2020 Lincoln Aviator First Drive Review: Reinventing American Luxury

First Drive / 5 Comments

American luxury has a new face. And boy is it pretty.

When is the last time you rode in a Lincoln? On your way to the airport for an important business meeting, or perhaps in a funeral procession? Much to Lincoln's dismay, the brand fell into a rut with consumers heavily associating its vehicles with airport limo services, funeral homes, and retirees in Florida. But Ford's luxury arm struck gold when it introduced the all-new fourth-generation Navigator back in 2018. Almost overnight, the new Navigator quickly overtook the Cadillac Escalade as the full-size sales king, prompting General Motors to lure in customers with $10,000 discounts and commence work on a major resign.

Lincoln needs to keep up the momentum generated by the Navigator and there is no better way to do so than with the vehicle Americans can't get enough of, a three-row luxury crossover. Pulling the Aviator name out retirement, this all-new model is more than the gussied up Ford Explorer it was back in the mid-2000s. Yes, the 2020 Aviator is based on the same rear-wheel-drive platform as the new Explorer, but this time Lincoln has pulled out all the stops to build a world-class luxury SUV. The Aviator isn't just targeted at Cadillac buyers, but also well-established European luxury SUVs.

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Exterior Design: When Did Lincoln Get Sexy?

If Lincoln wants to steal customers from the likes of Audi, BMW, and Land Rover, it needs to bring its best guns to the fight. There are no issues here because from the moment we first laid eyes on it, we were struck by the Aviator's beauty. Making a three-row SUV pretty is a challenging task but Lincoln's designers have taken our expectations and flown right past them at Mach 2. The name 'Aviator' is fitting because Lincoln has incorporated aeronautical elements in its design language that relay a sensation of flight.

We were able to sample a few of Lincoln's color choices at the launch event in Nappa Valley, California and most look right at home on the vehicle's smooth lines. Flight Blue was our favorite and all of Lincoln's wheels ranging from 19-inches up to 22-inches look superb, carrying on the aviation motif. We were also impressed with the Aviator's entry/exit suspension mode, which slams the vehicle down to almost station wagon levels for improved ingress and egress. Some online commenters aren't fond of how low the Aviator gets but as massive wagon fans, we were won over by the feature.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: Initiating Takeoff

Lincoln has yet to quote any 0-60 mph performance figures but from behind the wheel, the Aviator feels lively. It almost feels unfair to say the Aviator has a "base powertrain" because it is a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 sending 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque out through a 10-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel-drive comes standard but all-wheel drive is also available. Most of the Aviator's competitors trail it in terms of standard power and even when equipped with their optional engines they can't match the Lincoln's grunt. In fact, some of the German competitors in this segment, like the Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GLE, have four-cylinder base engines, giving Lincoln a clear edge.

Fuel economy, despite the vehicle's immense output, isn't terrible given its weight. The EPA rates the standard Aviator at 18/26/21 mpg city/highway/combined with RWD or 17/24/20 with AWD. These are on par with the recently-released Cadillac XT6, which is down almost 100 hp to the Lincoln. The Aviator Grand Touring adds a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, which bumps the power up to a whopping 494 hp and torque to a mountain-moving 630 lb-ft.

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Interior Design: Fly Like A G6

In the words of Far East Movement, this interior is "fly like a G6." The lyrics are, of course, referring to a Gulfstream G650, a high-speed business jet. Lincoln's interiors have always felt more like upgraded Fords than true rivals for the likes of Audi and Land Rover but as with the exterior, the Aviator finally turns things up a notch with top-shelf materials and a slew of impressive luxury features. Tacky, poorly fitted chrome volume and climate knobs still carry over from the Navigator but aside from this one minor nuisance, the rest of the cabin feels sublime.

We sampled the optional 30-way adjustable seats with heating, ventilation, and massage. The seats weren't as cushy as we expected and finding a comfortable position was no doddle. With so many ways for adjustment, it can be difficult to find the perfect setup so once you finally strike the ideal balance, be sure to save it on the memory settings. Trust us, you'll never find it again. The seats allow for some baffling positions, even allowing one buttcheek to be higher than the other (we aren't joking). You might vibe with the seats but try before you buy because we couldn't get comfortable.

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Lincoln offers various design themes for the interior which can be paired with multiple leather choices. Most of the interior colors are strikingly beautiful but we weren't fans of the Destination theme with its Mahogany Red Savannah leather and khaya wood appliqués, which are supposed to look like a vintage luggage set but felt more looked more like an old-school cigar lounge. The flight theme was by far our favorite with its combination of either Tan or Ivory leather and engine turn appliqués that are styled to look like aviation instrument panels.

At the center, Ford's Sync 3 system offers easy-to-use infotainment with tons of standard and available technology. Some of these include Phone as a Key technology, a 28-speaker Revel Ultima 3D Audio System, wireless phone charging, multiple USB ports, Wifi hotspot, and standard Lincoln Co-Pilot360 with pre-collision assist, emergency braking, blind-spot detection, lane-keep assist, and auto high-beams. As an upgrade, Lincoln Co-Pilot360 Plus adds adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, evasive steering assist, reverse braking assist, and active park assist plus, which can parallel and perpendicular park on its own.

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We here at CarBuzz are not trained musicians, so we rarely spend too much time focusing on a car's audio system. But with 28-speakers spread throughout the cabin, the Revel system is worth a deeper dive. Revel brought along some high-resolution song files, which sounded spectacular on the system. We could hear every strum of the guitar with great vividness but when we played our own music through Bluetooth streaming, we weren't as impressed. Our various rock and pop songs lacked clarity but when we fed it classical music or jazz, it lived up to Lincoln's billing. It seems like just a coincidence that the system sounded better with broadway songs and jazz, two genres often listened to by older demographics.

Lincoln also offers a 14-speaker setup but the 28-speaker system comes as part of a $3,300 luxury package along with the 30-way adjustable seats and rear sunshades, meaning it is a lot less expensive than high-end systems from Bang & Olufsen and Burmester. But for around the same cost, Volvo's Bowers & Wilkins system still remains our favorite.

Interior Overview Lincoln
Interior Overview Lincoln
Interior Overview Lincoln
Interior Overview Lincoln

Trunk & Cargo Space: The Family Jet

Dating back to the early days of automobiles, American luxury has often been predicated on size. Here, the Aviator does not disappoint with ample space for up to seven passengers. All of the examples we drove were equipped rear captains chairs that were both heated and ventilated, though they aren't electrically powered like some competitors. Rear seat passengers are even given a touchscreen to control the vehicle's climate and audio functions and the 40.1 inches of legroom felt relatively spacious. Lincoln says a greater priority has been placed on lateral space, giving second-row occupants 58.3 inches of hip room and 61.3 inches of shoulder room. Especially with the captain's chairs, you do feel separated from the person sitting next to you.

Entering the third row is just one button press away and once there, occupants are treated to 29.2 inches of legroom, enough for an average adult to sit for a short trip. Behind the third row, the Aviator offers 18.3 cubic feet of storage with additional space below the load floor. Folding down the third row increases luggage space to 41.8 cubic feet and with both rows folded, you'll have 77.7 cubic feet available.

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Driving Impressions: No Turbulence On This Flight

Driving the Aviator harkens back to Lincoln's heydey, where American luxury cars floated over bumps with dignified grace. But unlike those old-school cars, the Aviator floats without the vomit-inducing body roll. Lincoln's new Adaptive Suspension can be had in two flavors - standard and air - the latter of which includes Road Preview with 12 forward-facing sensors. The system can read the road surface up to 500 times per second and react up to 100 times per second, which is faster than you can blink an eye. The result is a superb ride that irons out road imperfections with ease. Piloting the Aviator over torn-up roads and train crossings, the suspension didn't even bat an eye.

All of the examples we drove included the optional air suspension, which can also raise or lower the vehicle depending on the drive mode and driving conditions. We were worried about motion sickness when we saw the windy roads Lincoln had selected for our drive route but the suspension does such an admirable job handling body roll, we never felt like the Aviator couldn't handle the bends with ease.

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Instead of traditional drive modes like eco and sport, Lincoln has given its drive modes special names including Normal, Conserve, Excite, Slippery, and Deep Conditions. Each comes with a special splash screen with beautiful animation on the digital gauge cluster and each drastically affects how the Aviator drives. Normal and Conserve modes give a feather-light steering feel, so you can pilot the Aviator with just your pinky finger. Excite mode taps into the savagery of the 400 hp V6, tightens up the steering response, and further eliminates body roll. We usually don't come away enjoying the sportiest setting in three-row luxury crossovers but the Aviator loves to be driven in anger.

After a long day of soaking in California's majestic sunburnt sky, it's nice to put the Aviator into normal mode, turn on the massaging seats, and let it be a Lincoln. Lincoln's engineers have managed to capture an enjoyable duality with the Aviator that feels distinctly American. The lone weak point is the 10-speed automatic transmission, which can occasionally offer up a jerky upshift shift during acceleration. It isn't jarring, just not quite as smooth nor quick as BMW's class-leading eight-speed.

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Price & Trims: Affordable, But Pricey In A Hurry

Pricing for the 2020 Aviator begins at a very affordable $51,000 for the Standard RWD trim (AWD adds around $2,500) but prices can inflate rather quickly. The Reserve trim pushes the price up to $56,190but adds 20-inch wheels, quad-zone automatic climate control, a 14-speaker Revel audio system, and additional option packages such as the Lincoln Co-Pilot360 Plus. Black Label is the highest trim level at $76,595 and adds unique interior themes, 22-inch wheels, and both the luxury and convenience packages included.

If you fancy the added power of the hybrid drivetrain, the Grand Touring model starts at $68,800 and includes substantial upgrades in standard equipment along with a healthy output increase to justify its higher starting price. The Grand Touring Black Label is the priciest Aviator with a starting price of $87,800.

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Verdict: Lincoln Is Back In The Mix

Based on our initial impressions of the Aviator, we are ready to call it great but are not ready to crown it as the best offering in the mid-size luxury crossover segment. There are still one or two key areas where Lincoln can improve as a brand but the Aviator makes us feel like the company is finally back in the mix and deserves strong consideration alongside Europe's best. It looks stunning, has a world-class interior, and packs a massive punch befitting of a more expensive European drivetrain.

If Lincoln has never even been on your shopping radar, it should be now. The Aviator's minor faults are far outweighed by what's great and we can't wait to have one in for a full week of testing. For now, we feel the Aviator has finally put American luxury back on the map and the folks over at Cadillac could learn and thing or two from what Lincoln has done here. American luxury cars were once the envy of the world and with the Aviator, it finally feels like Lincoln has recaptured some of that magic.

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