I like the 2020 Lincoln Aviator a great deal, and for good reasons. It’s handsome for its class of premium SUVs (sport-utility vehicles); drives better than some of its German and Japanese rivals; is technologically advanced; boasts handsome materials that fit nicely; and, has bags of room for people and cargo.
I have more, still, to say, about the Aviator itself as a high-end SUV, but first let’s talk about brands. Luxury shoppers are brand conscious and because of that, the Aviator is destined to be an underappreciated also-ran.
You see, despite ladling pots of money into Lincoln, Ford Motor has made a cock-up of this once-storied brand. I mean, presidents used to ride around in Lincolns.
Alas, Lincoln is a story of mismanagement and neglect on a colossal scale. But here’s the rub, if you care about the history of once-great brands in the car business: one path to promotion at Ford is to run Lincoln and fail to achieve tangible sales growth.
You see, the incoming CEO of Ford, Jim Farley, was responsible for Lincoln during the early part of the 2010s. Lincoln sales halved from 2003-2010, but he promised to put a jolt into Lincoln, to restore the brand’s luster, increase sales and stop a decades-long slide into irrelevancy.
Alas, with Farley in charge, Lincoln sales fell in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Lincoln went from a dot to a tiny blip in the luxury universe. Farley, of course, was promoted even as Lincoln failed. Now he’s in the top job at Ford. Go figure.
Then there’s Kumar Galhotra. He’s the new head of the Americas AND International Markets Group. Big job, pushed even further upstairs from head of the Americas. He ran Lincoln and various other bits and pieces of Ford from 2014 onward, succeeding Farley. Lincoln sales fell during two of his four years at the wheel, from 2015-18.
Let me summarize: from 2010 to 2019, with Farley and Galhotra in charge of Lincoln, and during boom times in luxury car sales, Lincoln’s share of the U.S. market dropped to 0.66% from – brace yourself – 0.74%. In other words, while all the other luxury boats were rising on a sea of low interest rates, tax cuts for the wealthy and stellar overall economic growth, Lincoln was bailing madly just to stay afloat. Numbers: sales hit a whopping 112,204 in 2019 (U.S.) from a miniscule 85,828 in 2010. Since 2003, Lincoln has not managed to garner even 1% of luxury sales.
Yet despite this corporate catastrophe, the two executives who have been responsible for Lincoln over the past decade, are now at the very top of Ford Motor, in charge of the total enterprise. Ford is in trouble for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is the failures at Lincoln. The company has lost out on profits that should have come from luxury cars during a time of stunning growth. Ford has missed out on the democratization of the luxury car segment. The incompetence here is mind-blowing.
I’m not the head of a car company, but it’s fairly easy to put your finger on what’s wrong with Lincoln: the marketplace sees Lincoln’s vehicles as rebadged Fords. On top of that, Lincoln has been criticized for its mediocre dealer network and uneven marketing. In Canada, Lincolns are sold out of storefronts attached to Ford dealers. As you shop for an Aviator, you can see its Explorer cousin just across the linoleum floor. That’s not what you’d call brand differentiation.
Yet in all this fumbling, Lincoln has done something very, very good with the new Aviator. Credit here, of course, must go to the Ford engineers who revamped the Explorer SUV (sport-utility vehicle) on which the Aviator is based.
The Aviator is not inexpensive, at a starting price just under $70,000. Nonetheless, it’s a handsome piece. I suspect, however, that the Lincoln brand’s weaknesses put a terrible weight on the Aviator. If the Aviator were the very best SUV ever designed and executed, most luxury buyers would still ignore it. A shame.
Let me tell you about what Lincoln has achieved here. The three-row Aviator is just a size down from the gargantuan Navigator and a step up from the Nautilus. My AWD (all-wheel drive) Reserve model listed for $69,000 and was filled with enough extras and delivery fees to drive the final sticker to $86,585. You can also get a plug-in hybrid called Grand Touring, starting at $81,000.
Even the most grizzled critic must concede that the Aviator has a lovely stance for a big rig, flowing sheetmetal, a handsome grille and a tidy finish at the rear. I hesitate to call any rig of this size “graceful,” but I suppose its apt, in a Titanic sort of way.
When you approach, soft puddle lamps greet you and the lighting package looks terrific at night, especially the lighted grille emblem. The door handles have soft-touch activators and the doors themselves are soft-closing. Feels expensive and they’ll cost you extra, as part of the $2,000 Convenience Package.
Once you’re aboard, you’ll need to take time to adjust the 30-way seats before punching up the massage function. The middle seats in my tester were individual buckets — quite okay — and they move so you can access the fold-flat third row seats that lack padding and legroom. Storage? An available full-size rear centre console adds storage and cupholders for the second-row riders, and there’s a big box between the fronts, too.
Note: you can flatten the third row via cargo area controls. Third-row flat, the cargo area is generous and there’s storage under the floor, too. Properly equipped, you can tow up to 6,700 lbs.
The big centre touchscreen isn’t exactly artwork, but its functional and easy to use. Various buttons allow you quickly to manage the sound system and climate control. The steering wheel has a button to activate the voice controls. Most everything is intuitive, though I’d like the infotainment responses to be quicker.
I won’t bother listing the numerous standard features. I will mention the Co-Pilot 360 Plus suite of technologies in more detail, but for the moment take note that it includes a self-parking feature that reverses this rig into a parking space all by itself, as long as the rear camera is clear of rain or muck.
Once you’re moving forward, the twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V-6 shows itself well, strong and smooth with a hint of growl. Power is rated at 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque and is run through a 10-speed automatic transmission (13.7 L/100 km in the city, 9.7 on the highway, and 11.9 L/100 km in combined driving with regular fuel). The $3,500 Dynamic Handling Package gives you four-corner air suspension, adaptive steering, and adaptive suspension with a “road preview” camera that scans ahead, looking for imperfection and adjusting the suspension accordingly.
You also get all the safety features imaginable, from blind-spot monitoring to automatic high-beam headlamps. That 360 Plus thingy gives you adaptive cruise control and a bunch of other almost-self-driving capabilities.
Lincoln hopes you’ll at least cross-shop the Aviator against the likes of Volvo’s XC90 and Jaguar’s F-Pace, the Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride, Cadillac’s XT6, Audi’s Q7 and more (Acura MDX, BMW X5, Infiniti QX60, Land Rover Discovery, Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz GLE.
The problem is, the Aviator doesn’t boast a pricing advantage over any of them, other than the Q7 and the X5. So good as the Aviator itself is, the sullied Lincoln brand diminishes the goodness of the rig itself.
We could bring up with problem with Ford’s management, but, well, you know the story there.