Greg Anderson, Contributor
Growing up in the Midwest in the seventies, I saw more than my fair share of what are now referred to as road hogs. The sweeping changes that were to be brought about by the Japanese and their miraculous little cars hadn't yet been felt in that neck of the woods, nor had the importance of ideas such as fuel efficiency and ergonomics. This means that I got to spend considerable time riding around in big old Lincolns, Cadillacs, and Buicks. I remember, in fact, feeling iron-envy, when my friends whose parents owned Ford LTDs and Lincoln Mark Vs, disparagingly referred to my mother's 3,800-lb. Pontiac Grand Le Mans coupe as small.
Back then, a big car served notice to the world that you had arrived. My grandparents, after reaching a certain comfort level, never drove anything other than large Buicks and Cadillacs, a signal to their friends in Sun City, Arizona that their real estate investments had paid off. The ethic began changing, however, in the late seventies and early eighties as the second energy crisis of the decade put the squeeze on Middle America's pocketbook. Smaller, more fuel efficient designs from across the Pacific made more sense to regular Joes slaving away in the corporate salt mines, and slowly the country began turning to manufacturers with weird names like Datsun, Honda, and Toyota, for their transportation fix.
The decline of the popularity of big American iron left a gaping wound in the belly of the Big Three manufacturers. When people found out how well built the Honda Accord was, it nearly sent Chrysler Corporation into the drink, forcing a government bailout of one of this country's largest employers. America's car builders got their act together fairly quickly, however, when you consider how much effort it takes to change the thinking of companies that have balance sheets larger than the GNP of many nations. As soon as the writing was on the wall, they began building smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Many of the Big Three's early attempts were laughable and included such miserable failures as the ill-conceived Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, and AMC Gremlin. Unattractive, poorly built, and unreliable, these cars were the US's first attempt at building something small and fuel-efficient. The end of this century, however, sees cars from the US replacing the now high-priced Japanese compacts and mid-sized sedans in the value-per-dollar contest with wonderful examples of engineering like the Ford Contour and Chevrolet Malibu. There is still a yearning, however, for the power that 21/2 -tons of cold, hard steel gives drivers on the open road. This has manifested itself over the last ten years as an increased interest in sport-utes. We think that this phenomenon is an outgrowth of Americas' love of the lost land yachts of yesteryear.
Doubt us, huh? The American car of choice, the one that people dreamed about getting when they finally got that big promotion, used to be the Cadillac Sedan de Ville. Room for six, rear-wheel drive, an imposing road presence, considerable luxury, and a powerful V-8 engine set this car apart from the masses of other vehicles that filled America's turnpikes during the late sixties and early seventies. Sounds an awful lot like the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban that junior vice-presidents and new law partners dream about in the nineties, doesn't it?
When Americans began buying SUVs in the late eighties, many of this country's luxury manufacturers were caught totally flatfooted. With nothing to offer but a slender lineup of giant sedans and coupes, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Buick fell quickly into obscurity as people with money defected to Chevy, Ford, and Toyota dealerships in search of Suburbans, Explorers, and Land Cruisers. Watching all of those sales slip away, Lincoln was the first American luxury carmaker to decide that it needed an SUV to stay alive and successfully move into the 21st century. Serendipitously, Lincoln's desire for a truck coincided with Ford's decision to replace their aging Bronco with an all-new full-size sport-ute based on the fresh 1997 Ford F-150. Thus, the Ford F-150 pickup truck gave birth to the Ford Expedition SUV, which in turn spawned the 1998 Lincoln Navigator.
Lincoln is lucky. Having an Expedition-based SUV to call their own is like having a Van Gogh stowed in the attic; it guarantees money in the pocket. The Lincoln Navigator takes from Ford some of the most advanced technology to find its way into trucks. A powerful and modern 5.4-liter SOHC V-8 engine puts 230 horsepower and 325 lb./ft. of torque to the ground through the rear axle while an independent short- and long-arm suspension provide excellent road feel. Speed-sensitive power steering and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes make sure that this vehicle stays on its intended path. Tough body-on-frame construction means that this truck isn't sissified; it can pull up to 8,000 lbs. right out of the box with its standard Class III towing package. With eight-passenger seating available and a maximum cargo capacity of 116 cu. ft., the Navigator is capable of taking entire families nearly anywhere they could want to go, and once they get home this truck will fit nicely into a standard garage.
To this already impressive package, Lincoln adds nice mechanical touches like a load-leveling air suspension that balances the weight at the rear in two-wheel drive models and at all four corners in four-wheel drive models. This air suspension also allows the four-wheel drive Navigator to kneel down an inch when the Navigator is in park, allowing easier entrance and exit from this tall SUV. When locked into four-low at speeds below 25 mph, this impressive air suspension raises the Navigator an inch to provide better off-road prowess.
This biggest-of-all- Lincolns has an interior that would make Henry Martin Leyland (the founder of both Cadillac and Lincoln) proud. Slathered in leather and walnut, the interior of the Navigator is as luxurious as any sedan being peddled by Lexus or Infiniti. Power front seats include six-way adjustments with inflatable lumbar support. Second row passengers get the benefit of captains' chairs with their own center console and rear flow air conditioning with separate climate controls. Power everything is, of course, standard and includes a one-touch down driver's window, illuminated window and door lock switches, and steering wheel mounted stereo and cruise controls. Soft-touch plastic adorns the rounded dashboard, giving the truck a soft, smooth feel, and deep pile carpet covers the floor, keeping road roar at bay.
The exterior of the Navigator provoked some hearty chuckles when Edmund's staff first beheld it at the Detroit auto show in 1997. As evidenced by this vehicle's better-than-expected sales, however, we are apparently the only people who think that it looks overdone. The Navigator's upright grille is pure Lincoln, with big chrome teeth that look like they are waiting to munch up some hapless Hyundai Accent that stumbles into its path. Its integrated fog lamps blink aggressively out of the Navigator's massive two-toned bumpers and the complex-reflector headlamps look like something bought during the Home Shopping Network's cubic zirconia marathon. A creased hood adds further to the Navigator's jumbled front-end appearance.
On the road the Navigator makes up for most of its exterior shortcomings, or those perceived by us anyway, by handling smoothly and predictably. The previously mentioned air suspension soaks up bumps and pot holes without transmitting any harshness to the occupants in the cabin, and the lengthy 119" wheelbase keeps the vehicle from hobby-horsing on irregular road surfaces like the frost-heaved section of I-25 that runs through Denver.
On a trip to my wife's family cabin cabin, which sits on the picturesque Mogollon Rim in Arizona, the Navigator's powerful engine proved itself by unhesitatingly climbing through the 10,000 ft.-plus mountains that lay between the cabin and our home in Denver. This power has a penalty, however, and that is the truck's abysmal gas mileage; just over 13 mpg during nearly 2,000 miles of highway driving was the best we could muster. We have complained before about the steering in the Lincoln's sister-truck, the Expedition, by claiming that it is too responsive for a vehicle of such great size and girth; we are now changing our tune a bit after a close call which would have been much closer were it not for the immediate response of the steering. An idiot in a Chevrolet pickup tried to pass the person in front of him on a crowded two-lane road during a heavy rainstorm on Labor Day weekend in the mountains outside of Heber, Arizona. We had the misfortune to be heading straight toward him as he entered our lane of traffic with less than 50 feet between us. A quick turn of the wheel took us safely to the shoulder as the road hazard blazed by apparently oblivious to this barely avoided disaster, and at that point the well dialed-in steering was a definite bonus This writer will not complain about it again.
We can't sing the praises of the Navigator without mentioning a few faults that raised their head during the time we spent with this truck. First was the piece of carpet that failed to stay attached to the inside of the truck's liftgate; every time the weather got warm, the glue holding this interior piece on would get all gunky and the carpet would sag away from the plastic interior panel to which it was supposed to be attached. Second, was the power switch surround that kept popping out of place on the front passenger's door whenever the door was slammed hard. Last was is a mysterious fluid leak that left a small puddle on our editor-in chief's driveway but didn't give itself away with any low oil, transmission, or brake fluid levels.
Powered through the rear wheels with V-8 engines, riding on a body-on-frame chassis, and using more fossil fuel than an entire fleet of Kia Sephias, today's medium and full-size sport-utes offer American drivers something that automotive writers have claimed was all but dead since the cancellation of the General Motors B-platform (which was the basis for the Buick Roadmaster, Chevrolet Caprice, and Cadillac Fleetwood) a ride in a traditional American land yacht. The highway cruisers of yore are still with us, but this time around they happen to be taller and are available with four-wheel drive. Lincoln figured it out first, let's see how long it takes for the guys at Cadillac and Buick to jump on board.
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