High, wide and handsome.

by Tony Swan

When you scan the full-size luxury section of the sport-utility landscape, you may be surprised to find that there's only one serious offering with Made In America stamped on its rocker panels. And it's even more surprising that this Yankee challenger comes from an automotive division that has never before tried its hand at trucks.

Lincoln is obviously no stranger to luxury on a grand scale. The current Town Car sedan, a perennial favorite with limousine services, is the biggest passenger car sold in this country, and the magnificent Model K Lincolns of the early '30s all scaled in well north of 5000 pounds, many of them approaching the three-ton frontier.

But trucks? It's not as anomalous as it may seem at a glance. As a unit of the Ford Motor Company, the Lincoln-Mercury division belongs to a company that leads the country -- for that matter, the planet -- in light- truck expertise.

The new Lincoln Navigator is yet another manifestation of that expertise -- sumptuous, silent and strong. Think of it as Arnold Schwarzenegger suited up for a night at the opera, a uniquely appealing blend of brute strength and uptown sophistication.

Walkaround

The Navigator team obviously didn't have to design from scratch. The starting point was Ford's Expedition, a newcomer that's rewritten the full-size sport-ute rulebook.

A little bigger than the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon four-doors, but easier to garage than GM's even bigger Suburban, the Expedition blends surprising backwoods capability with equally surprising maneuverability and ride quality that sets high standards on surfaces ranging from smooth pavement to lumpy Forest Service trails.

Building from these strengths, the Navigator adds generous dollops of luxury, inside and out. The wide grille is unmistakably Lincoln, the illuminated running boards -- optional on the Expedition -- are standard, and the body shell is packed with extra sound deadening materials.

From a cosmetic point of view, the only element that seems inconsistent to us is the raised white lettering on the tires, something we associate with Jeep Wranglers rather than luxury vehicles.

From a mechanical point of view, there's nothing even remotely inconsistent. Quite the contrary. The Navigator employs the same beefy frame as the Expedition, and the same suspension: independent front, live axle with air springs and automatic load leveling in the rear. Four-wheel drive models like our tester add air shocks at the front, and the system automatically raises the vehicle's ride height at low speeds for an additional inch of ground clearance.

When forward motion stops, the system automatically settles down to its lowest height to facilitate ingress and egress. The standard running boards also help out in this respect; so do passenger assist grab handles inside the vehicle.

Power is supplied by a 5.4-liter V-8 engine, one of Ford's new family of ovrhead cam truck engines. Like the Expedition, the Navigator's V-8 is allied with a four-speed automatic transmission that includes an overdrive lockout feature for occasions when a little extra oomph is required.

There's plenty of oomph here, enough to give the Navigator good all-around performance, and a maximum towing capability of 8000 pounds. That's significantly higher than the max for the Tahoe and Yukon, although some Suburban powertrain combinations yield even higher ratings.

Like the Expedition, the Navigator offers the option of Ford's new Control-Trac 4WD system, operated by an easy-to-use dashboard switch. The settings include an automatic 4WD mode that functions essentially as an all-wheel drive system -- basically 2WD when traction is plentiful, apportioning torque to the front wheels when system sensors detect slippage at the rear.

The system also includes a high-range 4WD setting, and low-range 4WD for max traction in creepy-crawly situations, like muddy forest trails.

The Inside Story

Leather is one of the invariable hallmarks of automotive luxury, and the Navigator's interior is slathered with plenty of it -- rich, creamy and smooth. Roominess is another luxury in any form of transportation, and the Navigator has lots of this as well, along with seating for eight -- comfortable quad captain's chairs in the first two rows and a bench seat in the rear, elevated slightly to give the rear passengers a view of what's going on up front.

Leg, head and hip room are plentiful in the first two seating positions, though the third row is limited, and not really suitable for folks of adult stature. On the other hand, there's lot of cargo space. The rear seatbacks flop forward to expand stowage, the rearmost seat is readily removable and the spare tire stows underneath the rear, rather than inside. Beyond that, there are bins and cubbies scattered around the interior for small items.

The Navigator's instrument panel is basically the same as the Expedition's, with the same oversize controls for the audio and standard automatic climate control systems -- easy to operate when the vehicle is moving and well marked for function. Luxury licks include tasteful strips of walnut trim and a handsome wood steering wheel with leather wrapping on the sections of the rim that are gripped most of the time.

The wheel spokes are adorned with auxiliary buttons for the audio and climate controls, and the switches for the power windows and mirrors are easy to identify by touch, a trait common to most Ford vehicles.

As you'd expect of a sport-utility vehicle, the driver's seat affords a commanding view of the road, and driver sightlines are above average in all directions, thanks to the Navigator's vast glass area. A wide range of power adjustability for the seat -- as well as height-adjustable seatbelts -- should make just about anyone comfortable here, and the seats themselves afford lots of room for wriggling around during long hauls.

Ride & Drive

Although its dimensions stop short of the brobdignagian Suburban, the Navigator is a big vehicle. The curb weight of the 4X4 version tops 5500 pounds, which is a lot of mass to move.

With mass in mind, we found this vehicle's all-around performance to be a very pleasant surprise. The 5.4-liter V-8 gets the Navigator moving without straining, and it thrives on freeway cruising. Our 4X4 tester logged a steady 17 mpg during some extended mountain driving in California -- impressive for a vehicle in this size class -- and the interior noise levels were lower than any sport-utility vehicle in our experience.

Handling and all-around ride quality were also pleasantly surprising. We think the Navigator is the smoothest operator in its class, but it still manages quick maneuvers without excessive rock and roll, and its steering is best in class. Braking performance, with disc brakes and standard ABS, is also remarkable, both for power and resistance to fade.

Our California travels also included a trek through the rocky wastes of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and we were impressed once again with how well this big vehicle handled off-road trundling, particularly when the 4WD system was called on to claw its way up stretches covered with deep, loose sand.

Final Word

The Navigator has some excellent competitors in the luxury sport-utility field, in particular the Range Rovers, the Lexus LX450 and Toyota Land Cruiser twins. The Range Rovers lead the league in posh appointments and off-road capability, but their pricing starts in the mid $50,000 range. LX 450 pricing starts under the $50,000 frontier, but it lacks the power and roominess of the Navigator, as do the Range Rovers.

Thus the Navigator looks like a good idea. It has the feel and features of luxury, with more muscle and more room than its key competitors. Add off-road competence to the mix and you have an excellent recipe for success.

If you're thinking of roughing it in high style -- and comfort -- the Navigator shapes up as the best buy of an exclusive bunch.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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