The transformation of the Lincoln brand continues this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show with the revival of a once-abandoned nameplate on an all-new platform. Last spring at the New York Auto Show, the world got a preview of the 2020 Lincoln Aviator as a “concept” although it was really a barely tweaked prototype model. As is increasingly the situation these days, Lincoln is fleshing out its model lineup with yet another crossover utility vehicle, with the Aviator slotting in between the flagship Navigator and the recently refreshed and rebranded Nautilus.
The Aviator is interesting in a number of ways beyond reviving the name of a short-lived luxury version of the Ford Explorer. The Aviator is the first new model we’re saying that takes advantage of Ford’s new flexible architecture strategy. Prior to the New York Show, Ford outlined it’s new approach during a background briefing at its Dearborn design studio. In its effort to cut development and manufacturing costs, it has decided to move all of its future vehicles to one of five flexible platforms:
- Transverse-engine unibody supporting front or all-wheel-drive
- Longitudinal-engine unibody supporting rear or all-wheel-drive
- Dedicated electric vehicle platform
- Vans and commercial vehicles
- Body-on-frame pickup trucks and SUVs
This is a very similar approach to that being taken by Volkswagen Group with its modular toolkits and the first three Ford platforms roughly correspond to the VW MQB, MLB and MEB architectures.
The Aviator is the first model to be shown from the longitudinal unibody platform that will also be used by the upcoming Ford Explorer and likely other as yet unidentified nameplates.
From a design perspective, there are no real surprises with the Aviator and frankly, there is nothing at all wrong with that. The new Lincoln design language has been well received since it debuted on the Continental and the refreshed MXZ. This is clearly a sibling to the Navigator but it’s more than just three-quarter scale version of the battleship. Where the Navigator has a more square-jawed presence that makes it look more like the family patriarch, the Aviator has a bit more sculpting and curvature.
The Aviator’s wheel arches and flanks are a bit more fleshed out with added contouring, giving it a younger, more athletic stance. Where the Navigator’s horizontal lines seem to run almost exactly parallel from front to back, the Aviator’s lines have a slight taper toward the back. It’s completely fitting with what Lincoln design chief David Woodhouse describes as the “quiet flight” theme that underpinned many of the decisions made in creating the Aviator.
Despite being a fairly large three-row utility, the revised lines and the larger wheels that are typical today help to compress the shape without really sacrificing space. The aviation theme continues to the cabin where machine-turned metal trim harkens back to an earlier time. The overall design approach is consistent with the Navigator and Continental with a large central touchscreen standing up in the center of the dashboard while a 12.3-inch high-resolution digital display allows the driver to configure what information is shown.
In an effort to reduce visual clutter, Lincoln has designed a new steering wheel that debuts on the Aviator. The voice control button is moved to the lump above the left thumb at the 10 o-clock position so the driver doesn’t have to look for it or even move their thumb. Rather than the array of buttons on the spokes, there is now a four-way controller on either side with context sensitive functions. Depending on what the driver is doing, the icons surrounding the controllers will light up from the black surround surface of the spoke. We’ll have to wait until next summer to find out how well this works in practice.
The 30-way massaging seats from the Continental and Navigator are also available here and they are much appreciated on road trips or when commuting home after a stressful day. The second row seats flip and slide forward to give access to the third row. While the aft seating positions are roomier than what you’ll find in the current Explorer or MKT and will be fine for kids or adults on short trips, they fall far short of what’s available in the gargantuan Navigator.
The Aviator offers a further enhanced version of the CoPilot 360 driver assist suite that debuted on the Nautilus which includes lane centering capability along with the adaptive cruise control. This is also the first Ford or Lincoln product to use the camera to read road signs. When using cruise control if a speed limit sign detects a reduced speed zone, the Aviator can automatically slow down to the new limit, a very handy feature when travelling in many rural towns in places like Ohio.
Ford Motor Company was a relatively early adopter of active parking assist in North America. The Aviator is the first model from the company to offer the latest variation of this that can be found on some BMW models and others that no longer requires the driver to manually shift between drive and reverse or apply the brakes. Once activated, the driver simply holds the parking button and the vehicle will steer itself and drive into a parallel or perpendicular parking space without any further action.
Another feature new to this crossover is phone-as-key access. The vehicle will be one of the first to offer access from the key fob or a smartphone using bluetooth low energy communications. This approach is expected to be more secure than current RF systems and not subject to the same kind of relay attacks that have been used against vehicles from a number of other manufacturers including BMW and Tesla. With five antennas on the outside and six inside, as you approach the car, at about 10 feet away it will light up and when you get within three feet it will unlock. The door handles themselves don’t move but a microswitch is triggered when you grab the handle, releasing the door. Even if your phone is dead and you don’t have a fob, you can still unlock the doors using the numeric keypad on the window frame that has been a Ford and Lincoln staple for decades.
Last spring, before the Aviator concept was shown Ford also announced that an array of new utility vehicles that will comprise the bulk of its lineup in North America all will also be available with electrified propulsion systems. The Aviator is the first of that onslaught.
All Aviators for North America will be equipped with the same 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 found in the MKZ and Continental. That variant of Ford’s “Nano” family generates 400-hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. The new Aviator Grand Touring is where things start to get interesting. The Grand Touring model is Lincoln’s first plug-in hybrid and the most powerful production model ever from the brand.
All of the previous Ford and Lincoln hybrid hybrids utilized a two-motor power-split hybrid transaxle similar to that found in the Toyota Prius but the Aviator has something quite different. Ford had already previously announced plans to offer hybrid versions of the F-150 and Mustang from 2020 onward. John Davis, chief program engineer for the Aviator declined to discuss if this is the same system that will appear in the pickup and sports car, but it seems likely that it is.
Referred to as the modular hybrid architecture, the new system is based on the existing 10-speed automatic transmission already offered in the F-150 and Mustang. An electric motor is added between the torque convertor and gearbox to provide electric drive and regenerative braking. This approach leaves open the possibility to use different sized motors for different applications and Davis declined to give much detail on the Aviator setup other than to say it would generate more than 450 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque.
The vehicle platform has been designed to accommodate the battery below the floor on the right side of the transmission and drive shaft. The liquid-cooled lithium ion battery pack sits below the second row seat running roughly from the back of the front seat and ending ahead of the rear axle. Since the vehicle was designed to accommodate the battery in this location it doesn’t intrude on the cargo area or prevent having a spare tire in the back.
No information is being revealed at this time about the capacity of the battery or specifics of its construction. However, Davis did acknowledge that 50 km (31 miles) of electric range is a crucial threshold for incentives in China and this is a global vehicle. That said, we can probably count on at least 16-20 kWh of battery capacity and somewhere around 32-35 miles of electric driving. Like most plug in hybrids, there is no DC fast charging support, just 120V or 240V charging.
Gasoline-only Aviators will be available with either rear or all-wheel drive while the Grand Touring PHEV will be all-wheel-drive only. With the engine mounted longitudinally, the engineers had enough space under the hood for a short-long arm layout that gives better wheel geometry control. At the rear, the same type of integral-link layout that has been used on the Fusion and all its derivatives as well as the current Mustang also finds a place.
The Aviator will have an available air-spring suspension system in addition to the dynamic variable damping that most Lincolns have offered for several years. The air spring suspension will be able to lower or lift the body up to 80 mm (3.1-inches) for easier access, better aerodynamics at highway speeds or more ground clearance in snow.
Beyond the lane centering and forward collision alerts, Lincoln is also using the forward facing camera for some additional capabilities. The camera will scan the road for potholes and make suspension adjustments proactively to provide a smoother ride and reduce the risk of tire and wheel damage. The camera is also being used to make adjustments in how the LED matrix headlights are aimed and focused. At highway speeds the lights will look further down the road while in the city, as the vehicle approaches intersections, the lights will go to a wider beam to provide more visibility of vehicles or pedestrians approaching from the sides.
There is still much to learn about the Aviator before it goes on sale next summer. But from what we’ve been shown so far, it looks set to continue the Lincoln quiet luxury approach while adding even more technology and sophistication. The addition of a high performance plug-in hybrid also bodes well for making this an entertaining yet serene place to spend time and what it might mean for upcoming models like the Mustang hybrid.