boon for Lincoln and a big profit booster. Naturally, it was later joined in the showroom by the Explorer-based Aviator with more crossover SUVs to follow. In Navigator’s second year, Town Car and Continental sales began uninterrupted yearly drops. That’s the rub with SUVs: what starts as a welcome addition to the showroom soon begins to consume the cars around it. For Lincoln, the car losses would be greater than the SUV gains as they have yet to come close to matching 1998’s total sales again. The car consumption was finally completed in 2020 as the SUVs gobbled up the Continental and have no low vehicles left to look down on.
I’ll conclude with this trivia: The Navigator brand name was more than just an empty title implying an active lifestyle! It was fittingly the first Ford product to be outfitted, optionally and not frequently, with a CD-ROM GPS navigation system. It was offered in 2001, but I haven’t been able to definitely confirm that was the first year. Placement in the center console was exactly the opposite of today’s screens sticking up out of the top of the dash.
In part 2 of the series, we’ll look at the Navigator’s number one competitor.
1999 and 2000 Navigators photographed in Houston, TX 2/4/21 and 3/5/21, respectively.