Review: The 2020 Lincoln Aviator Is the New Barometer for 7-Passenger Luxury SUVs

There are flashier names in the category, but no one surpasses its credentials

November 5, 2020 10:25 am
2020 Lincoln Aviator
The 2020 Lincoln Aviator.

Lincoln’s recent renaissance as a legitimate purveyor of luxury vehicles has hinged almost entirely on the strength of the redesigned Navigator, a full-size SUV that fell from icon to overlooked for more than a dark decade before its revitalization in 2018. While the Navigator’s unquestionable return to world-class status is something to be celebrated by FoMoCo’s premium division, its top-tier pricing limits its customer base and its ability to prop up the brand from a financial perspective.

With that in mind, Lincoln has continued to work its sport-utility magic, this time on a model that has the potential to provide the reassuring sales volume that the domestic automaker requires to continue fueling a brighter future. The 2020 Lincoln Aviator is a mid-size, three-row rebound in a segment the company had long ignored after a disastrous first-round knock-out in the early 2000s, and it features an impressive package that no other brand of similar prestige has thus far been able to match.

The Aviator’s focus on performance, style and features at a price point that’s well within the reach of well-to-do families seeking to upgrade their daily drive serves as startling notice that Cadillac, Lexus and Acura are now on the outside looking in when it comes to matching once-dormant Lincoln in any of those three categories. 

Fraternal, Not Identical

A big part of the Aviator’s springboard is its ability to build on the all-new platform that debuted under the similarly-sized Ford Explorer this year (which has moved back to a smoother rear-wheel drive layout). At the same time, the differences between the Explorer and the Aviator are just as important in helping Lincoln carve out its own identity for vehicle.

Ford and Lincoln have been down the twinning path before, especially when it comes to larger SUVs. Failing to differentiate the Navigator from its Ford Expedition chassis-mate played a large role in the behemoth’s extended wander through the wilderness, but even more importantly, the erstwhile original Aviator’s short stay in showrooms was linked to it aping almost every characteristic of the Explorer. That first Aviator was a short-sighted and perhaps cynical spinoff that few were sad to see disappear after only three years of production. Almost 15 years later, it’s apparent after even a few minutes with the 2020 model that Lincoln has taken care to repeat none of the earlier truck’s errors. 

Design Matters

Thick and chiseled, the Lincoln Aviator’s visual personality separates nicely from the more angular Explorer. Attention to detail has once again returned to the brand’s design vocabulary, as its exterior lighting, chrome trim and elegant grille give the vehicle a personality that’s lacking among the more anonymous designs of its immediate competition both foreign and domestic. That might not sound important, but take a look at the parking lot of your local mall and you’ll likely be shocked by how many of the crossovers crowding the tight confines of its painted lines look like they share the same nondescript DNA.

Inside, the Aviator continues to impress, with a cabin that overlays the basic details of the Explorer’s floor plan with vastly improved materials and again, those fine points of differentiation that make the Lincoln feel worthy of its luxury status. There’s also an ambience inside the Lincoln that’s missing altogether from direct foils like the Lexus RX L or the Acura MDX, as the passenger compartment manages to feel cozy and comfortable rather than cavernous and clinical (all too typical once you dip past the first row of seating in a vehicle as large as this one). 

With its rear accommodations out of the way, the Aviator also offers up a useful chunk of haulage that is more than capable when it comes to swallowing oversized items, or in the case of our tester, floor-to-ceiling moving boxes.

2020 Lincoln Aviator
The Aviator was named one of Wards Best Interiors for 2020

Overpowering the Competition

More importantly, however, the Lincoln Aviator’s on-road personality elevates it to the apex of what one can expect from a luxury SUV with a $51,000 starting price. Thanks to the presence of a standard twin-turbo V6, the Aviator offers up 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque, making it far and away the mightiest seven-seat ride in its class. The engine’s seemingly endless wave of acceleration, particularly when already moving at highway speeds, surprises based on its bulk, and there’s not a single rival that can stand toe-to-toe with it in a straight line.

Select the Aviator’s available air suspension system and its ride quality quickly catches up with its forward momentum (with optional all-wheel drive further improving foul weather grip and security). A vehicle of this size isn’t intended to cut corners with anything resembling athleticism, but competent handling and smoothing out rougher roads are well within the SUV’s purview. It’s the class of the field, with only the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid trumping its poise when changing directions.

Pricing Doesn’t Match Prestige

If there’s a gotcha when it comes to Aviator, it has to do with its trim structure. As mentioned, base models start at $51,000 and offer a strong mix of gear, but lock you out of options packages intended to coddle and impress with tech. Spend another $5,000 on the Reserve trim and suddenly you’re looking at nicer leather, additional adjustments for seats and steering, a hands-free tailgate, and a more expansive order sheet when it comes to additional features (including an impressive array of active safety systems).

It’s here that you’ll have to be careful with your pocketbook. Lincoln will ask you for another $10,000, then $20,000, then $30,000 as you cycle through the Grand Touring, Black Label and Black Label Grand Touring trim levels. “Grand Touring” denotes the Aviator’s available hybrid electric drivetrain that adds a whopping 50 percent more torque, while Black Label adds a layer of concierge-like services and lifestyle experiences that may or may not be of interest to someone seeking a daily-driven SUV. Regardless, it’s extremely difficult to justify spending just under $90,000 on a brand whose badge recognition has yet to catch up with the quality of its offerings, especially when you can snag what you want one package at a time by building a more thrifty Reserve model.

The Final Word

With logic tempering your investment, the 2020 Lincoln Aviator is truly a beacon for families seeking to step outside the blobs-and-grilles motif that has dominated mid-size luxury SUVs for too many years. Warm and welcoming on the inside, sufficiently distinguished as it rolls up to the valet stand and muscularly motivated with the pedal mashed, the Aviator experience is both outlier and overlord.

It’s also a sign that the cautious optimism about Lincoln that began to percolate after the appearance of the Navigator redux seems to be more than a single lightning strike. If the Aviator is an example of things to come once the rest of the once-ailing brand’s lineup gets the same Lazarus treatment, then Lexus et al. might have more than just their family truckster faithful to worry about.

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