Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Lincoln Nautilus First Drive: Challenging Lexus With Comfort and Style

Lincoln leaves the MKX name behind with new midsize luxury crossover

Lincoln leaves the MKX name behind with new midsize luxury crossover

Before you even glimpse the 2019 Lincoln Nautilus’ updated sheetmetal, the American crossover has already distinguished itself from the Lexus RX and its European rivals. Ditching dry alphanumeric names is a crucial move for a brand looking to extend the new Navigator’s momentum down to a segment Lexus owns with the RX, but Lincoln will need more than just a new name to elevate the game of a two-row crossover formerly known as the MKX. We drove the new Nautilus to determine where the updated model fits in a very competitive segment.

The Ford Edge–based luxury crossover starts with a four-cylinder base engine that wasn’t initially part of Lincoln’s plans for this 2019-model-year refresh. The 2.0-liter turbo-four replaces the MKX’s 3.7-liter naturally aspirated V-6 and is good for 250 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Don’t be dissuaded by the fact that the 2019 Nautilus’ base engine has two fewer cylinders than what you’re used to—the engine moves the Nautilus with enough authority around town that it doesn’t feel like a slug. And thanks to the new engine, fuel economy and driving range see meaningful improvements compared to that old 3.7-liter V-6. It’s just a shame that sticking with the Nautilus’ 2.0-liter base engine doesn’t translate to a jump in fuel economy compared to the V-6 option; EPA-anticipated fuel economy for the Lincoln’s base engine is 20–21/25–26 mpg (11.8-11.2/9.4-9 L/100 km) city/highway, compared to the much more powerful V-6’s 19–20/26–27 mpg (12.4-11.8/9-8.7L/100 km). For comparison, the 295-hp 2019 Lexus RX 350 is EPA-rated at 19–20/26–27 mpg (12.4-11.8/9-8.7 L/100 km).

If you’re committed to outrunning other luxury crossovers for that last parking spot at Whole Foods, spend the extra $2,070 USD for the 335-hp 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6, which produces 380 lb-ft of torque. You feel that power on the road, and perhaps just as important for a luxury-branded vehicle, the muted engine note sounds much stronger than the slightly wheezy—but admittedly hushed—tones you hear from the 2.0-liter engine. Plus, the difference in fuel economy is negligible. With both engines, a new eight-speed automatic almost always provides smooth shifts and is clearly tuned more for comfort than snap-of-your-fingers aggressive throttle response.

And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Although the roads on which we drove the 2019 Nautilus were nearly devoid of potholes and imperfections, every Lincoln we drove provided a reasonably comfortable ride—even the ones with gorgeous, oversized 21-inch wheels. Most Nautilus models ride on an adaptive suspension with basic customizable settings buried in a submenu of the well-executed 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. The idea is to set Drive and Sport mode preferences once (Comfort, Normal, and Sport) and then never have to find that settings page again. Moving from the car’s most comfortable setting to Sport mode revealed noticeable changes in throttle response and steering weight, but the suspension modifications were harder to discern. Although the crossover doesn’t drive sloppily on winding roads, the Lincoln feels more disconnected than an Alfa Romeo Stelvio or sporty variants of more luxury-minded competitors.

The Nautilus is quiet, too. Except for a little noticeable wind noise, the updated Lincoln effectively eliminates most of the outside world so you can concentrate on your massage from the Ultra Comfort front seats. Consider conducting a test-sit of that pricey $1,500 USD option (on the top two trims) before buying a Nautilus without them. The seats are 22-way adjustable, heated, and ventilated, and—perfect for your evening commute—they can give you a lumbar massage. The ventilation fans were a bit loud, but the massaging feature wasn’t nearly as loud in the Nautilus as it was in a Continental Motor Trend tested last year with similar seats or even an MKX from a 2016 comparison—we hope that improvement is representative of how well the feature is integrated on Lincolns moving forward.

Even if you don’t splurge on $1,500 USD massaging seats, every 2019 Lincoln Nautilus includes a package of active safety tech with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and a lane keeping system that can nudge you back into your lane. Although the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tells us it has yet to test the 2019 Nautilus’ headlights and automatic emergency braking, the 2018 MKX received a top score in front crash prevention and earned Good ratings in crashworthiness safety tests. (The latter ratings will carry over to the Nautilus.) The new Lincoln also offers evasive steering assist and a lane centering system that, when combined with the available adaptive cruise control, may impress buyers by how little driver input is required once both systems are active. The lane centering system shows promise, but on a brief stint of Route 101 along the California coast, it required more steering course corrections than should be necessary. Were it my Nautilus on a long road trip, I’d stick with the adaptive cruise and the more basic but still helpful lane keeping assist.

Along with the attractive (and standard) digital instrument cluster, the Nautilus gets by with an 8.0-inch touchscreen display that’s too small for the class and mounted too low on the center stack for optimal visibility. Go for a fully loaded Nautilus Black Label … and that 8.0-inch screen is still part of the package. At least the infotainment system is easy to use, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, two features still unavailable at any price on the Lexus RX. The Nautilus also offers an integrated navigation system with pinch-to-zoom functionality for those times when your phone lacks reception.

The interior is otherwise solid, but there are a few minor issues. Lower-end models end up with a long black plastic placeholder trim piece on the right side of the center stack where loaded Nautilus crossovers with a tech package add buttons for a multicamera surround-view system, a feature that can steer the Lincoln into a parking space, and parking sensors. The slim silver buttons for HVAC controls might take some getting used to, as well—they’re easy enough to use, but knobs would be easier. The same goes for the volume control on the steering wheel—it’s placed too low for ultimate convenience, but it’s workable. The front passenger footwell could be a bit more spacious, too, and a head-up display isn’t available.

Where the 2019 Nautilus earns back some points is with its decently spacious rear seat and rear-seat backrest recline controls conveniently placed at the passenger’s thigh—this isn’t as universal a feature as you’d think. Neither is the Lincoln’s helpful addition of rear-seat headrests that can fold down, increasing rear visibility, or the one-touch buttons in the cargo area that fold down the rear seats.

Especially on the Reserve and Black Label trims, the Nautilus leaves potential buyers with a surprising number of interior color options—we’d recommend options with real wood trim instead of the aluminum, which doesn’t contrast enough with the adjacent silver center-stack trim. Refreshingly, Lincoln doesn’t force buyers to pay for the V-6 to go for fully equipped Black Label models, so if you aren’t bothered by the four-cylinder’s engine sound, you’ve got a couple thousand bonus dollars to spend on more options.

As Lincoln claws its way back to luxury relevance, the Nautilus’ best feature is where you don’t have to drive it. With Pickup and Delivery available on every new Lincoln during the four-year/50,000-mile (80,467-km)  warranty, Nautilus owners never need to visit a dealer for service. Instead, a valet will drive your car away from a location of your choice within 20 miles (32 km) of the dealership—or 50 if you’re driving a Black Label car—and leave you with a loaner car while your Lincoln is being serviced. Once your car is ready, a valet returns it to you.

The 2019 Nautilus picks up where the already competent 2018 MKX left off. It’s not a knockout package within its segment, but the Lincoln makes lots of smart moves. Greater efficiency and more value once you add AWD and options would be appreciated, but the Nautilus still offers a number of cool luxury features and touches. So if you’re ready for softer styling and are tired—tired—of waiting for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto from your preferred automaker as a non-subscription-based option, the Nautilus is ready to step in. Lincoln can’t compete with Lexus or BMW on snob appeal, but if you’re ready for something different, give a Nautilus Reserve or Black Label a try.