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Video | The 1998 Lincoln Navigator Was the First Big Luxury SUV

I recently had the chance to drive an original, first-generation Lincoln Navigator, which is an impressive feat because very few of these things exist. That wasn’t true back when the Navigator first came out. Back then, the Navigator was quite popular — but over the years, used Navigator models haven’t been well-preserved, and now it’s hard to find a nice one.

But I found a nice one, and I wanted to find a nice one for quite some time, because the Navigator is a really important vehicle to the automotive market today. I say that because the Navigator was the first big luxury SUV, representing the first vehicle in a segment that now includes dozens of other big luxury SUVs — a segment that has truly taken off in the 20 years since the Navigator came out. And it all started right here.

For proof, consider the "big luxury SUV" market before the Navigator went on sale. There was the Chevrolet Suburban, which was far from luxurious. The Jeep Grand Wagoneer, which wasn’t all that big — and, besides, it had been canceled in 1991. The Land Rover Range Rover was out, but it was surprisingly small at the time — and that was basically it. The Lexus LX450 was little more than a rebadged, dressed-up off-roader Toyota Land Cruiser.

Then Ford came up with the idea of making a luxury version of the Expedition and slapping a Lincoln badge on it — with no pretense of off-road capability or indestructibility. It was just a big luxury SUV for the suburbs — and the idea blew up. Now, we have many, many others: the Navigator, sure, but also the GMC Yukon Denali, the Cadillac Escalade, the BMW X7, the Mercedes-Benz GLS, the Infiniti QX80, and more surely on the way. And it all started with the Navigator.

So I really wanted to see what the original Lincoln Navigator was like. And the answer is that it’s an interesting mashup of luxury and plain ol’ Ford.

This was the beginning of this trend, so Ford hadn’t yet decided to give the Navigator all sorts of bespoke parts that would later distinguish it from mainstream SUVs — so you can see Ford touches all throughout the car, from the relatively cheap door panels to the surprisingly large panel gaps. But there’s a lot of good luxury stuff, too — like the fact that there are steering wheel buttons for the climate controls, and power adjustable pedals. The Navigator was the first real effort here, but it wasn’t quite a complete one.

Still, it sold in big numbers — and when you drive it, it’s easy to see why. Unlike boring, staid Lincoln sedans of the time, the Navigator just oozed presence, with its massive size and hulking appearance. It also had a lot more interior room than a sedan, so taller people — often the celebrities, entertainers and athletes that made up its buyer base — appreciated it. And you had that commanding driving position, sitting high up above everything, but still swathed in luxury — something that very few vehicles offered up until that point.

Not surprisingly, the Navigator isn’t exactly fast, or exciting, or thrilling to drive. It’s comfortable, sure, and reasonably well insulated from the road, but it’s also a 20-year-old luxury SUV with a lot of Ford trim. Sitting in it now, you don’t really get the same respect you would’ve gotten back in 1998 — but you do still feel like the king of the road, high above everyone else, sitting on your leather seat with access to the big V8 under your right foot. There was also always something about the name — Lincoln Navigator — that seemed to be intimidating or imposing, perfectly fitting with the character of the vehicle.

By modern standards, the Navigator just seems like an old SUV — the latest Lincoln Navigator is a truly impressive product with an unbelievably high-quality interior with amazing touches, while the old one feels … old. But driving around in the old Navigator, you see how this trend got started, and you see why it caught on: the driving position, the luxury, the size, the power. The Navigator heralded a new era for the luxury car, and it was interesting to check out exactly how that era came to be. Find a Lincoln Navigator for sale

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