By Brady Holt @BradyHoltAutos
The flagship model of a luxury brand serves multiple roles.
On the surface, it’s generally the biggest and most expensive vehicle that brand offers — the model that loyal customers aspire to trade up to.
But it’s also a symbol of the brand, a showcase of what it’s capable of. At its best, it’s a leader of style and technology that can reflect well on the brand’s less-expensive models.
For decades, a luxury carmaker’s flagship had been its full-size sedan — a trend that continues among many brands today. But at Lincoln, it’s the newly-redesigned Navigator SUV.
Lincoln has for years struggled to command the respect that its Continental held through about the 1970s. It has achieved some sales success with a brand of relatively-affordable luxury: taking mainstream Ford models, making them a little fancier, and selling them for less money than a comparably-sized BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
Even the reborn Continental, introduced as a 2017 model, didn’t make a huge splash. It brought some extra attention to Lincoln, to be sure, but this elongated version of Ford’s midsize Fusion never offered the road-dominating presence that a true flagship could offer.
That’s where the redesigned 2018 Lincoln Navigator comes in. Though it’s an SUV rather than a sedan, it’s the worthier heir to Lincoln’s glory. It’s unabashedly huge, uncompromisingly spacious, and appropriately opulent.
In its style and its substance, the Navigator combines the comfort and grandeur of a 1970s Lincoln sedan — and even some retro flavor — with the technology of a modern luxury car and the useful space and capability of a full-size SUV.
As before, the Navigator shares its mechanical components with the less-expensive Ford Expedition. However, not only has the Expedition itself greatly improved, but the new Navigator also does more to distinguish itself from its humbler sibling.
Navigator prices start at $74,500, which is about $20,000 above the Expedition — which is itself available with many luxury features. But the Lincoln’s extra standard equipment narrows the gap between the siblings, and the Navigator’s strengths justify its remaining price premium.
On the outside, the Navigator minimizes the garishness that’s almost inherent in such a huge and expensive vehicle, with a degree of design restraint that strikes a happy medium between tasteless and boring. Where some old Navigators were slathered with chrome, the new model doesn’t need as much glitter to look like a luxury car. Shapes are simple, creases and swoops are few, and front-end offers muted luxury rather than overbearing aggressiveness.
Not everyone will love the futuristic swirly wheels, but at least Lincoln can’t be accused of being derivative. Another distinctive quality, the single connected rear taillight, takes its cue from the 1970s without looking inherently retro.
The Navigator’s interior is even more of a modern take on a classic vibe. The rectangular dashboard, trimmed in wood and leather, inspires memories of a 1970s Continental — especially with the tested car’s “Burgundy” maroon upholstery.
But this isn’t some throwback, not with a freestanding 10-inch touchscreen taking prominence. The center console “floats” above a storage area between the front seats, in addition to the typical covered bin. Overall, Lincoln has pulled off a unique interior design, which looks appropriately upscale and reflects some of its own heritage. That’s a huge improvement over recent Navigators.
Meanwhile, unlike sofa-like bench seats that offered softness but not much support, the Navigator is available with 30-way adjustable front seats that you can carefully tailor to your desired settings (and then save them in the car’s memory system). Backlit seatbelt buckles are a nice touch to keep you from fumbling for them in the dark.
If you expect to be chauffeured in the back seat, or if you don’t want your family to miss all the fun, the Navigator is offered with a middle-row console that includes its own climate and audio controls. The seats are generously spacious and comfortable here, too. And unlike most competitors, even the third row is agreeable for adults. An extended-wheelbase L version provides much greater cargo space when all seats are in use.
On the road, the Navigator is silent and powerful, using a rich-sounding 450-horsepower turbocharged V6 engine. Fuel economy is surprisingly thrifty, at up to 19 miles per gallon in mixed driving, and on affordable regular-grade gasoline.
However, like the competing Cadillac Escalade and Infiniti QX80, the Navigator feels like a truck on a winding road, with slow responses and an obvious girth. Also, the tested Navigator’s huge 22-inch wheels contribute to a stiff, bouncy ride by luxury standards, though the closest SUV competitors are similar.
Otherwise, though, Lincoln has embraced its full-size SUV as the contemporary embodiment of the huge, comfortable sedans that won fans decades ago. And it works.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-navigator to see more photos of the tested 2018 Lincoln Navigator.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.