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2020 Lincoln Aviator Test Drive Review
Lincoln re-commits to true luxury with the Aviator, but will need this new midsize to stand out in the 3-row luxury SUV crowd.
The heyday for Lincoln was more than a half-century ago. Those postwar years of prosperity and optimism were the perfect time for cars like the Continental and others. They delivered comfort and luxury, wrapped in midcentury modern styling. Even as recently as the 1990s, Lincoln was still a popular brand, riding the SUV craze with its Navigator.
But after the turn of the century, Lincoln lost its ability to create new designs and looked inward and backward. Sure, retro-themed cars like the redesigned Mustang, PT Cruiser, and Chevy HHR had turned some heads, but none of those came from luxury brands. The BMWs and Mercedes of the world were all looking forward and pushing the envelope for contemporary automotive design. Meanwhile, Lincoln offered the MKX, which was based on the Ford Edge and featured ’66 Continental styling. Neat in a vacuum, but off-base compared to the modern luxury market.
This experimental phase with various retro looks coincided with the move to the MK-# alphabet-soup naming convention and big improvements in the Ford lineup, where top-end trims of the Fusion overlapped with an entry-level trim of the MKZ. The combination left Lincoln a confusing, anonymous afterthought in the modern luxury game.
But Lincoln is finally ready to change all that. It has a new cohesive design language, its focus is once again on luxury, and the three-letter naming convention that never meant anything to anyone other than Lincoln marketers is gone. The brand led with the 2017 Continental and 2018 Navigator, which are each impressive in their own right. But the company's lineup is growing and now includes the all-new 2020 Lincoln Aviator. Named after a luxury variant of the 2002-2005 Ford Explorer, this new Aviator is also based on the contemporary Explorer platform, but it's a luxury vehicle in its own right.
Much of the success of the Lincoln brand may hinge on this midsize, 3-row luxury SUV, so you need to consider its competition, such as the Audi Q7, Infiniti QX60, and all-new Cadillac XT6. Read on to learn if Lincoln’s take on luxury will stand out in a crowded competitive field.
Look and Feel
In terms of its placement in the Lincoln lineup, the Aviator slots below the Navigator and above the compact MKC and its replacement, the Lincoln Corsair. That compact MKC is one of the last members of the Lincoln lineup that follows its old alphabet-soup naming convention. The fact the brand is back to using almost completely real vehicle names is a really good sign that it’s not simply trying to copy the imports. The new look for Lincoln is unified across all its sedans, crossovers, and SUVs, including handsome headlights and an upright chrome grille. The Aviator’s roofline tapers a bit, giving the vehicle a more elongated look, and its low, wide beltline almost gives the Aviator a boat-like appearance.
The cabin of the Aviator has a flowing design, soft-touch materials, and selective use of brightwork. The seats appear both elegant and sturdy, and the shifter buttons almost have a piano-key design to them. In this sense, Lincoln provides hints of that Golden Age luxury we described, but without forcing its whole design language around it. That was the problem with the Lincoln of the 2010s.
The front seats are incredibly comfortable and back up their appearance. They use soft-touch materials throughout, and we really mean it. From the dash to the door panels to even the sides of the center console, you'll find plush leather even where it doesn’t necessarily need to be, and that’s an indication of a deeper commitment to luxury.
The Aviator has some really nice touches, like its massive panoramic moonroof and unique warning jingles, which were recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Such steps weren’t necessary, but show the depth to which Lincoln is trying to get holistic with its newfound approach to luxury. Every modern SUV is pretty attractive inside and out, so brands must find a new way to differentiate themselves. And for Lincoln, that means things like orchestral jingles.
The new Aviator’s lineup includes five trims: Standard, Reserve, Grand Touring, Black Label, and Black Label Grand Touring. The Standard comes well-equipped, with three-zone climate control, front and rear parking sensors, leather upholstery, and heated front seats. It also comes with the Sync 3 infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as a WiFi hotspot, four USB ports, and satellite radio. You can add an “Elements” package with heated seats and a heated steering wheel for $1,000.
The Reserve trim adds second-row captain's chairs, 12-way power front seats, genuine upgraded leather upholstery, a hands-free power liftgate, Revel premium sound system, quad-zone climate control, surround-view camera system, and a navigation system. Options on the Reserve include various driver-assistance features, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and wireless device charging.
We drove the Grand Touring, which comes with the huge sunroof I mentioned earlier and essentially everything from the Standard and Reserve trims, including many of the options. A convenience package adds a head-up display and a wireless charging pad. You can also get 30-way seats with a massaging function and a 28-speaker Revel 3D premium sound system, both of which were selected on our test model. As we’ll explain later, the Grand Touring also has a standout plug-in hybrid drivetrain.
On the higher end, the Grand Touring offers a lot of bang for your buck, but we still recommend the Standard trim, since it offers so much for the base price.
The Black Label is extremely luxurious and makes the upgraded seats and stereo that were optional on our test model standard. This trim also offers unique upholstery choices and nearly every feature you can get as standard equipment. The Black Label Grand Touring shares much with the Black Label, but it's further enhanced with the plug-in hybrid drivetrain of the Grand Touring.
The Aviator comes standard with a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6. This is part of the same family of engines available in the Explorer, Expedition, and Ford F-150. In the Aviator, it makes 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque.
The Grand Touring takes this setup a step further by combining the 3.0-liter turbo V6 with a 100-hp electric motor making, battery pack, and charging port. The result is a net 494 hp and 630 lb-ft of torque. Both powertrains send power through a 10-speed automatic transmission. The base V6 sends power to either rear-wheel drive (RWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD), while the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) is an AWD setup. Regardless of the powertrain, both versions will do 0-60 mph in about 4 seconds.
The Grand Touring’s combination of electric and gas power conserves fuel, but also makes for hushed, confident acceleration. In this sense, Lincoln is doing what many other luxury brands are and offering the hybrid as the high-feature powertrain, and it delivers on this packaging. The PHEV uses electric power at low speeds and thus smoothes out the driving experience when the stop-start system is engaged.
As for the overall driving experience, the Aviator's steering is light, and its brakes were able to stop on a dime, but were cushioned in their feedback. Don’t take this comparison the wrong way, but one of the only other modern cars that goes for this driving style is the Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV. We’re not saying the Aviator is on the same level as the Cullinan, but they are among the few modern cars that go for soft refinement in driving dynamics.
Rather than a Sport mode, the Aviator has an “Excite” drive mode operated via a slightly laggy drive-mode dial. Excite is a bit more dynamic, but the Aviator’s still a 5,600-pound SUV, and you can’t fight physics.
Fuel economy for the conventionally powered Aviator with RWD is 18 mpg city, 26 highway, 21 combined. With AWD, those numbers fall to 17, 24, 20.
Fuel economy for the PHEV drivetrain is a combined 23 mpg, with a 21-mile electric-only range and a rating of 56 miles-per-gallon equivalent combined.
Form and Function
The fact that the Aviator has three rows technically puts it in the same category as the Audi Q7, Infiniti QX60, Mercedes-Benz GLE, Land Rover Discovery, and Cadillac XT6. These vehicles will not all necessarily be cross-shopped against one another, but the competition is stiff.
We didn’t get to try the base second-row bench, but we can tell you that the Aviator’s optional second-row captain’s chairs are fantastic. The power-closing third row is adequate for adults, but probably best suited for kids on any trip longer than 30 minutes. Dropping the second and third rows provides 77 cubic feet of cargo space, which is on par with the Cadillac XT6.
Like many luxury cars, the Aviator is not without its confusing replacement of basic automotive controls with some bespoke variation. In this case, the seats and the door handles are a bit confusing. The seats are pretty complicated, and it seems like only half their controls can be found in the door-mounted panel. Pressing a button above the seat-control area brings up a whole seat-control menu on the center touchscreen. That may seem overly complicated, but these 30-way seats do have a massage function, and that struck me as well worth the effort of learning to deal with the seat controls.
One thing passengers never seemed to get used to was the door-release function. When you get into the car, you’ll notice that the release from the outside is not a conventional handle, but a button on the back of a handle. This is not a big issue, but hints at the problems within. When you want to exit the car, you start to fumble around looking for the handle release. Finally, your thumb will come to rest in a recessed button area, and it all makes sense. But this is unnecessarily complicated and makes you wonder what will happen when the battery dies. We did find a manual door release, but it worked only for the driver’s door. So what if the car had rolled and landed on the driver’s side? Sure, that’s unlikely, but it's a question I would have raised if I were a Lincoln engineer developing this car.
The Aviator comes standard with the Sync 3 infotainment system, operated via a 10.1-inch touchscreen. Earlier this year, we reviewed the Ford Explorer, which had a screen that was roughly the same size, but arranged in portrait layout, which made for an odd setup. The screen protruded from the dash in an almost absurd way, and more importantly, it scrunched Apple CarPlay into the top half of the screen.
Meanwhile, the Aviator’s Sync 3 screen uses a more conventional landscape layout, and when you plug your iPhone in via USB, it presents Apple CarPlay across the entire screen, providing massive icons and readouts. This is the ideal way to interface with such tech, and the same can be done for Android Auto.
The Aviator has a fully digital instrument panel, and our test car came with a massive head-up display. The display moved many features to a single row, spread across the bottom of the HUD readout. This provides a lot of information while being minimalist and unobtrusive.
Standard safety features include a full array of front and side-impact airbags, traction control, and a tire pressure monitoring system. The Aviator also comes with a full complement of driver-assistance systems as part of Lincoln Co-Pilot360. This suite includes forward-collision avoidance, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. Other safety tech includes blind-spot monitoring and the aforementioned head-up display.
The 2020 Lincoln Aviator has a base MSRP of $51,100. The Reserve trim starts at $56,190, and our Grand Touring test model started at $68,800. On the high end of the trim lineup, the Black Label starts at $77,695, while the range-topping Black Label Grand Touring costs $87,800. Those Black Label prices are absurd, but the Grand Touring is a bit more reasonable. Still, for what you get with the Standard trim, we’re more inclined to recommend it.
Lincoln has seemingly been fumbling around for decades, looking to find its groove. Accomplishing something like that goes beyond a look, a drivetrain, a suite of technology, or a clever marketing campaign. For a brand to really get its groove back, many of these have to arrive at the same time. With the Aviator, many of these are arriving, and as a result, the Aviator is far more than just a really nice Explorer. It’s a 3-row luxury SUV unto itself, and it finally gives Lincoln a contender in a hotly competitive segment.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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