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2020 Lincoln Aviator Review: Elegant, Comfortable, and Good

What the Continental's become.

Todd LassawriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

YOUNTVILLE, California—The 2020 Lincoln Aviator's new rear- and all-wheel-drive platform was supposed to underpin a Continental replacement, but that car was cancelled at least a year ago. Does that make the Aviator, which will be sold more often than not with all-wheel-drive anyway, a sort of consolation prize? Well, no, and it might actually be rightly called the new Continental.

As a midsize three-row SUV, the Aviator directly fights the Mercedes-Benz GLE-class, as well as the Audi Q7, Cadillac XT6, Infiniti QX60, three-row Lexus RX, and Acura MDX. As a bonus, the Aviator's rear-drive bones help it look long and wide, and it has more than sufficient chrome accents to look special. The big rectangle of a grille is no longer trying to be retro, but still hints at the classic 1961-1967 Continental, while the headlamps are thin, modern slits. In modern Lincoln fashion, a chrome nameplate scallop runs along the top of the front quarter panels and into the doors.

The interior is well executed in combinations of sumptuous leather, real woods, and real metals. It's not so far ahead of the Cadillac XT6 in terms of quality and fit; it's just brighter and more exuberant, with the money spent in all the right places, while the XT6's interior is dark and downright Teutonic. The infotainment system is leading edge—and an admittedly important feature in this segment, considering the Aviator's mission as a family hauler for the upper-middle class. Such buyers will appreciate the optional 28-speaker Revel Ultima 3D hi-fi audio system with its bi-pass sound processing, which can switch off surround sound for certain music genres that sound better without it (think a modern jazz quartet). Two of the speakers are in the headliner, as well, directly above the driver's and front passenger's seats.

Making the Ultima option even more worthwhile is the efforts Lincoln undertook to quiet the interior, including active noise cancellation, laminated glass, an engine sound package with a 360-degrees hood seal, and foam inside the tires. Lincoln also introduces its phone-as-key feature on the Aviator; it's bundled in the optional convenience package. (It will be added shortly to the Navigator and will be available on the upcoming Corsair compact SUV.) Using Bluetooth, the system lets you unlock the car as far away as 40 yards, and you don't have to unlock your phone for the system to work so long as you have the device in your hand. The SUV won't start unless the smartphone is inside, and the owner may also use the attendant app to lower or raise the power windows or activate a panic mode. A valet mode locks out the Sync screen, and different owners' smartphones can be used to automatically set the driver's seat, mirrors, and audio choices. Aviators with the option still come with two key fobs, and the old B-pillar security keypad feature serves as a backup if the phone isn't present or it's out of battery. Once inside, the driver enters a code on the touchscreen to start the SUV.

The conventional Lincoln Aviator's tow rating is 6,700 pounds, while versus its 2020 Ford Explorer mechanical relative, the Aviator suspension setups include an available Air Glide suspension with air springs replacing the coils, an adaptive suspension with 12 sensors constantly monitoring vehicle motion and body movement, and the adaptive suspension with road preview, which reads the road surface nearly 50 feet ahead through a front-facing camera. You can get all the suspension goodies together in the Dynamic Handling package, which also includes adaptive steering.

It's hard to imagine how even the most calibrated backside might distinguish between these four variants, but we didn't have to. Our first experience was an Aviator Reserve AWD with the Dynamic Handling package—we imagine many, if not most, buyers will tick this option—and upgraded 22-inch wheels and tires. Even so-equipped, the Lincoln isn't harsh-riding or overtly sporty, instead being well-balanced and favoring a comfortable, cushy ride over handling that would make you seek twisty canyon roads on your family vacation.

We did have a problem with the AWD Reserve we drove. As traffic began to clear on the canyon roads, we started to push a bit harder but were met with a distinct lack of power we hadn't experienced on the highway drive—plus a check-engine light. It felt as if the twin-scroll turbo wasn't kicking in, and when we switched to Excite mode, each gear was held for a long, long time as the engine very gradually spun to the redline.

We alerted an engineer in attendance, and he drove it for a few miles but couldn't duplicate the problem. We left again, but only managed 10 to 15 miles before the twin-turbo 3.0-liter once again felt cut off at the knees. We then swapped into a plug-in-hybrid model, which we'll tell you about soon, and Lincoln traced the problem with our Silver Radiance Reserve AWD to a torn turbo wastegate vacuum hose and fixed it that day. It was the only of 30 Aviators on the drive with the issue.

The Aviator is a big "midsize" three-row SUV and weighs two and a half tons, so it's good that the brakes are responsive and strong, as well as easy to modulate. At the moderately high—for an SUV—speeds we drove, the handling was reasonably neutral and body roll not at all excessive. The Aviator controlled its mass and sheetmetal commendably well, with none of the bob and weave one might expect from a large American luxury rig.  Toggling between the Normal and Excite drive modes—two of the five baked into the Aviator's chassis—seemed mostly to affect the throttle response and transmission behavior and not so much the suspension. For those interested in steering feel in a vehicle like this, it has some, but it's more numb that we'd prefer just off-center and is overall a tad too light for our preference.

We also briefly sampled a  rear-drive Reserve fitted with the Dynamic Handling bundle and 20-inch wheels. As in the AWD model—when it was working properly—its 400-hp twin-turbo V-6 offered up more than adequate power for passing, climbing mountains, and whatever we came across. It's maybe not as fun as the Acura MDX with its trick torque vectoring or the Cadillac XT6 and its yaw control, but the Lincoln's rear-drive handling feels more organic.

The nonhybrid Aviator is a fast and comfortable highway cruiser built for driving with five or six of your favorite family members. Lincoln's new SUV may not be an actual Continental, but it could conceivably be one in this age of SUVs. And it's perhaps as close as we'll get to the best of that model, going back to the early '60s, in terms of style, comfort, and elegance.

2020 Lincoln Aviator Specifications

PRICE base, $52,195; Reserve, $57,285; Black Label, $78,790
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbo 24-valve DOHC V-6; 400 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 415 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm.
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 6- or 7-passenger, front-engine, RWD or AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 17-18/24-26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 199.3 x 82.3 x 69.6 in
WHEELBASE 119.1 in
WEIGHT 4,774-4,892 lb