Once upon a time, people in Detroit risked their jobs to denigrate the Lincoln Navigator. So powerful and surprising was its draw in the late ‘90s that Cadillac officials lied about their sales figures to avoid having the Navigator drive Lincoln to supremacy of Detroit luxury sales.
Today, you can go many an hour in major cities without spotting a new Navigator on the roads, and the very idea of a luxury SUV big enough to tow a boat seems out of sync with the age. Yet just as Cadillac has revamped the Escalade, so too Lincoln has made the Navigator new-ish for 2015 — albeit with a redesign that you can’t help but see.
At its peak in 1998, Lincoln sold nearly 44,000 Navigators a year, making more profit per vehicle than any other vehicle Ford bolted together. Since the economic collapse, Lincoln has moved just over 8,000 a year — despite a resurgence in luxury seven-seat SUVs driven by slightly smaller competitors from the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class to the Audi Q7. (In theory the Lincoln MKT is supposed to compete there. In practice, it’s just too weird; in an up market last year, sales fell 15 percent.)
Credit Lincoln’s designers one thing: They were not afraid to go bold. The Navigator’s truck chassis offers the worst platform for Lincoln’s new styling approach; it’s cliff face of an engine bay was meant to carry a Ford logo perpendicular to the ground, not the swept-back grille Lincoln has chosen as its signature. Behind the new chrome and LED headlamps, Lincoln has made another bold choice, dumping the 310 hp, 5.4-liter V-8 for a 3.5-liter Ecoboost twin-turbo V-6 it claims will generate at least 370 hp and 430 lb.-ft. of torque. Lincoln contends the mill should provide bragging rights over the new Escalade in towing, one of the few areas where truck-based SUVs still draw admirers. (If there's a sizable improvement in fuel efficiency, Lincoln's keeping silent about it.)
Inside, the renovations seem less drastic. The liftgate now powers up and down by remote. The wood accents are from actual trees rather than photos of wood grain printed on plastic. If you’re a luxury SUV shopper who was just waiting for a heated second-row seat with European stitched leather, all your Christmases have come at once.
Unlike the new Escalade, the Navigator soldiers on with the same underlying chassis it’s used since 2007. But so what? Buyers shopping for this kind of jeroboam of Detroit luxury want something capable of the occasional rough road. It’s telling that the Navigator alone escapes Lincoln’s MK-something naming regime. This redesign might keep the Navigator in mind among current owners; for everyone else, Lincoln will have to find some other way to pick a fight with the competition.