2003 Lincoln Navigator First Drive

2003 Lincoln Navigator SUV

(5.4L V8 6-speed Automatic)

As the SUV market continued to grow in the latter part of the 1990s, 1998 saw Lincoln's introduction of the Navigator. Essentially a spiffed-up version of its cousin, the Ford Expedition that debuted a year earlier, the Lincoln did have some features to separate it from its more pedestrian relative, such as a massive chrome grille, unique lower body cladding with integral running boards and bigger taillights. Later on, the Navigator got some power to match its looks: a 32-valve 300-horsepower V8 that had considerably more thrust than the Expedition's 16-valve unit.

Unfortunately, with the exception of some scattered fillets of wood and the option of a bucket-seat arrangement for the second row, the cabin was virtually identical to the Expedition's. The same ugly dash, with its layers of plastic on plastic, as well as an identical center console and door panels did little to make the Navigator feel any more luxurious than an Eddie Bauer Expedition.

As crazy an idea as a Lincoln SUV originally seemed, it was a resounding success for the company. Wealthy suburbanites who needed (well, maybe not needed) a big SUV but couldn't stand the idea of driving something as bourgeois as a Suburban, Tahoe or Expedition made up a large chunk of the buyer demographic. And high-profile actors and rap stars thought it oh-so-chic to be seen cruising around in Navigators (fitted with the obligatory hula hoop-sized aftermarket wheels).

Of course, rival Cadillac jumped on the luxury SUV bandwagon the following year with its Escalade, a tarted-up GMC Yukon (or Chevy Tahoe, for that matter). Although the Caddy has sold well, the Lincoln has topped it every year.

For 2003, Lincoln took a good hard look at the Navigator and with this new generation addressed the original design's shortcomings, such as the Expedition-clone interior, numb steering and tight third-row seat accommodations.

From the outside, it doesn't look like the Navigator has changed much. In actuality, only the roof and front doors are carried over from the old model. Closer scrutiny reveals a larger grille, bigger headlights and taillights, revised front fascia, different door handles and new running boards. And these are not just changes for the sake of change. Those new headlights are 40 percent brighter than the old beams (and if that isn't enough candlepower, even more potent high-intensity discharge lights are available), the door handles are easier to grab than the previous paddle-style ones and larger side-view mirrors have integral turn signals that other drivers can see whether they are in front of, beside or behind the Navigator. Even more trick, optional power-deployed running boards automatically extend outward 4 inches when a door is opened (and retract when the door is closed). For shorter drivers and passengers, they provide a broad platform for sure footing while getting in and out of the Navigator.

On board, a completely revamped interior that is the Navigator's own greets the driver and passengers. The dash design has been improved immeasurably, both aesthetically and functionally. An uncluttered dual cowl design inspired by the 1961 Lincoln Continental is accented with generous and well-integrated strips of walnut that continue onto the doors. And tasteful metallic accents highlight the center stack and console. In an idea borrowed from Infiniti, an analog clock is displayed high and center. After the climate and audio selections have been made, a swing-down door can cover those controls for an even cleaner appearance.

As before, a choice of either bucket or bench seating remains for the second row. Should the bench be chosen, it is split 40/20/40, and the center section can slide forward nearly a foot, allowing baby to be within easy reach of mom and dad up front. After tumbling that second row forward to gain access to the third seat, we immediately noticed the increase in third-row legroom. Thanks to the Navigator's new independent rear suspension, a more natural seating position with a deeper footwell allows even adults to ride back there. Compared to the Cadillac Escalade, the Navigator's chief rival, there is 35 percent more third-row legroom to be had in the Lincoln, ideal for those rare occasions when the NBA stars decide to carpool. And now, that third seat folds down into the floor, doing away with the hassle of having to remove it from the truck when more cargo space is needed. If that's not easy enough, a power-fold option allows it to be stowed at the press of a button.

In addition to opening up more room for passengers, the Lincoln's new chassis boasts other improvements, as well. The new frame is mostly hydro-formed (a process that uses water under very high pressure to form molten steel into seamless framerails free of welds and weak areas), which makes for a much stiffer structure. Lincoln says torsional rigidity is increased by 70 percent, and bending stiffness is increased by 67 percent, improving handling dynamics as well as crash safety. The biggest news is that independent rear end, which not only provides more comfortable seating for those in back but also improves ride and handling characteristics. Other key chassis components include variable ratio rack-and-pinion steering, lightweight alloy suspension pieces, revised bushings and air springs all around. In addition to a plusher ride, the air suspension allows the Navigator to lower itself 1 inch when the engine is shut off to allow easier entry and exit.

Under that brawny hood is the same 5.4-liter DOHC V8 used previously. Specs check in at 300 horsepower and 355 pound-feet of torque. Maximum towing capacity is 8,500 pounds for two-wheel-drive models and 8,300 pounds for the four-wheel-drive trucks. New engine and transmission mounts promise reduced vibration from the powertrain; the tranny remains a four-speed automatic with adaptive shift logic. Should one opt for the four-wheeler version, the ControlTrac system features an automatic 4WD mode that sends power to the wheels with the best grip. There is also a "4Lo" setting, for those few who may actually take their Navigator offroad. Meaty 255/70R18 Michelins (275s are optional) are fitted to the Navigator's alloy wheels.

Charged with bringing three tons of SUV to a sure halt are bigger disc brakes (now 13 inches in front and 13.3 in back), ABS, Brake Assist (a panic-stop feature that automatically supplies full braking power when the driver suddenly hits the brake pedal and electronic brake force distribution (EBD) that automatically apportions the braking power fore and aft, maximizing efficiency. Other safety enhancements include the availability of stability control (AdvanceTrac) and a standard Safety Canopy, which improves on the side-curtain airbag idea. Should a rollover occur, the Safety Canopy remains inflated for about six seconds to help reduce the chances of occupants being ejected from the vehicle.

After learning all of this, we took the Navigator on a variety of roads near Santa Barbara, Calif., including two-laners with plenty of curves as well as uncrowded freeways. The dynamic difference between the old and new Navigator is like night and day. Gone was the vague, numb steering of the previous model, replaced by a much more precise setup that had a fair amount of heft and feedback. We had a chance to compare the new Navigator against a 2002 Cadillac Escalade on an autocross course staged in a huge parking lot. Where the Lincoln felt responsive and exhibited excellent body control (no big side-to-side leanings), the Caddy's flaccid steering required much bigger driver inputs (read: we were sawing at the wheel) and the body roll was much greater than the Navigator's.

We do have to give the Escalade the edge in the power department; its 345-horse 6.0-liter V8 has more snap and simply trounces the Lincoln off the line, though both had plenty of mid-range passing power. We also gave the brakes the test; simulating a few panic stops, we noted excellent pedal feel and modulation, though actual stopping distances will remain an unknown until we perform a full road test. Back on the open road, we noted the seamless performance of the Navigator's transmission, which was also quick to step down a gear when a burst of power was needed.

We were impressed not only by the composed handling of this beast but by the ride quality. Even when subjected to harsh impacts, such as potholes or freeway expansion joints, the Navigator's suspension swallowed the bumps without disturbing the tranquility of the luxurious cabin. What did disturb us was the 11.2-mpg average displayed by the trip computer (compared to estimates of 12 city/16 highway) for a day of admittedly aggressive driving. But as they say, if you can afford the purchase price, fuel economy won't be a big concern (unless, of course, you have an environmental conscience).

With pricing ranging from $48,775 to $54,950, three flavors of Navigator will be offered — Luxury, Premium and Ultimate. All are loaded up with the requisite leather seating, power everything, dual-zone climate control and a six-CD changer. The Premium adds a few more features, such as heated/ventilated front seats and AdvanceTrac, and the whole-hog Ultimate goes a few better with a power liftgate door, power fold-down rear seats and HID headlights.

Back in the days of corduroys and Barry White, Lincoln and Cadillac had an intense rivalry with their big luxury coupes, the Mark IV and Eldorado, respectively. Today the status symbols of American luxury are big SUVs, and it's Navigator versus Escalade. With the Navigator's superior handling, passenger space, cabin refinement and functionality, it seems that in this year's game, Lincoln has drained a couple of threes over Cadillac's outstretched hands.

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