2018 Lincoln Navigator First Drive: Large And In Charge

– Los Angeles, California

The new Lincoln Navigator is, without question, one of the most significantly improved vehicles that’ll launch this year. The 2018 model year overhaul takes the Navigator from worst to first, cementing its place as not only the flagship for the Lincoln brand, but maybe even the best three-row luxury SUV money can buy, full stop.

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It starts with incredible presence, a design statement that’s both imposing and alluring in its execution. Bold features like the big headlamps, bright grille, 22-inch wheels, and full-width taillights make a strong impression. The Navigator concept that stunned us in 2016 has transitioned to road-going form with only minor changes (you didn’t really think those gullwing doors would make it to production, did you?), and while I won’t go so far as to say it’s immediately recognizable as a Lincoln – what is, if I’m honest? – there’s no arguing this thing turns heads wherever it goes.

2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive

Lincoln will continue to offer the Navigator in standard- and extended-wheelbase L body styles, the latter of which adds a foot of overall length to the normal version pictured here.

Yes, it’s huge, but not a drastic departure from the 2017 Navigator; dimensionally speaking, the length, width, height, and wheelbase are all within an inch or two of its predecessor. Lincoln will continue to offer the Navigator in standard- and extended-wheelbase L body styles, the latter of which adds a foot of overall length to the normal version pictured here.

But that massive size isn’t off-putting. There’s a softness to the sheetmetal and the exterior brightwork, and the big features look appropriate on the sizable body. Approach the Navigator at night and the LED running lights illuminate from the outside corners toward the center of the vehicle, the Lincoln badge in the grille illuminating as a final point on this graceful “hello.” The power running boards quietly extend before your hand grasps the huge door handle. Step up, nestle into the 30-way “Perfect Position” seats, and sink into a cabin that’s as lovely to look at as it is comfortable.

There’s a pause of admiration when you get inside the Navigator for the first time. You push the engine start button and the 12-inch digital instrument cluster comes to life, with only simple graphics, showing gauges and information depending on your selected drive mode (more on that later). Your hands grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel and make their way over to the leather on the door, the wood on the center console, the soft-touch graining on every surface. Even in this pre-production tester, everything looks and feels elegant. The controls and knobs have a luxurious weight to their action. The 10-inch Sync 3 touchscreen is crisp and bright, and proudly sits in the middle of the dash. A small, raised control panel for the climate control is found on the center stack, with simple rows of buttons and dials.

2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive

This is an incredibly spacious interior – so much, in fact, that I find myself having to reach a bit to access the right side of the touchscreen, or the sunroof controls overhead.

A bit of carryover design from the Navigator concept that really wows is the space between that center stack and the dash itself – the two parts aren’t connected (thanks, electronic gear shifter). This frees up a tremendous storage space between the driver and passenger footwells, not to mention the already generous accommodations found within the cup holders and cubbies in the console between the front chairs.

This is an incredibly spacious interior – so much, in fact, that I find myself having to reach a bit to access the right side of the touchscreen, or the sunroof controls overhead. But that means every single passenger has plenty of personal space. Driver and front passenger have ample head- and shoulder-room. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, with heating, cooling, and massage built in, though I’m not sold on that “Perfect Position” branding. I often find it hard to get the seats just right – endless adjustability might be too much of a good thing, in this case. Still, the forward thrones are far nicer than what you’ll find in a Cadillac Escalade or even a Mercedes-Benz GLS.

Passengers in the second row are treated to ample legroom, even in this standard-wheelbase model. Your kids will appreciate the standard captain’s chairs with a center console in the middle, though you can also option the Navigator with a pass-through to the third row, or a 40/20/40 bench. No matter the choice, the second-row seats slide, tilt, and fold electronically, making third-row access a cinch. Speaking of which, the way-back bench is very accommodating – much more so than the Escalade, thanks largely to the better packaging of the Navigator’s independent rear suspension design, compared to the old-school live axle of GM’s SUVs. In no way is the Lincoln’s third row a penalty box, and just like the chairs in front of it, the back bench can be folded into the floor with the touch of a button. Fold everything, and you’ll find a super useful 103.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the first row, or an even more capacious 120.2 cubic feet in the long-wheelbase Navigator.

2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive

This 2018 model transforms the Navigator from an also-ran blah-mobile to a best-in-class contender.

The new aluminum-intensive body structure means the Navigator is about 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor. With less mass to carry around, plus an independent rear end, the Navigator is easier and more pleasant to drive than you might imagine. But it’s not perfect. Yes, the sophisticated rear suspension alleviates some of the hoppy, truck-like ride characteristics typically associated with body-on-frame SUVs. But it still can’t quite cope with what feels like nervous chatter on otherwise normal surface streets. I suspect the main culprit of this subtle suspension sketchiness are those 22-inch wheels and their sidewall-lacking 285/45-series tires. But if Lincoln really wants to offer an out-of-this world ride, it’d be keen to fit the Navigator with some sort of four-wheel air suspension. This might be the one area where Cadillac’s Escalade – and its MagneRide dampers – outshines the Navigator.

That said, the rest of the driving experience is a treat, Ford’s EcoBoost V6 doing great work under the hood of the luxy Lincoln. This is the F-150 Raptor’s 3.5-liter biturbo V6, and it makes the same 450 horsepower and 510 pound-feet of torque here in the Navigator, with the same 10-speed automatic transmission, and your choice of two- or four-wheel drive. There’s ample power for both city and highway driving. Low-end torque comes on strong, and power builds progressively. The 10-speed automatic is mostly well behaved, though occasionally hunts for the right gear during highway cruising. Given the Navigator’s size and power, fuel economy isn’t anything to write home about, but EPA ratings of 16 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined are average for the class. The 8,700-pound two-wheel-drive tow rating is a best-in-class number, though with four-wheel-drive, that number drops to a still hugely useful 8,300.

Lincoln equips the Navigator with a number of drive modes, including a “Conserve” eco-friendly mode and an “Excite” dynamic tune, in addition to the default “Normal” setting and a 4x4-friendly mode good for bad weather or muddy situations (not that anyone will ever actually take one of these off-road). The differences between these modes are largely imperceptible – ”Excite” might offer a bit more punch off the line, but it’s no huge leap over the already hefty power delivery exhibited by “Normal.” In all cases, the Navigator drives as it should. Steering feel has a nice weight, but is relatively vague in communication. Braking feel is solid. Roll and pitch are nicely dialed in. The Navigator doesn’t handle like a sports car, but won’t fall all over itself in a turn. Comparatively speaking, I’ll say the Lincoln is ever so slightly nicer to drive than the Escalade (the gap would be higher if the Navi’s ride issues were sorted), but the Land Rover Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz GLS are indeed the ride-and-handling superstars among big boy SUVs.

2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive
2018 Lincoln Navigator: First Drive

Pricing runs the gamut of the fullsize luxury SUV set, the Navigator starting as low as $72,055 for a short-wheelbase Premiere, or as high as $93,705 for the high-zoot Black Label, before options. The way I see it, the most obvious competition is the $73,395 Escalade (though it gets a lower MSRP to better compete with the Navigator) and the $87,350 Range Rover, which only seats five. Compelling arguments, both, and without spending extended time in all three back to back, I honestly can’t say which one I’d have.

Before you write that off as a wishy-washy conclusion, know that, to me, the previous-generation Navigator wasn’t even worth considering. This 2018 model transforms the Navigator from an also-ran blah-mobile to a best-in-class contender. That’s worth a ton of praise. And it’s worth your consideration, too.

 

Photos: Steven Ewing / Motor1.com

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