Charting a new course in Lincoln's Navigator 

Leave the driving to someone else

Leave the driving to someone else

It goes down as one of the most unusual test drives I’ve ever made in a new vehicle: On my perch in a plush Captain’s chair, virtually swaddled in leather and carpet, with a Jacuzzi-sized console at my side, I’m floating through orange-grove scenery in and around Mission Inn Resort at Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. All manner of creature-comforts lie at my fingertips: climate control; radio volume and channel selection; seemingly infinite combinations of seat settings for height, inclination, and leg room; a lens-focused lamp overhead, should it be dark enough to need one; power taps for phone or laptop...but wait a minute! Where’s the steering wheel? Why do I feel like I’m in control here when, in fact, I’m...I’m being TAKEN FOR A RIDE?

Such, as it turns out, was my introduction to the uncanny and heretofore unheralded Navigator Syndrome. In case you somehow blanked on the TV ad blitz that wallpapered Wimbledon coverage last week, the giant, new ’98 Navigator sport/utility vehicle only just appeared in Lincoln-Mercury showrooms beginning July 1; so it’s unlikely that the full ramifications of its arrival have yet been widely felt. But I’m here to tell you: The Navigator is the only sport-ute on the market with a living room where the second-row bench seat ought to be. Whereas other vehicles traditionally incite bickers over who gets to drive, Lincoln’s new luxo-truck will have contestants fighting for the right to leave the driving to someone—indeed, anyone—else.

Lest the foregoing imply any disagreeable aspect to getting behind the wheel of the Navigator, let me dispel that notion at the outset. Lincoln has packaged a big V8 into an even bigger SUV and suspended it all upon a comfy and secure air-ride suspension. The result is a surprisingly nimble hunka-hunka truck that tips the scales at 5,500 lbs. when it’s wearing its optional four-wheel-drive system. As in the full-size Ford Expedition, which shares its powertrain with the Navigator, throttle response from the single-overhead-cam V8 is crisp. In other words, when your accelerator foot says, “Go!” this bigger-than-a-breadbox behemoth does just that without hesitation or protest. That’s fine testimony to the 325 foot-pounds of torque lurking underhood, as is the almost mind-boggling Class III tow rating of 13,500 lbs. It’s safe to presume that if there’s a street-legal towing challenge the Navigator can’t handle, it’s one that only a commercial vehicle can—or should.

Just the same, there’s a touch of the gentle giant in the way the Navigator accommodates its human charges. Its compressor-controlled air suspension, for example, genuflects slightly when the motor is turned off to ease entry and exit into the vehicle. (Appropriately enough, it also rises an extra inch if you shift to “4x4 Low” and motor below 25 mph while traversing the really rough stuff.) Integrated, illuminated running boards further assist ascent into and descent out of a cabin that can be quite a stretch for many of us inseam-impaired (i.e. short) folks.

Driver designees will appreciate several “cockpit” refinements. While other manufacturers suffer apparent migraines trying to select which remote controls to install on the steering wheels of their luxury cars (radio, HVAC, or cruise control?), Lincoln designers apparently swallowed hard, rubbed their chins, and—voilà!—installed all three. (Now, was that so difficult?) They also flossied up the rim of the wheel itself with deep-varnished sections of real wood. In the true spirit of unintended consequences, the dark, smooth surfaces, while pleasing to behold, can be positively scalding to hold after even brief parking stints at high noon.

Alas, “Shut up and drive” is about all the sympathy a driver will get from the well-ensconced passengers in rows two and three—which is all the more reason to number yourself among them. Despite the appearance between the two rear Captain’s chairs of a giant, lidded console that looks suspiciously like a toddler’s training potty, there’s a parlor-room ambience about the space in back. Heaven forfend that anyone should install the optional fixed bench seat in the second row—better to lose a friend than to monkey with standard seating for seven that feels like Business Class on British Airways.

The rearmost bench, moreover, is not only easy to reach, it also folds partially out of the way or removes entirely. Doing so yields cavernous cargo space exceeding 116 cubic feet—that’s the rough equivalent of a box measuring 8 by 4 by 4 feet on a side. With a cornucopia of such proportions—filled with the right snacks and sweets and pop—you may never have to pull over during a road trip again. (“Now, what is it you said that center console looked like?”)

For all the Navigator’s technical and dimensional achievements, however, it became clear during Lincoln’s recent media introduction in Florida that a coequal measure of this SUV’s merit will be its ability to capture the hearts and minds of “young affluents.” Chiefly, the manufacturer hopes to lower the median age of Lincoln buyers from the mid-60s into at least the upper 40s. Judging by automotive current events, the SUV phenom is a valid lure for young buyers, although the Navigator’s price tag presumes enough age and experience to accumulate pretensions—if not an actual grasp—of genuine wealth. I suspect this converging aim upon youth and disposable income explains the occasional aesthetic excess of Navigator’s trappings—that big, toothy grin of a grille, for example, is just a smidgen oversatisfied with itself.

According to Lincoln general sales manager Steve Lyons, Navigator’s target market comprises buyers who already own two vehicles and, almost certainly, some kind of toy-on-a-trailer too. Which means, I suppose, that a little bit of self-satisfaction is in order. For my part, I was content merely to nestle down into the plush embrace of Lincoln’s new luxury SUV and watch the unfamiliar scenery glide by—secure in the knowledge that if my fellow journalist behind the wheel wasn’t exactly sure where we were heading, the Navigator was on the right track nevertheless.

Off the floor

A little warped, perhaps

Maybe it’s the heat, but the last 10 days or so have precipitated some new model announcements that incline, well, toward the weird. First comes news, via The Wall Street Journal of all places, that the East Bloc is going to give it another go with vehicle exports to the U.S. This time Romania is picking up where the despised, Balkanized, and now demised Yugo left off: The ex-Romanian Army ARO sport/utility vehicle arrived here from the Carpathian Mountains during the last week of June. At $13,000, it’s bar none the absolute bottom-dollar four-wheel-drive vehicle available in the U.S. The importer, Miami-based Eastern European Imports, projects 18,000 to 20,000 sales for the first year. According to company spokeswoman Deena Schade, three dealers in Tennessee have already signed on to sell the Ford-powered SUV (which looks suspiciously derivative of the old Ford Bronco II from the ’70s).

In the Journal story, an ARO partisan is described topping off the radiator with two bottles of wine, then saying, “You can’t kill the thing. It’s a beast.” If proof is still needed to indicate that the SUV market is approaching its saturation point, perhaps this is it.

At the two-wheeled end of the spectrum, the equally overheated cruiser-bike market has acquired another contestant: Polaris Industries has announced that it will unveil its Victory V92C motorcycle next spring. Minneapolis-based Polaris, best known for its popular line of two-stroke-powered all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles, is apparently lusting after a share of the rich urban bikers (Rubbies) who’ve raised Harley-Davidson to new prominence and have spawned a number of cruiser-bike look-alikes from Japan and Europe. The 1507cc Victory is reputedly the first all-new, mass-produced motorcycle to be made in America in 40 years, and it will cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Polaris will select only 200 of its current 2,000 dealers to sell the new cruiser. Locally, both Chuck Berry at Polaris of Nashville and Ken Joyce at America’s Motor Sports say their dealerships are interested in selling the Victory, and they fully expect to make the cut.

They know where you are

It can be more than a little unsettling when you first log on to GM’s space-age OnStar security and navigation system: A live operator tells you where you are before you can find out for yourself. But the satellite-and-telephone-based global positioning system (GPS) is proving so effective and popular that GM is expanding its availability beyond the Cadillac models in which it is currently only available. Next year, 24 GM cars and trucks will be OnStar “capable,” including all Cadillac and Buick models, Oldsmobile Aurora, Pontiac Bonneville, and Chevrolet Lumina and Monte Carlo.

OnStar combines satellite vehicle tracking with 24-hour live-operator access via a hands-free, voice-activated cellular phone. The system provides not only navigational assistance but also such safety features as emergency 911 alert and location-pinpointing in the event of an accident or car theft. It can even be used to unlock the doors of a vehicle should the keys be locked inside. OnStar, a freestanding GM division, currently reports 12,000 subscribers for its service.

Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

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