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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 all-new Lincoln Aviator was deliberately designed to be a scale model in size and price of Lincoln Navigator. As a result, the Aviator is nearly identical to the Navigator in appearance, both inside and out.
Aviator features the same chrome-laden grille as the Navigator, though it is more diminutive and less imposing because of the Aviator's overall smaller dimensions. Like the Navigator, the Aviator sports a generous application of chrome trim, from the grille to the roof rack to the rear licensee plate holder.
As a midsize luxury sport utility, the Aviator is a foot shorter in length than the Navigator, which is a full-size luxury sport utility. Aviator seats six or seven, depending on the seating configuration ordered, while the Navigator has room for eight. The Aviator is also about six inches shorter in height. In price, the Aviator starts at about $40,000 and tops out at just over $50,000. Navigator ranges from $50,000 to more than $60,000 when fully loaded.
The Aviator shares its basic body structure with the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer, both of which were redesigned and re-engineered for 2002. The Aviator is more than just a redesigned Explorer, however. Its engineers modified the Explorer's basic architecture to produce a roomier, more comfortable, more luxurious vehicle with a smoother ride.
For starters, the Aviator is slightly longer and wider than the Explorer. It uses the Explorer's new independent rear suspension, a design more common on luxury cars than trucks that greatly improves ride quality and allows room underneath for the fold-down third seat. The Aviator takes this refinement a step farther, however, with a revised suspension, steering, and brakes. Lightweight components and different tuning have been employed for improved on-pavement ride.
The truck-like running boards, stationary and not power-operated like those on the Navigator, are a giveaway that the Aviator is a truck and not a car-based sport utility. In fact, the running boards are a necessity for short-legged passengers climbing aboard the tall utility.
Exterior colors include Gold Ash Metallic, Ceramic White Tricoat, Vivid Red Metallic, Medium Wedgewood Blue Metallic, Aspen Green Metallic, Mineral Grey Metallic and Ebony.
The Lincoln Aviator's interior is stunning. Nearly identical to the Navigator's interior (also redesigned for 2003), it is every bit as elegant as a luxury sedan.
Our Aviator was outfitted in two-tone leather, a cream (light parchment) complemented with charcoal gray (espresso), with American walnut burl wood trim. The interior also comes in a two-tone medium and dark ash.
The most distinctive touch on the interior is the pewter-colored satin nickel finish used on the center dashboard and shifter surround. Another distinguishing element is a door, in the same satin nickel finish, that pulls down to hide the audio system. You won't forget what you are driving when you close the door as its cover spells out L-I-N-C-O-L-N. Also on the center dash, the clock, with delicate gold hands and numbers, resembles an expensive watch. The clock is becoming a signature feature in Lincolns.
Aviator's interior designers said the 1961 Continental inspired the symmetrical instrument panel. Switches and controls, either rectangular toggles or rotary dials, are backlit with white LED lighting. The wood and leather trimmed steering wheel includes controls for the audio and climate controls. Every surface throughout the Aviator is not only attractive to the eye but also inviting to the touch.
Aviator comes standard with three rows of seats. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive.
In the second row, Aviator buyers have a choice, for which there is no difference in price. They can select a three-way split bench seat that seats three or bucket seats that seat two. The bucket seats feature a hefty center console nearly identical to the one that sits between the front bucket seats. Either way, the second-row seats fold and tumble forward for access to the third row.
The third-row bench sits low and is most suitable for children. The third seat folds flat into the floor manually, not by power as is available in the Navigator. Nor does the Aviator offer a power liftgate, as the Navigator does. Instead, it is a two-piece design like on the Explorer and Mountaineer with a flip-up window positioned at the height of a shopping cart for loading of groceries without lifting the entire hatch.
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.
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