A moderate facelift for 2005 gave the Navigator a kinder and gentler appearance, more like a luxury vehicle, less like a truck. At the same time, the Navigator got a small boost in power from a new 5.4-liter, single-overhead-cam V8 with three valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. It's paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that responds to varying driving situations and contributes to a satisfying driving experience. This combination yielded lower emissions as well. There are no major changes for 2006.
Safety features include canopy-style air bags, designed to offer head protection in a side impact or rollover, and a sonar-based Reverse Sensing System that can help warn drivers of an object (or a child on a tricycle) immediately behind the vehicle whenever shifting into reverse. AdvanceTrac stability control with Roll Stability Control, which comes standard, can help the driver maintain control in an emergency handling situation.
Navigator's cabin is attractive and comfortable. Even the third-row seats are relatively comfortable for adults. When it's time to haul cargo, simply press a button on the keyless remote and the power liftgate raises, then walk up to the rear of the vehicle and press a pair of buttons and the third-row seats glide down to reveal a perfectly flat cargo area.
Lincoln Navigator 2WD ($50,325); 4WD ($53,875)
For 2005, however, the Navigator got a significant facelift that resulted in a cleaner, more upscale appearance. New side cladding dispensed with the old fussy, double-layered look and integrated better with the restyled running boards. Similarly, the front fascia traded the stubbly jawed suggestion of a brush bar for a clean, boldly horizontal lower air intake. A straight black band across the bottom of the fascia reduced the visual mass of the blocker bar designed to improve the safety of people in other cars in a collision.
Those changes gave the Navigator a richer, more substantial look. It looks more like a Lincoln. For the past 70 years (at least) Lincoln's most memorable designs have been its most pure and clean, while the Lincolns we'd like most to forget appear to have resulted from occasional, unrestrained impulses to try to out bling-bling Cadillac. In short, the current design is the best-looking Navigator ever.
Power-retractable running boards are available on all Navigators. When a door is opened, the running boards quietly extend out by four inches to allow easier access to the vehicle. When the doors are closed the running boards automatically retract under the rocker panels.
The large door mirrors fold in to the body at the touch of a button for maneuvering in tight quarters, such as the entrance to your garage or in crowded parking spaces. Auxiliary turn signals are incorporated into the lower edges of the mirrors. An approach lamp housed in the mirrors illuminates the ground alongside the vehicle when the key fob unlock button is activated, a nice feature on stormy nights, or in dark public garages; and especially helpful when you drop something.
Lincoln says the symmetrical instrument panel was inspired by the twin-cowl design of the 1961 Continental. It works well in the Navigator, enhancing the spaciousness of the interior as it curves up from the wide center console across the top of the instrument pod on one side, and across the glove box on the other. The surface is grained with a pebble texture. American walnut burl trim on the dashboard and door trim looks rich and warms the interior. The center dash and other interior surfaces are finished in a low-luster satin-nickel color that matches the rest of the trim nicely.
The center stack is dominated by a satin-nickel panel that hides the navigation system and audio controls. Closing the panel cleans up the interior nicely, leaving only the climate controls exposed. However, the panel lid is a bit fussy as you can't simply press it down, you have to grasp it between thumb and finger and close it, but it quickly becomes instinctive. At the top of the dash is an elegant analog clock that's easy to set.
The Navigator navigates very well indeed when equipped with the optional navigation system. We found it easy to set destinations and the maps are easy to see on the screen. Setting the volume for voice commands requires going into a menu, however, and discerning the distance to the next turn can be a challenge at speed. And the system is pricey. But we can't imagine purchasing a Navigator without a navigation system, and that's not just because it sounds right. The system is executed well and easy to learn, not true of all such systems. And it quickly recalculated routes through maze of roads in the complex coastal roads of hilly Palos Verdes without making any mistakes.
Finding switches at night is easy. LEDs (120 of them) are used throughout the cabin to illuminate buttons and controls. The label for each control is laser etched into the satin nickel surface so that it appears black in daylight yet illuminates at night with a nice white glow. The driver and front-seat passengers get his and hers controls for the climate system. Passengers in the second row of seats get their own climate controls.
All seats are finished in leather with a milled pebble finish. The power controls are on the sides of the seat and are easy to find and operate. A two-position memory for the driver's seat includes the mirrors and the power-adjustable pedals. The front seats can be heated or cooled and the buttons to perform this feat are easy to find and operate.
The center console is fairly large, but not as convenient as that in the Ford Expedition. Worse, the window switches are located immediately ahead of the center console, which seems less convenient and more distracting than having them on the doors.
The second-row bucket seats are roomy and comfortable. A large center console between the rear bucket seats provides storage for second-row passengers. A second-row bench seat is available to increase the seating capacity from seven to eight. But it's much more than just a bench seat: it's split 40/20/40, with a narrow center section that can slide forward 11 inches to position a child seat conveniently close to the driver or front-seat passenger.
The third-row seat is relatively comfortable, even for adults. The independent rear suspension permits a lower floor in the back, freeing up room for a more comfortable seating position. The third-row bench seat is split 60/40 and can hold three people. On paper, the Navigator's third row provides slightly more legroom than the GMC Yukon XL or Cadillac Escalade ESV, and significantly more than the Tahoe or standard-wheelbase Escalade.
One of the Navigator's neatest features is the power folding mechanism for the third row of seats. At the press of a button the rear seat folds down to
Anybody who enjoys driving a European car would be happy with the steering on the Navigator. On the other hand, we can imagine some loyal Lincoln buyers having a little difficulty adapting to a steering system that reacts to a driver's input with such immediacy. Meanwhile, the independent rear suspension keeps the wheels firmly on the ground, with no axle tramping over bumps or undulations, a problem with most SUVs because they use solid rear axles.
With such great handling, one expects outstanding acceleration as well, but in this regard we've found past Navigators lacking when compared to the 6.0-liter, 345-horsepower Cadillac Escalade. Even with last year's new three-valve engine, Navigator comes up short compared with Escalade. The Lincoln rates just 300 horsepower (if one can use just and 300 horsepower in the same sentence) and 365 pound-feet of torque, compared to the Caddy's 380 pound-feet. In its favor, the Navigator develops its peak torque at 3750 rpm, compared to a slightly more peaky 4000 for the Escalade.
On the road, we found the latest Navigator smooth and responsive, though it lacks the sharpness of the Escalade or Infiniti QX56 (which is about the same size). Lincoln designed the three-valve V8 to produce strong torque across the entire operating range, and it does, making the Navigator a good vehicle for towing. The single-cam, three-valve engine is a few pounds lighter as well than the four-valve, twin-cam V8 it replaced, with a stiffer iron block that reduces noise and vibration. Lincoln says the three-valve design helps reduce emissions. Navigator requires premium gasoline.
Navigator's six-speed automatic transmission comes from ZF of Germany, and is the first of its kind in a full-size SUV. It's the same transmission that Jaguar installs in its flagship XJ sedan. Having more gears makes it possible to keep the engine operating near optimal rpm more of the time, while a wider span of ratios allows both quicker launches and more relaxed cruising, which would be mutually exclusive otherwise. We found the six-speed automatic worked very well. It performed exactly how we wanted it to, neither downshifting nor upshifting inappropriately. It would hold a gear when going downhill, for example, and on one descent it provided enough engine braking to eliminate the need to use the brakes.
Standard on all Navigators, AdvanceTrac stability control monitors factors such as yaw rate and steering wheel position to determine whether the Navigator is turning as its driver intended. The system can reduce engine power or selectively apply the brakes at individual wheels (something no driver can do) to correct a skid almost before it starts. Roll Stability Control monitors body roll and takes corrective action to reduce the chance of rolling over. Neither system can violate the laws of physics, but in many cases they can prevent a moment's inattention from turning to disaster.
The Lincoln Navigator combines the towing and hauling capabilities you'd expect from a full-size SUV with the smooth and pleasant driving experience you'd want in a luxury sedan. Its interior is modern and stylish and it has comfortable third-row seating space. That should make Navigator exactly the right choice for a large number of buyers.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California. Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.