Navigator reasserts its claim as the brand's standard bearer
When we think of flagships, we tend to think of full-size sedans and sport coupes. For decades, they’ve been the pinnacle of automotive achievement, the absolute best a brand can offer in luxury, technology, performance, or a combination thereof. The world has changed, though, and although coupes were never high-volume products, the once-mighty sedan is on its way to being a niche body style as SUVs and crossovers take over the world. Today, SUVs can and will be brand flagships, just as the 2018 Navigator is for Lincoln.
In the past we haven’t thought of the Navigator in the way we might think of the S-Class, but it’s been the de facto flagship for years, and this new one might just push the conversation in that direction. We tend to define luxury in what’s lacking, namely discomfort, noise, and inconvenience, and the Navigator lacks all of them.
The selling point of any luxury vehicle, and especially a flagship, is its interior, and that’s where we’ll start. I don’t normally comment much on design because it’s entirely subjective, but I’m breaking my policy for the Navigator. The new interior is a knockout. It’s wholly unique and derivative of nothing. As much as the new Volvo interior design is unreservedly Scandinavian, the Navigator’s design is unmistakably and unabashedly American. It harkens back to the heyday of Continental sedans and Pan Am Clippers with modern interpretations and conveniences. From the color schemes to the Lincoln star in the corner of the dash, it’ll never be confused with a competitor. If recent visits to stores like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and even Target are any indication, Lincoln’s riff on the mid-century modern aesthetic landed at exactly the right time.
I’m less enamored with the exterior. The front and rear of the Navigator don’t seem to be speaking the same language, the rear hard and linear and congruous with the interior design but the front round and soft. I think there’s the most to be gained in the headlights, which look outdated to me. There’s too much empty black plastic around the projectors, and the industry has moved on from string-of-pearls LEDs to seamless light pipes.
Back inside, some might take issue with a few details. The “floating” infotainment screen trend is quite controversial, opponents viewing it as an iPad glued to the dash. I generally take the opposite tack, even more so in this case. Separating the screen from the dash gives the design a layered feeling in concert with the recessed wood trim. It allows the wood and leather to run seamlessly across the dash behind it rather than interrupting the lines. Integrating it visually with the ebony vents below keeps it connected to the dash rather than free-floating. More important, letting the screen stand out allows the rest of the dash to be pushed back. The screen has to be close enough to touch (and it’s still a long reach), and integrating it into the dash would require either pulling the entire dash closer and infringing on passenger space or making the screen protrude like some kind of growth, neither of which is preferable.
If there’s one thing you can ding the screen for, it’s the mildly differentiated graphics, which are identifiably Ford-based. A better mask, something more in keeping with the rest of the interior design and the unique instrument cluster graphics, would be welcome. If there’s another thing, it’s that the system forces you to use your phone’s maps app when CarPlay is enabled rather than allowing you to choose the vehicle’s navigation system you paid for (which isn’t subject to cell signal strength, either). If there’s one more, it’s that messages such as changes to the temperature settings don’t need to momentarily take over the entire screen.
Others might say the door-mounted seat controls are copied from Mercedes-Benz, but there are only so many ways to do seat controls, and that’s not a bad homework assignment to copy from. The same goes for the speaker grilles, which have become de rigueur in modern luxury vehicles.
What the Navigator cannot be accused of is that old slander of being a tarted-up Ford. The last Navigator’s interior was a grab bag of Ford parts under a dual-cowl dash, but you have to look hard to find any shared parts now. Even the few you can find, such as the headlight and trailer backup assist knobs, have been trimmed in chrome to look the part. The materials and build quality, both of which are impeccable, are also decidedly not Ford. Every surface you touch and most of the ones you don’t are rich, authentic leathers, wood, and suede. Were I king, the knobs would move with a heavy fluidity like a high-end stereo (or a Lexus), but they make a satisfying click as is. The optional 30-way power seats both look the mid-century modern part and are impressively comfortable. You might not use all 30 functions, but you’ll be able to customize your comfort more precisely than any other car save the Continental (which also uses them). Thankfully, everything from the seat, mirror, pedal, and steering wheel settings to radio presets and climate preferences can be saved in individual profiles, which can even be linked to individual key fobs.
The second row is all mechanical, and as nice as it is, there’s something left on the table there. Oh, the standard captain’s chairs are quite comfortable, and even the optional bench is, too. The middle seat is narrow, and the cushions feel a bit firmer than the outboard seats, but the bench comfortably seats three adults, especially because there’s no hump in the floor. The climate controls on the back of the center console are nicely presented, as are the seat back screens for the optional entertainment system. The drop-down cupholders at the base of the console look surprisingly cheap and flop open in a way you wouldn’t expect with every other moving piece in the interior so well controlled. The Black Label–exclusive rear center console is as classy as the one up front and nicely integrates climate and stereo controls.
What’s missing, and where Lincoln has an opportunity to go further upmarket with future trim levels, is an executive rear-seat package à la the Ranger Rover SV Autobiography and Volvo XC90. More than a few people will be chauffeured in Navigators, and adding those 30-way seats and a champagne chiller to the second row would really catch some favorable attention.
The third row remains a Navigator strength. It has surprisingly comfortable seats, a flat floor, and lots of head-, shoulder-, knee-, and elbowroom. Third-row passengers even get USB charging ports, but they have to make do with plastic panels everywhere, not leather and wood. No one offers a fancy third row, though, so we can’t blame Lincoln for that. The seats power flat into the floor for extra cargo space. The second-row seats, meanwhile, tilt and slide forward to create a reasonably large access space to the third row.
With everyone settled in and the Navigator off and moving, we can return our attention to the driver’s seat. Up there, the steering is light and slow, just as you’d expect in a big luxury yacht. Despite that, the turning circle is shockingly small, even in four-wheel-drive models. Although Lincoln has officially eschewed sportiness in favor of outright luxury and comfort, the Navigator handles surprisingly well. The body rolls far less than you’d expect, and the motions are well-controlled. When you’re late for the luncheon down the mountain, you’ll have no trouble making up time.
Helping the cause are 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft behind the mammoth grille. This Raptor-sourced variant of the 3.5-liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 makes more than enough power for the nearly 6,000-pound (2,721-kg) Navigator and delivers it smoothly with surprising linearity. Power is always on tap while cruising, and lag is virtually unnoticeable. The new 10-speed automatic almost always shifts quickly and seamlessly, though we did get two clunky downshifts during our drive, both dropping from second to first. The programming is on point and gives you little reason to use the paddle shifters, so much so that there’s no full manual mode. The piano key push-button shifter takes some getting used to, but it’s a considerably better execution than GMC and Honda’s attempts.
With the aforementioned culture shift from sporty to comfortable, we were let down slightly by the ride quality, an issue we had with the last Navigator. In general, it’s enormously improved and now among the best in the class, but there’s room for improvement. The big wheels and skinny tires feel as though they weigh 1,000 pounds (454 kg) each, transmitting every bump to the cabin and dropping hard into every hole in the road. The CCD adaptive shocks do an admirable job of turning those impacts into soft shudders before they reach the cabin, but on poor pavement, the shudders are almost constant. I’ve seen this before in other luxury SUVs and sedans, and the easiest cure is to order the smallest wheel package, which is lighter and tends to come with larger tires, both of which help cushion the ride. It’s a tough trade-off for a product planner because wheels are pretty and tires aren’t. People love big wheels because they look good, but they come at a price. I’d like to see Lincoln go for a full riding-on-clouds feel, but it might require investing in optional air suspension.
Otherwise, there’s even less to complain about with regard to the driving experience. The interior is very quiet, though dull tire noise is a constant presence on less-than-new pavement, and a little wind noise crops up at the tops of the A-pillars on the freeway. The Navigator stops well despite its weight; it has good brake pedal feel, and the optional driver aids do a good job of keeping the beast between the lines without making too much of a fuss about it.
Keeping an eye on them can be done on the all-digital instrument cluster or the large head-up display, and both have their quirks. The head-up display is bright and unaffected by polarized sunglasses, and the information is presented well, but both models we tested seemed slightly out of focus. All the letters and numbers had fuzzy edges, and no adjustment seemed to help. The instrument cluster is minimalist, and I like the spotlight effect of the speedometer and tachometer, highlighting only the relevant numbers. There isn’t as much customization available to you as other Lincoln products, and that’s disappointing. The only real option seems to be turning the tachometer on or off, which shifts things around. When it’s off, there’s a lot of empty space on the left side of the screen, which displays only the name of the song playing. I’ve yet to make up my mind about the renamed driving modes, which read like the menu at a day spa, but the animations are pretty.
If some of the criticisms seem especially sharp, it’s because expectations were so high and the delivery was so well-executed in most regards. The 2018 Lincoln Navigator has turned a page. It’s no longer an also-ran. Leaping from the back of the segment to the front, it will undoubtedly be noticed by consumers and the competition. With it coming so far, you can’t help but root for it to go the next step, too, and really knock the other guys back on their heels. Regardless, it doesn’t detract from what Lincoln has accomplished. The new Navigator isn’t just light years better than the old one. It’s also a serious contender for class leader, and that’s no small feat.