Source: Ford Motor Co.

Rapper’s Ride Reborn: Navigator Charts Comeback as Family Hauler

  • Model languished after Lincoln topped late-’90s luxury market
  • Toyota, VW, Subaru SUVs make headlines at New York show

Back when it was the squad car of choice among hip-hop moguls, the Lincoln Navigator lifted Ford Motor Co.’s luxury line to the top of the charts. To climb the sales ranks again, the brand has bet the model’s future lies in becoming a family hauler.

Clad in aluminum body panels, the Navigator making its debut Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show will weigh in 200 pounds lighter. But its massive lattice-work grille, 22-inch wheels and imposing stance brings just as much bling as the original that Sean “Puffy” Combs used as his getaway vehicle from a 1999 nightclub altercation.

The Lincoln Navigator

Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

Lincoln leveraged the Navigator’s street cred on its way to becoming the top-selling premium line in America in 1998. The model was passed up by another sport utility vehicle often shouted out in rap lyrics, General Motors Co.’s Cadillac Escalade. Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra says the latest Navigator has been designed for “family time” and aimed at affluent parents to take their kids to school and on weekend adventures.

“It’s about time we renew this car,” David Woodhouse, Lincoln’s design chief, said in an interview. “From a design perspective, it’s like a rebirth.”

As was the case during the heyday of the Lincoln brand and the Navigator, the U.S. auto market is in the midst of an SUV boom. The lineup at this week’s show in New York caters to the segment’s sizzling demand. Toyota Motor Corp. showed an off-road concept with rear doors that open both horizontally and vertically. Subaru Corp. tipped its hand on the design of its upcoming three-row model called the Ascent. Volkswagen AG, readying a jumbo model called Atlas for its diesel scandal redemption bid, said a new five-seat SUV model based on the same platform will be joining the lineup.

‘Obscene’ Profit

The Navigator has long been an important member of the Lincoln family. For years as Ford struggled to revive Lincoln, the Navigator remained a reliable seller. While U.S. deliveries on the aging model declined 13 percent last year, the big SUV has consistently delivered some of the largest profits in Lincoln’s portfolio.

“The net profit on a Navigator is obscene,” said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and former Ford product planner who worked on the original Navigator. “This vehicle is tremendously important to Ford and to Lincoln’s comeback.”

By forgoing major redesigns of the Navigator and its sibling, the Ford Expedition, for about 15 years, Ford ceded ground in big SUVs to its crosstown rival GM. With models like the Cadillac Escalade, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, GM controls three quarters of the large and luxury model segment.

GM’s fresher lineup of bossy beasts has handed the company a $2 billion profit advantage over Ford, Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated.

“The profit pool is enormous for these large, body-on-frame SUVs,” Bob Shanks, Ford’s chief financial officer, said in a January interview. “Right now, General Motors gets a disproportionate share of that.”

GM won’t be letting its guard down -- it’s introducing the all-new Buick Enclave Avenir in New York. The seven-passenger luxury SUV offers an air ionizer that attracts contaminants and breaks them down to clear the cabin air of odors.

Wi-fi, Screens

Ford has packed the Navigator with 75 new features, including standard wi-fi and a dozen power outlets. Optional 10-inch entertainment screens in the second row of seats can stream content wirelessly from passengers’ Android phones. Its speed-sensitive headlights widen their spray of illumination at slower speeds to provide better vision in neighborhoods.

The Lincoln Navigator interior.

Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

The Navigator’s designers took advantage of its broad face to “double decker” the headlights, Woodhouse said. “It portrays power, substance and protection to the family.”

Going brash and big is the right call for Ford to make on the Navigator because it’s quintessentially American, Wolkonowicz said.

“Lincoln gets that this is a unique flavor of American luxury that’s got to have plenty of bling,” Wolkonowicz said. “Lincoln is not -- emphatically not -- trying to be BMW.”

Sales Trends

Lincoln’s take on American luxury is translating well in China, where sales tripled in 2016 to about 33,000 vehicles in the brand’s second full year in that market. In the first three months of 2017, Lincoln’s China sales have doubled from a year earlier, Galhotra said.

In the U.S., Lincoln deliveries rose 8.7 percent in the first quarter to 27,083 units, driven by a fast start for the redesigned Continental sedan that’s outselling Cadillac’s flagship CT6.

The Navigator will go on sale in the U.S. in the final three months of this year and debut in China in the first quarter of 2018, Galhotra said.

The SUV made its way into rhymes from the likes of Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Ludacris. The long overdue remake of the Navigator might finally get it back on the radar of rappers, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with researcher LMC Automotive.

“Getting it into the hands of stars has got to be part of the marketing plan,” Schuster said. “The image of a vehicle like this is very important to that group. This redesign is a much needed breath of fresh air.”

— With assistance by David Welch, Anne Riley Moffat, and Gabrielle Coppola

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