2003 Lincoln Aviator Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Lincoln Aviator SUV

(4.6L V8 5-speed Automatic)

When Lincoln rolled out the Navigator in 1998 it was met with more than a few snickers and furrowed brows. Sure, some of its famed Continentals were big enough to qualify for their own ZIP codes, but a full-size Lincoln truck?

Traditionalists' fears of brand dissipation and public ridicule were quickly set aside when the Navigator began racking up huge sales numbers right out of the gate. Everyone from corporate executives to professional athletes flocked to the big Lincoln, attracted by its endless amenities and commanding presence. Its popularity was so strong that even Cadillac was forced into building a full-size luxury sport-ute of its own.

With the Navigator firmly entrenched in the luxury sport-utility scene (a redesigned version debuted for 2003), Lincoln decided to expand the franchise. This time, however, it would be a smaller, more agile and less expensive sport-ute — an SUV for those who want all the luxury but don't need the biggest vehicle on the block. Thus, the Aviator was born.

Built on the same chassis as the recently redesigned Ford Explorer, the Aviator features a fully independent suspension, third-row seating and class-leading V8 power. Like the Navigator, the Aviator offers amenities galore and an upscale interior intended to rival even the most exclusive European and Japanese luxury brands.

After spending several days behind the wheel, we were impressed with the Aviator's overall feel and performance. More than just an Explorer dress-up job, the Aviator delivers a plush ride and a quiet, comfortable cabin that should make it a strong player in the midsize luxury SUV segment. Don't go throwing away those Lexus brochures just yet, but don't be surprised if you drive this newest Lincoln and come away thinking that maybe it's finally time to buy American again.

With a base price starting at just under $40,000, the Aviator is positioned against some pretty stiff competition. Notable rivals in this price range include the Lexus GX 470 and Acura's MDX, both of which offer third-row seating and similarly luxurious accommodations. European contenders include BMW's X5, the Mercedes M-Class and Land Rover's Discovery.

These formidable names obviously weren't overlooked by Lincoln as the Aviator stacks up favorably in nearly every comparable category. Take its engine, for instance. With 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, the Aviator easily outmuscles its competition by a wide margin. Its maximum tow rating of 7,300 pounds (7,100 pounds on all-wheel-drive versions) is over one ton more than either the Lexus or the Acura (only the Land Rover Discovery's is higher at 7,716 pounds). With power like that, the Aviator can handle a relatively large ski boat that would leave the others gasping for breath.

Around town, the powerful V8 moves the Aviator with authority. Any anxiety about passing or merging is quickly forgotten in this vehicle as it builds speed quickly and smoothly. The standard five-speed automatic transmission moves between the gears with little disturbance, but we did notice that it can be lazy at times, hesitating to downshift a bit longer than we would have liked. Our test vehicle was a preproduction prototype so this shortcoming may get worked out on production models.

As impressive as the engine is, what really gives the Aviator an upscale feel is its combination of a precisely tuned suspension, stiff chassis and smooth steering. Lincoln went to great lengths to strengthen the Aviator's chassis, a goal that not only reduces body flex but also allows the suspension to work more effectively. The result is a vehicle that soaks up even the biggest road hazards with minimal intrusion into the cabin and a suspension that tracks well over just about any surface. The steering moves between generous levels of assist at low speeds to virtually no assist at highway speeds, all the while maintaining a smooth progressive feel with just enough feedback to give you a good idea of what's going on down below.

Cabin noise is also kept well under control thanks to an extra thick windshield and side windows as well as a stronger crossmember supporting the dashboard to reduce squeaks and rattles. Engine noise is intrusive at high rpm but Lincoln claims that this is deliberate. The idea is to let the sound of the burly V8 filter through to reinforce the feeling of power. It's a well-intentioned gesture, but we can't help but think buyers in this category would prefer that the engine stay as quiet as possible at all times.

There's little to complain about with the rest of the cabin. As a sister vehicle to the Navigator, the Aviator not only shares its exterior appearance with its larger sibling, it also uses a similar interior theme. The waterfall design of the center stack creates a clean, stylish look complemented by the contrasting wood and leather trim. The dual-zone automatic climate controls are neatly arranged and simple to use, while the equally user-friendly stereo can be hidden away by lowering the "Lincoln"-emblazoned cover. The instrument panel features large analog dials with brilliant white numbering and red needles that not only look classy but are easy to read as well.

Unlike some of the more sporting European SUVs, the Lincoln's bucket seats lean toward the softer side, a trait we think makes them more appealing to a wider range of drivers. We found the seats comfortable for all body types, and the door-mounted controls make adjustments easy. Our Premium-trimmed model included climate-controlled chairs that provided both heating and cooling for the driver and front passenger. Although the feature seemed a bit gimmicky at first, long drives in the hot summer sun proved the cooling system to be a worthwhile feature.

Other convenient aspects of the Aviator's cockpit include ample storage thanks to a large center console and multiple door compartments, well-placed cupholders and satellite steering wheel controls for the audio, climate and cruise control systems. The comprehensive trip computer provides useful information like miles-to-empty and multiple trip meters as well as allowing for easy personalization of the vehicle's various features like the automatic door locks and delayed exit lighting.

There are two configurations available for the second row: a 40/20/40 split bench seat or individual captain's chairs with a center console. We found the captain's chairs in our test vehicle a little short on legroom, but otherwise comfortable. (Specs show second-row legroom in the Aviator is equal to the GX 470 and an inch shy of the MDX.) An optional DVD rear entertainment system will be available as a late-year addition, but until then, rear-seat passengers can spend time fiddling with their very own climate controls located at the rear of the front-seat center console.

Both second-row chairs fold and tumble forward for access to the standard third-row seat. Passenger room in the third row is expectedly tight. With 34.8 inches of legroom, the Aviator far surpasses the Lexus (24.9) and Acura (29.3), but you better be skinny, as shoulder width measures just 47.3 inches compared to 56.8 inches in the Lexus and 58.6 inches in the MDX. With the third-row seat folded, the Aviator offers up to 78.5 cubic feet of storage space, slightly more than the GX 470 (77.5), but slightly less than the MDX (81.5).

With so much space for the family, it's not surprising that the Aviator also features multiple passenger safety systems. The Personal Safety System combines dual-stage front airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and energy management retractors to keep the driver and front passenger safe in a severe frontal collision. A standard Safety Canopy provides side-impact protection by covering most of the first- and second-row side windows upon deployment, as well as remaining inflated for extra protection if the system senses an impending rollover. A second-generation version of Ford's AdvanceTrac stability control system will be available as a midyear addition.

Overall, the interior is a well-designed, attractive-looking package that lives up to the luxury sport-ute moniker, but there are a few minor areas that could stand some improvement. Although the leather and wood trim are both top quality, the Aviator's satin-finished plastic trim still lacks the high-quality look and feel exhibited by its Lexus, BMW and Mercedes counterparts. We could also do without the center console-mounted window switches, and the door handles would be easier to find in the dark if they were placed higher up on the door.

Obviously, our complaints are minor. Credit this to the fact that nearly every editor who got behind the wheel came away pleasantly surprised with the Aviator's level of refinement and overall athleticism. All too often, American luxury vehicles fall into the trap of substituting new features for better engineering. While the Aviator does offer a substantial list of upscale amenities, it also serves up a class-leading engine, excellent driving dynamics and a quiet, comfortable cabin.

As the younger look-alike sibling to the popular Navigator, the Aviator may take some time to emerge from its big brother's shadow (it's a very big shadow), but it has all the right hardware, not to mention a more manageable size, more nimble handling and an equally luxurious interior. If this sounds like the kind of upscale SUV you've been looking for but you never liked the idea of something as big as the Navigator, this new Lincoln might surprise you.

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The real challenge in bringing a platform "up market" is to effectively convince potential buyers they aren't paying a higher MSRP for an emblem and some wood paneling (see the Infiniti QX4 for more on this). To do that, the premium version of a lesser model needs improved performance, distinctive styling, plenty of high-grade materials and, to really convince the skeptics (us jaded automotive journalists among them), it should offer a completely different driving experience.

While the Aviator leaves room for improvement in a few minor areas, Lincoln has succeeded in justifying this "overpriced Explorer." Of course, it bears mentioning that the Explorer is a pretty stellar starting point. As truck-based SUVs go, it has one of the best ride-handling combinations available for under $50,000. In fact, the capable handling, responsive steering and overall confidence imparted by the Aviator's driving dynamics is a testament to the exceptional design of the basic Explorer's platform. By adding 60 horsepower, plus reworking the steering system and suspension tuning, the Aviator feels almost sporty (whereas the Explorer is simply comfortable and reassuring). This Lincoln SUV is still no BMW X5, but the gap separating the two, in terms of pure on-pavement capability, was narrower than I expected.

I'd like to see Lincoln upgrade the quality of the headliner and plastic trim — it looks fine, but still feels downmarket. I'd also like to see articulating headrests and second-row seats that can slide fore and aft. Otherwise, the Aviator makes a superb Yankee alternative to the German competition.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
"Those Lincoln engineers must have spent a lot of time in a Lexus," I thought to myself as I was driving along the coast in Lincoln's new Aviator. That's not a specious comparison; Lexus pretty much kills the competition when it comes to driving comfort and creature comforts, so stating that a domestic truck has almost appropriated Japanese levels of style is quite a compliment. Note the "almost," however. There are several instances of cost-cutting in the interior, with cheap plastic trim pieces around the dash and overhead controls. The faux-titanium trim that also decorates the Navigator fares no better here, and there was a distinct rattle in the cabin of this $40,000-plus vehicle with little more than 3,000 miles on the odo (though I should mention that this was a preproduction model). That's not to say that the lovely wood trim, classy metal accents, electroluminescent gauges and supple leather don't make their impression as well.

The Explorer suspension — an excellent basis upon which to build — has been softened to the point where it glides upon the road, again reminiscent of a Lexus. Still, it's able to tackle challenging roads at a good clip and, although I didn't drive the Aviator on anything resembling off-road terrain, if the Explorer is any indication, it should prove a capable rock climber.

The best part is the amount of goodies with which the Lincoln can be equipped. Ventilated seats, second-row captain's chairs, xenon headlamps, third-row seats and an in-dash six-disc CD changer all make for nice toys to while away your time on a long road trip. All this in a package that's not too far above the price point of a fully loaded Explorer? Sounds like a fair trade.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

Components: The 2003 Lincoln Aviator comes with an impressive stereo. In fact, we found this stereo a vast improvement over the systems coming in comparably priced Ford vehicles. So, if entertainment is of importance to you, you might consider taking a close look — and listen — to the all-new Aviator.

The system begins with a standard Lincoln head unit, which includes a round knob for volume control, rocker panels for most other features such as bass-treble and balance-fade, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Also included in the head unit is a custom-designed digital signal processing (DSP) unit, which, through the manipulation of the stereo signal, approximates different "environments." This particular DSP offers settings for news, jazz club, hall, church and stadium. Overall, the head unit incorporates an elegant design with excellent button spacing and ergonomics. Usability is further enhanced by steering wheel controls for volume, memory and seek-scan.

Speakers present further delights. All four doors contain a four-inch midwoofer cone mated to a one-inch dome tweeter. While these are middling fair, the system's pièce de résistance is an eight-inch subwoofer ensconced in the passenger-side rear quarter-panel. We suspected that this sub would produce excellent bass response, and we weren't disappointed during our listening tests.

Performance: As mentioned above, bass was stellar in this system. We found the low frequencies tight and accurate, with excellent attack on kick drum and percussion. Likewise, mid frequencies displayed an openness and intricacy better than most SUVs in this class. Our one complaint was reserved for the high frequencies, which, while smooth and velvety, were poorly served by the position of the tweeters (in this case, built into the doors rather than mounted in the A-pillars or on the dashboard). As a result, much of the high frequencies are lost into one's kneecaps rather than radiating into the cabin, and we did knock off some points for that. Other than that, though, this is a fine-sounding system that will have most consumers tapping their feet along with the music.

Best Feature: Eight-inch subwoofer producing excellent bass response.

Worst Feature: Poorly positioned tweeters.

Conclusion: This is a great-sounding system with a lot to recommend it. For our money, it sounds better than comparably priced Ford SUVs. Take a listen, and see if you don't agree. — Scott Memmer

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