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Lincoln showrooms have been like Old Mother Hubbard's cupboards of late: rather bare. But Lincoln's cupboards are now being re-stocked, and the most recent addition is the 2003 Aviator sport utility.
Ford's luxury division has been eliminating models from its line. Gone is the aging Continental along with the Blackwood, an impractical but expensive sport-utility vehicle with a pickup bed that never took off. In essence, all that Lincoln dealers have had to sell is the LS entry-luxury sedan, the Town Car and the Navigator sport-utility.
The Aviator, on sale since November, is the luxury marque's first midsize sport-utility vehicle. It is part of Lincoln's two-prong strategy for attracting different sets of buyers to the brand. Lincoln executives, who saw division sales tumble by 5.6 percent in 2002 to 150,057 vehicles, according to industry trade journal Automotive News, plan to invest in its traditional vehicles like the Town Car to retain loyal buyers, refine fairly recent models such as the LS and Navigator to keep the new customers it has attracted and add new products to lure younger, affluent buyers. Indeed, they hope the Aviator's smaller dimensions and lower price will lure buyers, whose average age is expected to be about 45 years old, a decade younger than Navigator owners, with more of them being women.
Based on the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer, the Aviator drives into an increasingly crowded neighborhood of sport utilities with price tags that soar well above $40,000. It goes up against newly introduced midsize luxury sport utilities like the Lexus GX 470 and Infiniti FX45. It will also face the upcoming Volkswagen Touareg and Cadillac SRX. And it will challenge the relative old-timers, the Acura MDX, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
The Lincoln Aviator offers a smooth, sophisticated ride. It isn't bouncy like other truck-based sport utilities. It rides more smoothly than the Mercury Mountaineer.
Lincoln has made vast improvements in steering systems and the Aviator is a good example of that. Its rack-and-pinion steering system delivers a solid on-center feel. In contrast to previous Ford sport utilities, most notably the Navigator, steering the Aviator was a relaxed experience, requiring few corrections to keep it on course. The speed-sensitive steering assist makes low-speed parking lot maneuvers and tooling around the neighborhood effortless. Yet it feels stable at highway speeds. Steering transitions can be accomplished so seamlessly your passengers will hardly feel them.
Aviator is equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, which are larger than those used on its cousins. It comes equipped with an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake force distribution. Slam on the brakes and the Aviator comes to a predictable and uneventful stop. ABS lets the driver maintain steering control in a panic stop, while EBD reduces stopping distances.
Aviator's tried-and-true V8 engine delivers plenty of power and makes it possible, with the optional package, to tow up to 7,300 pounds. The only criticism, which is often the case with Ford engines, is that it roars at start up and under hard acceleration, like a jet engine on take-off. Beyond those conditions, the Aviator delivered a relatively quiet ride.
Aviator's transmission was problematic in early production versions. While the problems supposedly are fixed, the shifts on our test model were abrupt and harsh, exacerbated by frigid weather we experienced during our weeklong test.
Lincoln expects the majority of Aviators to be ordered with all-wheel drive. As mentioned, two all-wheel drive systems are available. Both are designed more for inclement weather than off-road driving and neither requires action by the driver to engage. One is a permanently engaged all-wheel drive system that uses a viscous coupling to transfer torque between the front and rear wheels. In normal driving, 35 percent of the power is directed to the front and 65 percent to the rear. It shifts as conditions warrant. The optional AdvanceTrac system has the Aviator operate in rear-wheel drive most of the time. If it detects lack of traction, it shifts up to 100 percent of the power to the front wheels; it also can shift the power from one side of the vehicle to the other. Theoretically, the Aviator needs only one wheel with traction to keep rolling with AdvanceTrac.
Lincoln Aviator offers the smoothness and sophistication of the new Lincoln Navigator in a smaller, more maneuverable package. It costs about 10 grand less than the Navigator, yet gives up nothing in interior elegance and luxury.
All new for 2003, the Aviator seats six or seven people. It's smoother and more comfortable than the Ford Explorer and most other mid-size SUVs. Its V8 delivers good power. The available AdvanceTrac all-wheel-drive system gives offers excellent traction and control in icy conditions.