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When Lincoln rolled out its full-size Navigator in the late 1990s, it quickly learned that there was a big demand for luxury-oriented SUVs. After a few years of success, the company decided to expand its lineup with the smaller, more agile (and less expensive) Lincoln Aviator, a midsize luxury SUV. In both concept and execution, the truck-based Aviator was Navigator Lite.
Though our editors thought pretty highly of it upon its launch, the Lincoln Aviator soon lagged behind in a rapidly expanding segment where competing car-based SUVs surpassed it in performance, interior quality and image. Sales never met with expectations, and Lincoln discontinued the model a few years after its debut.
As a used luxury SUV, the Aviator has a few things going for it, including a reasonable price, plenty of luxury features, a standard V8 engine and a third-row seat. And thanks to those slow sales, it's also a rare sight on the road. Though there are certainly better all-around choices to be had for a luxury SUV or crossover, the Lincoln Aviator might be suitable for someone wanting a lesser-known alternative.
Most recent Lincoln Aviator
The Lincoln Aviator was produced for the 2003-'05 model years. Built on the same chassis as the Ford Explorer, the Aviator featured a fully independent suspension, third-row seating and V8 power. Like its bigger Navigator brother, the Aviator offered lots of amenities and an upscale interior intended to rival even the most exclusive European and Japanese luxury brands.
For power, this midsize luxury SUV was equipped with a 4.6-liter V8 that cranked out 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic sent this considerable thrust to either the rear wheels on two-wheel-drive versions or all four in the all-wheel-drive Aviator. (A traditional four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing was never offered on this Lincoln SUV.) The muscle-bound V8, along with the Aviator's body-on-frame design, gave the Lincoln a serious towing advantage over its less rugged competition, with a maximum capacity of 7,300 pounds (7,100 pounds for AWD models).
The Lincoln Aviator shared styling themes with its larger sibling inside and out, including a waterfall center stack design complemented by contrasting wood and leather trim. The instrument panel featured classy, large analog dials with brilliant white numbering and red needles. Lincoln's midsize luxury SUV could seat six or seven, depending on whether it was ordered with a second-row split-bench seat or individual captain's chairs with a center console. Compared with its rivals, the Aviator offered ample rear legroom, especially in the third row. Overall, its interior was a well-designed, attractive-looking package, though materials quality was a couple steps below the import-brand competition.
Lincoln engineers also went to great lengths to strengthen the chassis during the transformation from Explorer to Aviator ¯ an effort that reduced body flex and improved ride and handling dynamics. And for a body-on-frame SUV, the Aviator was quite comfortable in urban settings. However, when our editors drove it alongside the competing crossover SUVs of the time, the Aviator lacked handling agility on more challenging roads.
Standard equipment was fairly generous. There were two trim levels initially: Luxury and Premium (later called Ultimate). Luxury models came with dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, adjustable pedals and rear park assist. Aviator Premium/Ultimate models had HID headlamps and heated and cooled seats. Stability control, a moonroof, a rear-seat entertainment system, a DVD-based navigation system and a trailer hitch were optional.
Updates to the Lincoln Aviator were minimal. In 2004, Lincoln changed the name of the Aviator's high-line trim level from Premium to Ultimate. Improvements that year included optional satellite radio and the addition of a rollover sensor to the optional stability control system. In 2005, the stability system was made standard, and the model lineup was pared down to one well-equipped trim level with separate luxury option packages for those who wanted a bit more.