Lincoln's Prince of a Navigator

The Navigator has been redesigned for 2007. It's handsomer and plusher than ever. But is it good enough to beat the Escalade?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Handsome; comfortable; well-priced

The Bad: Poor fuel economy; could be more powerful; undefined brand image

The Bottom Line: A terrific SUV, but is it right for you?

Up Front

The guys at Lincoln must really hate the guys at Cadillac. Over the past decade Cadillac has rolled out one successful new product after another and watched its sales climb year over year, while Lincoln continues to come out with yawners like the MKZ and its perennial sales champ, the solid yet boring Town Car.

Even when Lincoln comes out with a winner, as it has with the redesigned Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac still steals the show. For the first two months of this year the Navigator sold 3,635 units as compared with the Cadillac Escalade, which sold 6,965, nearly twice as many (see, 11/2/06, "Cadillac's Crown Jewel").

Anyone familiar with the automotive world of recent years knows that the Escalade is one of Detroit's unbridled successes, enjoying an apotheosis to iconic status. The Navigator, which actually came to market a year before the Escalade and was the first American-built luxury SUV, is still considered only a lesser angel in the automotive firmament.

One of the reasons was that Lincoln failed to successfully market the Navigator by going after a more urban audience the way Cadillac did with the Escalade. But Lincoln went about designing an SUV the same way it would a car. It made the Navigator roomy and luxurious but underpowered. When the Escalade came along with its big 255-horsepower, 5.7-liter Vortec 5700 V-8, which it borrowed along with its platform from the GMC Yukon Denali, the Navigator found itself outgunned. In fact, I remember driving both vehicles back-to-back in 2001 and, while I was largely unimpressed with the Escalade's interior, couldn't help but be wowed by its big-engined power.

Like all General Motors' (GM) cars, the Escalade has also benefited in recent years by a great attention to interior detail and luxury. The Escalade no longer looks like a rebadged Denali with a different grille. It has been rethought inside and out, and its high-end model, the $59,470 ESV, comes with a suite of luxury options such as a climate package; $995 power sunroof; $1,295 rear entertainment system; $2,495 information package with rearview camera, DVD-based navigation, and Intellibeam automated head lamps; and, of course, gorgeous $2,995 22-in. chrome aluminum wheels, as well as increased frame rigidity, an all-new suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering.

But the Navigator isn't about to give up without a fight. For 2007 Lincoln has given it a redesigned interior and a handsomer exterior, complete with a more aggressive chrome grille and HID headlights, fender flares, and body side-trim. Eighteen-inch machined aluminum wheels come standard; the 20-in. chrome wheels cost $1,495 more. The new model has a quieter, more luxurious interior and a 300-horsepower, 5.4-liter Triton V-8 engine with a standard 6-speed automatic transmission. But is that enough to win people over from the Escalade? To find out, read on.

Behind the Wheel

When the attendant at the Ford (F) dealership pulled up in the shiny black Navigator that I would be testing I could not help but be struck by how handsome it looked. The attendant noticed my appreciation and said, "Yeah, you're going to have fun in this baby."

But I have been driving and testing cars long enough not to be fooled by a little show of polished cladding or a wink of chrome. To me, the proof of the pudding is in the interior. It's easy to make a car look big or go fast, but it's what's on the inside that counts. The reason is that it reflects the level of detail that a car company is willing to invest in its product. That's because you can't see the interior from outside and car companies know that visual impressions are often the best advertising. People see a beautiful or cool-looking car tooling down the street or on television, and they react to it.

But the interior is actually more important because that's where buyers spend all their time.

Detroit seemed to have forgotten that crucial detail for several years but now, finally, is reversing course. The main reason, of course, is that Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) figured out long ago that good interior fit-and-finish, combined with a reasonable sticker price, is a more effective tool for selling cars than massive horsepower.

Like GM, Ford is beginning to upgrade its insides. The Ford model line is developing an interior design language across its products but Lincoln, because it is more upscale, looks different. The look is less "industrial" than Ford's, with an emphasis on a more sophisticated style, including wood veneers and better quality plastics. Is it as nice as a Range Rover's interior? Not even close—but then the Rover starts at around $76,000, or nearly $20,000 more than a fully loaded Navigator (including the power running boards, rear-seat DVD player and 20-in. chrome hubcaps.) Of course, both Rover and Lincoln are owned by Ford and presumably Ford doesn't want the two vehicles to compete for the same buyer.

That being said, the Lincoln's interior is a big improvement over previous models. What is also improved is the vehicle's suspension, which offers a new rear multilink version for a smoother ride. Handling is also better, thanks to the new AdvanceTrac electronic stability enhancement system that modifies braking and engine power.

After the plushness of the interior and ride—which, after all, are Lincoln hallmarks—we come to the matter of the engine. The 5.4-liter 300-hp V-8 is still underpowered when compared with the Escalade's 6.2-liter, 403-hp V-8. Nor is the fuel economy worth bragging about. The two-wheel-drive Navigator gets 13 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway, and the two-wheel-drive Escalade gets 14 and 18 respectively, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA does not rate the four-wheel-drive version of the Navigator.

Buy It or Bag It?

I liked the Navigator very much and was not as put off by its inferior horsepower as some buyers might be. The piggish fuel economy is a concern, though, but then again other luxury SUVs fare about as poorly.

I guess the question comes down to who sees themselves driving a Navigator. Although it is not as blinged-out as the Escalade, it certainly isn't what one would call subtle. And yes, it is extremely comfortable and quite roomy, but so are plenty of other SUVs of this size. In fact, the Chevy Suburban is just as comfortable, much larger, less expensive, and offers comparable fuel economy (see, 3/30/07, "Chevy's Suburban Angst").

One of the other places where the Navigator offers a distinct advantage over the Escalade is in price. Lincoln gives it an MSRP of $48,755, while the Caddy starts at $54,500. Fully loaded, the Navigator's Ultimate 4x4 version costs $50,655—before options—and the Escalade ESV is $59,470. Compared to the much more expensive Porsche Cayenne or the Range Rover—even the Lexus LX470 and Infiniti QX56 cost more—the Navigator is the best-priced SUV in its class.

The problems that plague the Navigator today are the same that they have always been: muddled brand image and a need for a more powerful engine option. In many ways, this is a problem across Lincoln's entire brand line (see, 12/12/06, "Saving Lincoln"). The company has been struggling with its luxury identity, and new models like the MKZ and MKX haven't exactly been flying out of the showrooms.

If Lincoln can fix these problems, then there is no reason why the Navigator shouldn't see a surge in sales. Now, if it were to offer a hybrid version it would probably beat the pants off the Escalade…

Click here to see more of the 2007 Lincoln Navigator.

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