Lincoln's new Blackwood is a curious creation, almost as noteworthy for what it isn't as for what it is.
It is not a sport utility. While having four doors and casting a larger shadow than the Ford Navigator, it carries only four occupants. And the luxuriously appointed cargo space behind the second-row seats can't be accessed from the passenger compartment.
It is not a pickup. The bed is topped by a power-operated, forward-hinged, weather-proof, lockable lid that caps cargo capacity at 26.5 cubic feet. The bed's carpeting, brushed-aluminum sides and LED lighting will leave stockers at the local home improvement warehouse store laughing.
But it will give two couples plush, commodious transport for a night on the town. And the bed will accommodate a threesome's golf bags with room to spare.
Perhaps what matters most is few buyers will see another on the road. Lincoln is limiting production to less than 10,000 per year. Exclusivity adds to its appeal, say Lincoln marketing executives.
If the Blackwood looks familiar, it should. Never one to spend money frivolously, Ford culled the stylists' bin in creating the Blackwood. From front bumper to windshield, the Blackwood is a Lincoln Navigator, save for the foglights. Twixt windshield and cargo bed, it's a Ford F-150 SuperCrew, the four-door version of the company's best-selling pickup.
The bed is, in fact, the only all-new element of the Blackwood. And the bed is the feature Ford counts on to set the Blackwood apart from the competition, which is for now confined to the Cadillac Escalade EXT.
This appears to be a good strategy. The Lincoln Navigator has been a winner for Ford's upscale brand. Buyers have not been stampeding Lincoln dealers in quest of Navigators, however, and sales have slowed recently. Ford's F-150 SuperCrew has been successful in the limited market at which it is aimed.
People who can buy into the limited-utility concept will find a subtle elegance in the treatment.
The concept Blackwood, which debuted at the 1999 Los Angeles Auto Show with major league baseball's home-run king Mark MacGuire at the wheel, sported a bed with an exterior paneled in real hardwood highlighted by thin, horizontal strips of brushed aluminum.
The production version looks the same, but the wood is fake. And inside the bed, the concept's neon tubes have given way to light-emitting diodes - they're cooler and more durable.
The concept's Dutch-door-like, side-hinged tailgate survived, to spare the lower backs of owners from the stress of hefting golf bags or even groceries over an extended tailgate.
As with the exterior, a good portion of the Blackwood's interior comes from the Lincoln Navigator. There's a wood-and-leather steering wheel, a combination that seems to be emerging as a must-have on any vehicle aspiring to claim a luxury label. The instrument panel, stereo controls and the air conditioning system come from the Navigator. New, however, are thin strips of real, stained oak gracing the dash in front of the passenger and the doors.
The seats, too, are Navigator-sourced. The rear two straddle their own center console boasting a seemingly bottomless storage bin and can be folded flat to accommodate extra-large packages from the likes of Neiman-Marcus or Best Buy.
The cooling system in the front seats worked refreshingly well in Santa Barbara, California. Offering five settings, it promises to have the seats cooled in two minutes. It did.
Storage bins large enough for a handbag or small package hide behind the foldable rear seats.
In addition to the auxiliary power point in the base of dash beneath the climate control panel, there's another in the rear of the front center console, in the door jamb on the right-side rear door and inside the tailgate.
All of this is fine and good and impressive, as long as the Blackwood is the only luxury, sport-utility truck on the market. While not much more than a gussied-up, re-badged Chevrolet Avalanche, the Cadillac Escalade EXT could offer a significant challenge.
The Blackwood does not offer the interior roominess of the Cadillac EXT, though the Blackwood does offer slightly more rear passenger headroom.
In a ying/yang sort of sense, the same holds for the cargo area. Yes, the Blackwood's trunk holds less than 27 cubic feet, but it does so in a luxurious, pampering sort of way.
The EXT's cargo area, on the other hand, is more utilitarian. The trick is the patented Midgate, a foldable wall between the passenger compartment and the pickup bed. With the midgate up, the EXT is a four-door, crew cab-like luxury pickup. Down, the suburbia-standard 4X8-foot sheet of plywood will lay flat on the floor, which extends into the cab to just behind the front seats. In that mode, the EXT's cargo capacity reaches 41.1 cubic feet. And with the tri-fold, semi-rigid bed cover removed, the EXT becomes a short-bed pickup, with all the flexibility that provides.
The Blackwood may look like a truck, but it doesn't drive like one.
Lincoln re-calibrated the Navigator's power steering, front shock absorbers and front suspension and developed a new, leaf/air spring rear suspension especially for the Blackwood, all in an attempt to bestow car-like handling on what's essentially a serious pickup.
The effort mostly succeeds. Steering is lighter than in the Navigator. The constantly adjusting air springs in the rear offer the added benefit of a self-leveling rear suspension.
In addition, the four-passenger cabin effectively shifts the weight distribution rearward from that of even an extended-cab pickup. On the Blackwood, this delivers a near perfect, and very car-like, 50:50 front/rear balance. This minimizes an unloaded pickup's tendency to be light in the rear end, causing the rear tires to lose grip in tight corners. Still, the center of gravity is noticeably higher than in a car, so even though it has fatter tires than the Navigator, drivers will know this is no sports car.
Four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS do a commendable job of slowing the Blackwood.
Visibility from the driver's seat is good, if not great. Its truck roots dictate thicker windshield and door pillars than on a car. But the elevated seating position lets drivers plan ahead as traffic conditions in front change.
The optional navigation system was less than optimal, however. The maps were fine, if a ways out of the driver's line of sight with the screen mounted at the forward end of the center console below the dash. Like many of these systems, it's not 100 percent and sometimes directed us the wrong way.
The Blackwood is primarily a styling statement. Look at us, at Lincoln. We're different. We're offering luxury where it hasn't been offered. That makes us The Best.
As superficial as this may sound, the Blackwood does well what it sets out to do. The ride and handling are equal to and in some measures better than the Navigator's; don't be surprised to see some of this trickle down in the near future. The interior packaging is well thought out and executed.
The proportions look awkward, but maybe time will train the eye to accept something different from what it's used to.