2003 Lincoln Navigator Review

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TCC Team TCC Team
April 29, 2002

2003 Ford Expedition (4/28/2002)

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It seemed like an odd invitation: test-drive the new, 2003 Lincoln Navigator in the hill country that surrounds Santa Barbara, Calif. At best, it seemed an opportunity to test the effectiveness of heavy-duty Dramamine as we weaved and wallowed through the twists and turns of a beautiful section of country better suited to sports cars. At least that’s what I thought when I skeptically agreed to go to the introduction of Lincoln’s second-generation full-size SUV. Was I in for a surprise.

At first blush, there doesn’t appear to be much of a change with the ’03 Navigator. Lincoln designers chose an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary approach. Though when you see the old and new models, you definitely see the difference and the new model is clearly more refined and elegant.

But the real surprise is the way it drives. Product development chief Al Kammerer likes to talk about the “50-meter test.” Can you tell the difference in those first few seconds behind the wheel? Is it a car you’d like to keep driving? With the 2003 Navigator, the answer proved a resounding, “yes.” The difference really is overwhelming, and, TheCarConnection discovered, the new sport-ute is actually a fun vehicle to drive.

Steering clear

The biggest and most immediately apparent improvement is in the way the new Navigator steers. It uses a new variable ratio, speed sensitive rack-and-pinion system that is tight, responsive and precise, reflecting the development team’s goal of making the big rig steer like a much smaller vehicle, with the same basic characteristics of the Lincoln LS sport sedan.

The laws of physics suggest there’s a limit to how fast you can flog something like this through the corners.  But the new independent rear suspension and the overall design of the ‘03 platform—which is 70 percent stiffer than before—keeps this whale from wallowing. (A new yaw control system also helps.) Were it not for all that vast interior space, you’d probably think you were driving something a good sight smaller, perhaps on the order of the mid-size Lincoln Aviator. Compared to the likes of the Cadillac Escalade or the Infiniti QX4, the Navigator is simply in another league.

2003 Lincoln Navigator

2003 Lincoln Navigator

The IRS suspension is shared with the more mainstream Ford Expedition, as are many, though not all the basic features of the platform. As you would hope, the Navigator boasts a number of tweaks designed to improve ride, and especially to reduce noise. Along with modest chassis refinements, such efforts also include laminated side glass, which sharply lowers the wind noise from the elephant ear-sized mirrors.

Another benefit of the suspension system is the significant increase in third-row seating and cargo space it creates. The back row is lowered a full seven inches, meaning you really can fit seven adults in the Navigator now, and there’s a lot more leg room in both the middle and rear rows.

Power play

Power is one place the Navigator suffers by comparison. While it’s got a bit more power, at 300 hp, than the two-wheel-drive Cadillac Escalade, the Caddy 4x4 generates a much more substantial 345 horsepower. In the Lincoln’s defense, torque comes on smooth and fast and the gap is less than it might seem on paper. The revised Navigator powerplant also sounds better than before, with a confidence-inspiring roar, rather than a breathless rasp.

As TheCarConnection noted during a preview of the 2003 Navigator a few weeks back, the big sport-ute gains a wide range of new features. On the functional side, the rear split bench folds down with the touch of a button. The liftgate is power-operated, as well. Then there are the trick hideaway running boards. This optional feature lets them extend a full four inches when a door is opened. That means easier entry—but also moves the running boards out of harm’s way in tight spaces.

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Safety is becoming an increasing concern among SUV owners, perhaps reflecting the migration from minivans to sport-utes. Whatever the case, the new Nav is loaded with features such as Ford’s rollover canopy airbag system. It inflates in a heartbeat if the control system senses the big ute is ready to tip over. There’s also a new low-pressure tire warning system. That’s especially useful in such a tall vehicle, which is more prone to losing control than a sedan should a tire fail.

Refined experience

One of the big issues at Ford Motor Co. right now is interior refinement, an area where the Lincoln brand always suffered by comparison to such luxury imports as Audi and Mercedes-Benz. The second-generation Navigator is distinctly upgraded. Featuring wood, leather and satin-finish nickel metal, the redesigned cabin takes this SUV into a new realm for Lincoln. It’s distinctly more elegant — though not quite there yet, especially when compared with the likes of the Lexus LX470.

The Navigator’s ergonomics are, on the whole, vastly improved, yet the poorly lit tripometer is positioned where it’s likely to be obscured by your hand on the steering wheel. The master controls for the rear climate control system are mounted at just the right angle above the rearview mirror that you have to twist and contort to read and operate them. The power window controls are poorly placed and only the driver’s window has the power up/down feature that, in most upscale imports, is typically offered on all windows these days.

“It’s coming,” insists Kammerer, who joined the Lincoln brand after the new Nav was already well into the development process. Like other members of the new team, he’s candid about the weak points in the brand’s products, and we just hope he can deliver on his promise to offer up running fixes well before the Navigator goes through a third-generation update.

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The original Navigator was a well-outfitted vehicle, but that’s just the starting point for the 2003. It features an array of standard features, including a premium sound system with six-CD in-dash changer, heated memory seats, adjustable pedals and plenty more. There are two optional upgrades, the Premium and Ultimate packages, which add such things as the AdvanceTrac stability control system, heated/cooled seats, HID headlamps, a moonroof and a rear seat DVD entertainment system. At least half of Navigator buyers are expected to opt for the top-line package, while 60 percent are likely to buy the 4WD version.

Full-size sport-utes are vehicles a lot of folks love to hate, especially if they’re driving a small car when one comes up in the rearview mirror. They provoke an almost knee-jerk spasm from environmentalists who see these as rolling pollution factories. The reality is that the Navigator more than complies with current emissions standards, but there’s no getting around its gas-guzzling nature. Weighing in at 5994 pounds (for the 4x4; 5760 for the 4x2), the Navigator delivers just 12 miles a gallon in city driving, and even on the highway, it’ll suck down fuel at a thirsty rate.

So, obviously, big rigs like this aren’t for everyone. Nonetheless, there’s a strong and loyal market, and spending a little time inside the 2003 model, one can see why Lincoln is confident the latest Navigator will do well on the market. The original helped redefine the concept of automotive luxury, spawning a legion of imitators in the process. While it may not win in all categories, especially when it comes to interior refinement, the new Navigator is without question a benchmark vehicle in terms of driving dynamics. And that’s going to make it a real contender.

2003 Lincoln Navigator
Base Price: $48,035 (4x2); $51,585 (4x4) add $740 for delivery
Engine: 5.4-liter V-8, 300 hp, 355 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, rear- or four-wheel-drive
Length x width x height: 206.0 x 80.2 x 77.8 in
Wheelbase: 118.8 in
Curb weight: 5760 lbs (4x2), 5994 (4x4)
EPA City/Hwy: 12/17 mpg (4x2), 12/16 mpg (4x4)
Safety equipment: dual-stage front airbags, rollover “Safety Canopy” for first and second-row passengers, seatbelt pretensioners, low-pressure tire warning system (optional)
Major standard equipment: AM/FMCD audio with in-dash changer; power split-fold third-row seats; power liftgate, dual-zone climate control, with auxiliary system for rear passengers, memory driver’s seat, adjustable pedals
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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