Fresh off a strong launch of the behemoth Navigator—newly appointed brand boss Joy Falotico says half of Navigator buyers are new to the brand—Lincoln is ready to go back to the SUV well again with the mid-size, three-row Aviator, which will launch in 2019. Officially, the vehicle revealed at the New York auto show is a concept, but unlike the concepts that presaged the Continental and the Navigator, this Aviator concept is extremely close to production intent. All the sheetmetal, for example, is ready for high-volume production.
Mercifully, Lincoln is continuing to unwind its MK-prefix naming strategy with actual names, resurrecting the short-lived Aviator badge from the annals of the early 2000s (surely it’s bound to be more successful in today’s SUV-crazed times). At 200 inches long, it neatly splits the difference between the 210-inch short-wheelbase Navigator and the 190-inch Nautilus (née MKX) in the Lincoln lineup while kicking the ungainly MKT off the island. It’s based on a new, unibody rear-drive architecture that will also underpin the next Ford Explorer, a reversal of the current, front-drive-based Explorer and MKT. Lincoln officials say that the decision was primarily driven by Lincoln’s desires for the proper long dash-to-axle design proportions, but according to chief engineer John Davis, it also delivers a nearly 50/50 weight distribution and will be a boon to towing capacity.
Lincoln officials are deliberately coy about the powertrain, saying only that the concept is a twin-turbocharged plug-in hybrid. However, in addition to the predictable conventional gas-engine powertrain, Lincoln does promise that there will be a plug-in version of the Aviator; the hint about two turbos almost certainly means the engine will be a V-6, likely the 2.7-liter from the F-150 and elsewhere.
With the Aviator, Lincoln continues its quest toward elegance—which design chief David Woodhouse describes as “beauty and seduction, rather than attack”—a positioning that strikes us as an eminently logical one with which to woo luxury buyers. To achieve the relatively dramatic dive that the roofline takes as it heads rearward, enabling the proper “in-flight gesture,” as Woodhouse describes it, required some compromise and lowering of the seating height of the second and third rows. The trade-off seems well judged, however, as the middle row feels plenty spacious, and although we couldn’t sit in the third row, space back there appears to be habitable for adults; Lincoln promises that it will accommodate six-footers.
The one element that struck us as out of step with both the elegant theme and the plug-in-hybrid powertrain is the meaty quad tailpipes. When queried on this matter, Woodhouse said, “Sometimes we try things out” and that the final decision has yet to be made whether to go in a direction like this or to tuck them more inconspicuously out of sight under the bumper, as on the Navigator. Sure, there are a few flights of fancy, other than the usual too-small and too-complex pedestal mirrors. The Aviator concept’s grille is spectacular, made up of little chrome ingots jutting out from the now familiar Lincoln nose. It looks too precious for production, but Woodhouse promises something like this execution—and not just a flat chrome latticework as on the Navigator. And the leather can’t possibly be as immersively aromatic as it is in the concept, although the interior design is very Navigator-like, with a prominent center screen set atop a horizontal dashboard, shift-control toggles directly below, and audio and climate controls residing on the foremost part of the center console that kicks up at a roughly 45-degree angle.
The electronic latching system that enables the fixed door handles, which no doubt helped them to be slimmed down and made more elegant-looking, are production ready and basically a version of the Continental’s, although due to the additional height of the Aviator, incorporating them into the chrome trim along the underside of the door glass would have made them too high of a reach. Lincoln also promises to launch on the production SUV the phone-as-the-key technology that’s featured on the concept, as well as adaptive-suspension technology that—similar to systems from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi—can scan the road ahead.