Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
Hot Springs, Virginia – Despite what it says on that shiny new wrapper, there’s no way you’re going to be flying a Lincoln Aviator anytime soon.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. SUVs, after all, due to their height and high centres of gravity, are more prone to airborne antics
after wheel-droppings and steering overcorrections, so that the Aviator isn’t a flyer comes as good news. Its wide stance and chunky 17-inch
wheels make the Aviator feel stable, planted, and confident in the turns, despite its traditionally sturdy ladder-on-frame construction.
In fact, thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension, the Aviator feels positively car-like. It’s been tuned more for ride comfort than
pure handling–that’s as the way it should be for a family-friendly SUV–but the steering responds faithfully and linearly to every input,
the brakes are alert with strong stopping power and little nosedive, and body roll (and the resultant head-tossing motion common in tall
vehicles) is very well controlled. On some of Virginia’s most sinuous back roads, the Aviator was a cinch to drive, despite its size; for a
midsize SUV this is about as enjoyable as it gets.
Click image to enlarge
Despite 302 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, the Aviator’s not really going to fly down the road, either. Sure, there’s snap-to-it
response to the gas pedal from the gutsy V8, but given it’s tugging around more than 4000 pounds, the modular engine still struggles on
steep uphill grades; it doesn’t make much noise, but what noise it does make has a gruff, kind of truckish edge to it. Nevertheless, its
deep-chested, lazy-revving character makes for energetic stoplight takeoffs, and lots of low-down torque means you never have to reach
into higher revs to make adequate progress. The five-speed automatic is a gem, with quick and smooth shifts under any condition; towing capability is best-in-class, at 7500 lbs.
One major advantage that Aviator holds over the Explorer on which it is very loosely based is a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. There is no low range (you wouldn’t take this Lincoln that far off-road anyway, would you?) but nor is there any button to push or knob to twist to engage full traction; it’s there pretty much all the time, and power–under normal conditions split 30/70 for a distinct rear-drive feel–is diverted to the wheels that could use it most automatically, without any intervention.
Driving details aside, what makes Aviator an exceptionally well-resolved, and beautifully-refined, conveyance, is its sumptuous cabin appointments. It partly comes from being designed from inside out; the exterior styling is conservative–timeless, you could suggest, thanks to some nice details like the lights and wheels–but the boxy body has liberated a lot of interior space, enough for what is the most useful third-row seat in the class; it’s not roomy, really, but is at least habitable for short trips.
The interior is packed with thoughtful features, like multiple storage bins, sunglass holders, and other places to lose your stuff. The seats are big, plush, and comfortable over long distances. There’s an optional DVD system to keep rear-seat passengers entertained (too bad it doesn’t have the LS’ THX-certified audio system), an in-dash 6-CD changer, and the front seats are ventilated as well as heated. Power assists for everything are, of course, standard.
Cabin quality and design is simply among the best in the business–as nice as a Navigator, at 7/8ths scale. The leather is rich, the dash has a fine grain that would do a BMW proud, and the big “T” of silver plastic that divides the symmetrical dashboard (a throwback to the design-icon Continentals of years past) looks fantastic. Too bad this, and the rest of the metal-painted surfaces aren’t really metal, but they do elevate the cabin’s ambiance way above the class norm. Which makes it all the more irritating that some cheap touches undermine the whole thing–power adjustment only for the bottom cushion of the seat, for example, or a mirror adjuster ripped off a Focus and painted silver to match the rest of the insides.
Aviator’s wide stance (true, this is partly illusory, as an Acura MDX is nearly four inches wider) makes for an elbow-friendly cabin; the seats and scooped-out door panels, along with generous head- and leg-room in the first two rows mean you’re never lacking for space. Nor airiness: not only is the tall cabin glazed with vast quantities of safety glass, and the interior finishes are light and bright. The rear windows go all the way down, too.
One thing about that name: if perhaps “Aviator” isn’t the best moniker for this vehicle given its relaxed, road-tripping luxury mission, it may hit just the right metaphorical tone for the way this thing will depart showroom floors. Aviator is a near-perfect luxury SUV compromise, with impressive room, excellent feature content. It also looks, even from close up, exactly like a much more expensive Navigator–whose massive size and fuel consumption exclude it from consideration for many people who might otherwise consider a Lincoln SUV.