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2003 Lincoln Aviator - Review

 
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HOT SPRINGS, Va. — If you spot that huge “chromed signature Lincoln grille” coming your way along the highways or byways, don’t assume it’s a Navigator. Until you’re practically next to the vehicle in question, you’re not going to know whether it’s a Navigator or Lincoln’s 2003 Aviator, “the first mid-size luxury sport-utility vehicle from the brand that effectively created the full-size luxury SUV market.” Not too difficult to see how Lincoln’s pitching this one, is it?

“The Aviator’s look was designed specifically to look like the Navigator because it’s an icon in the marketplace,” said Mike Crowley, Lincoln Group brand manager. “But many people wanted a smaller vehicle, something more agile and maneuverable; a Navigator was too big a vehicle for their needs. This fits their needs and it’s where the growth is.” It’s also the latest step in Lincoln’s product transformation. “We’re rounding out a pretty full year for Lincoln, a full sweeping out of our showroom,” said product development director Al Kammerer, adding, “we’re very pleased with the Town Car and Navigator launches.”

Dynamic change

2003 Lincoln Aviator

2003 Lincoln Aviator

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Considering journalists’ responses to the Ford Explorer-based Aviator and the upgraded LS sports sedan during two full days of driving in Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, Lincoln’s good mood should continue. Led by Kammerer and Engineering Director Mike Renucci, Lincoln’s mission has been to develop “a Lincoln DNA … by establishing consistent and sophisticated dynamics standards for all Lincolns.” So far they’re getting it right, for the ’03 versions of Navigator and Town Car are marked improvements over their predecessors.

Guess what? The new-SUV-on-the-block is a mighty impressive piece as well. Before we get carried away with subjectives, let’s look at some numbers. The Aviator shares the Explorer’s four-wheel-independent suspension, 113.7-inch wheelbase and 71.4-inch height. But the Aviator is 3.8 inches longer and 3.9 inches wider.

Unlike all Explorers, all Aviators have a third-row seat, as they come in six- or seven-passenger configurations, “the only mid-size luxury SUV that offers a choice of second bench or bucket seats.” Because 70 percent of Navigator customers choose the second-row leather buckets divided by a huge console, the Lincoln folks expect Aviator buyers to follow suit. Those choosing the three-passenger bench get two additional swing-down cupholders and the rear seat climate control knobs mounted to the rear of the front console. Regardless of configuration, an easy “fold and tumble” maneuver provides easy third-row access. Among the “best-in-class” features Aviator claims are third-seat head- and legroom. That seat easily folds flat, manually; the power option is saved for big brother Navigator (and there are no power running boards either). The Aviator offers a 77-cubic-foot cargo capacity, which Lincoln (derisively) likes to say “is 94 percent of the segment leader (Acura’s MDX), which is based on a minivan platform” (the Honda Odyssey). Such are the value of bragging rights.

The Aviator can brag about power. It comes only with a DOHC 4.6-liter V-8 that produces 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. That’s two more horsepower than its over-1000-pounds-bigger brother, the Navigator. That spells performance in either the standard rear-wheel- or optional all-wheel-drive version. The former is actually a permanently engaged all-wheel-drive system that uses a viscous coupling system to transfer torque fore and aft — in other words, the same system found in the Mercury Mountaineer. Under normal conditions, the optimum 65-percent-rear/35-percent-front torque split is maintained. Ford’s excellent AdvanceTrac system (developed by Continental Teves) is optional although not available at launch; ditto a tire pressure monitoring system. Lincoln expects 65 percent of Aviator owners to choose AdvanceTrac, which not only provides traction wherever it finds it among the four wheels, it basically serves as a vehicle stability program. The sole transmission is a five-speed automatic that delivers 90 percent of maximum torque at only 2000 rpm, a major factor behind Aviator’s best-in-class 7300-pound towing capacity (7100 with AWD).

Luxuriating in difference

While admitting that the Aviator contains 70 percent parts commonality with Explorer, Mike Crowley added, ”but the 30 percent left is where we spent our money, on technology, things like powertrain, suspension and quietness of the cabin. Plus everything that determines steering, handling, braking and the dual intake runners on the 4.6(-liter) V-8, which make it different from any other 4.6.” In other words, those things making it a Lincoln.

Aviator Vehicle Engineering Manager J.D. Shanahan pointed to its “inherent NVH advantage” due to two-part body mounts that isolate it from the frame and suspension. The upper is made of micro-cellular urethane, the lower from butyl rubber “for optimized shake control and road isolation.” He also cited Aviator’s cast aluminum lower control arms “whose bushings are 60 percent larger than Explorer’s, which means more compliance for a better ride, but they’re also stiffer for better steering.”

Steering is one element that’s markedly improved in all 2003 Lincolns; it’s been a major element of that Lincoln DNA. Shanahan, who had a major role in developing the initial LS, gives much of the credit to Richard Parry-Jones, Ford’s global product development guru. “The Aviator was in its early planning stages when we were leaving the LS program,” Shanahan told TCC. “Richard’s message to the LS team was that his investment was in us, not just the LS product. He wanted us to `cascade the lessons’ we’d learned solving problems on the LS to this upcoming SUV.”

After driving the Aviator on Virginia back roads and through a “precision steering exercise” on a wet, foggy mountaintop, we can report that Aviator’s ride quality is hard to match among passenger cars, not to mention a body-on-frame SUV.

Lincoln still means American luxury and Aviator doesn’t disappoint in that department, again mimicking the Navigator’s satin nickel finish on switchgear, premium leather seats, burl walnut trim and white LED lighting. Below the retractable satin nickel door that covers the audio controls is an analog clock, another “Lincoln signature feature.” Although borrowed from Infiniti, it’s still a classy touch. The milled pebble grain leather color choices are either Light Parchment/Espresso or Medium Ash/Dark Ash. Standard are 17-inch, seven-spoke, painted cast-aluminum wheels wearing H-rated 245/65 tires. A machined aluminum finish on those wheels marks “Premium” models. 

You basically have a choice of four Aviators, “Luxury” or “Premium” trim levels for rear- or all-wheel-drive. We’ve mentioned most of the Luxury features, save the 80-watt AM/FM single CD/cassette sound system. Premium adds the aforementioned wheels, an audiophile sound system with six-CD in-dash changer, high-intensity discharge headlights, and heated and cooled seats. Stand-alone options include a power moonroof and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Aviator prices range from $39,995 (Luxury/RWD) to $45,865 (Premium/AWD) and Mike Crowley thinks, “we’ll sell 35,000 of them,” which probably is about how many they’ll make.

You may not be able to tell an Aviator from a Navigator from a distance — but you probably will be seeing a lot of them.  

2003 Lincoln Aviator
Base prices:$39,995 (RWD); $42,915 (AWD)
Engine: 4.6-liter DOHC V-8, 302 hp/300 lb-ft
Drivetrain:Five-speed electronic automatic with overdrive lockout; rear-wheel or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 193.3 x 76.0 (mirrors folded) x 71.4
Wheelbase: 113.7 in
Curb weight: 4805 lb (rear-wheel drive); 4957 lb (all-wheel drive)
EPA City/Hwy:13/18 mpg (estimated)
Safety equipment: Driver & passenger front airbags; Safety Canopy air curtain for first- and second-row occupants; anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution; AdvanceTrac vehicle dynamics system (optional with all-wheel drive, late availability); tire pressure monitoring system (optional and late availability)
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone electronic climate control with auxiliary climate control system for second- and third-rows; 80-watt CD/cassette premium sound system; power windows, seats, door locks and mirrors; analog clock; cruise control; 17-inch, painted cast aluminum wheels.
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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