In recent decades, few Lincolns have been known for excellence. The company has largely settled for making marginally nicer Fords at marginally higher prices. That’s not a bad niche to occupy — for example, recent Lincolns like the MKZ sedan and Nautilus crossover provide comfortable interiors, rich leather, lots of features, and a quiet ride for less money than sportier, more opulent Mercedes-Benz or BMW competitors — but this approach did little for the brand’s prestige.

Now, Lincoln is undergoing a renaissance. New Lincolns do still borrow from Fords mechanically. But starting with the redesigned 2018 Navigator, the brand’s models have been packing a greater visual punch, differentiating themselves from their Ford cousins and from the competition. One of the latest beneficiaries is the new 2020 Lincoln Aviator, a luxury version of the Ford Explorer that Lincoln had last sold in 2005.

The new Aviator stands comfortably apart from the Explorer, sharing its family-friendly seven-seat layout and its new rear-wheel-drive-based platform, but with a unique and eye-catching exterior and interior design. From its striking looks to its standard 400-horsepower engine to a host of thoughtfully executed details, this isn’t a Lincoln that aims for being merely “acceptable” or “pretty good.” Some buyers might wish for sportier handling, a few details could be improved, and our test car’s $76,310 MSRP feels steep. But when you stay closer to the $51,100 base price, the new Aviator is a head-turning combination of performance, seven-passenger seating, and stunning design.

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR - DESIGN

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The new Aviator has won consistent praise for its styling. It has a near-vertical front end, but Lincoln softens the look with high, rounded headlights that curve up along the hood and above the front fenders. The vertical Lincoln logo (which available backlighting) splits the rounded-rectangle mesh grille. The Aviator is several inches wider than most competing seven-seat crossovers, giving it a lower-looking stance despite a similar height. Blacked-out A-pillars and D-pillars create the look of glass wrapping all the way around the vehicle, and the sides and rear are dominated by straight lines — no wild kinks, creases, or flares. The windows and rear windshield are horizontal, and the taillights are a slim band spanning the rear end. (For full disclosure, on a purely personal level, I honestly don’t care for how it all comes together: The low, wide, straight profile feels bus-like; the headlights feel weirdly high, and their curves feel at odds with the car’s mostly straight lines, and the taillights’ downward slant come across as droopy and sad. But this opinion is in the clear minority, and I will not hold it against this widely acclaimed Lincoln.)

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Inside the Aviator, I’m fully in line with the majority viewpoint: This is a beautiful cabin.

Lincoln introduced this design theme with the 2018 Navigator, and it still looks fresh and unique here. A high center console curves up to become the lower portion of the center stack, and a big 10.1-inch touchscreen sticks up from the dashboard above it. A push-button shifter saves space, helping provide numerous useful storage areas even in this high-style environment. The dashboard’s straight lines evoke past Lincolns without feeling like anything but brand-new. Overall, the cabin is wholly appropriate for this price point without feeling like a copy of anyone else’s style.

Materials are rich, and — unlike in most modern luxury cars — the controls are user-friendly. The infotainment interface is a little familiar to mainstream Fords, but Lincoln separates itself with a bigger screen, gentler colors, and a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. The latter doesn’t faithfully recreate analog gauges, as you’ll see in some cars (which beg the question of why they have a screen at all). Instead, Lincoln optedopting for more creative but still user-friendly displays. It doesn’t dazzle with technology like Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but that’s by design — it’s muted and relaxing, in line with the Aviator’s overall personality. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration come standard.

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The Aviator has some unique touches, showing where Lincoln went the extra mile to innovate rather than merely copy the class leaders. A fun example is lighting inside the door pulls, which glows blue when the door latched and red when it’s ajar, leaving no question about whether you closed the door successfully. (The optional soft-close doors will fix your mistake automatically.) Nearby, you’ll find the electronic switches that stand in for door handles; replacing the conventional handles seems unnecessary, but the switches are well-placed to work smoothly and help the Aviator stand out.

2020 Lincoln Aviator exterior dimensions
Length 199.3
Width 79.6
Height 69.8
Wheelbase 119.1
Front Track 66.9
Rear Track 66.9

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR - COMFORT AND UTILITY

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The Aviator leads off its accommodations with Lincoln’s “Perfect Position” 30-way power-adjustable front seats, which are fussy to manipulate but fantastic once you’ve found your own unique setting.

They’re available on all but the base trim level, which already has above-average 12-way adjustments. The second row is less welcoming; our test car’s available two captain’s chairs offer generous legroom but a flat cushion — a disappointment in a luxury car that tries so hard to impress in most ways. The seat feels better than it looks, but it looks like a slab. A three-passenger bench seat is also available, which increases seating capacity to seven instead of our test car’s six. A rear touchscreen climate control system is available, and you can get the rear seat with both heating and ventilation, a rare perk even among luxury cars.

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The third-row seat is best for children, like in most three-row crossovers, though adults will fit if the second row slides forward a bit. That’s more than we’d say about the BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz GLE. The Lincoln’s third-row bench seats two, though given that it’s best for children, it seems unfortunate that Lincoln didn’t create three child-width seating positions; that would have bumped the Aviator’s maximum seating capacity to eight.

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For cargo, the Aviator delivers above-average space for a three-row luxury crossover: 18.3 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, 41.8 cubic feet behind the second row, and 77.7 cubic feet behind the front seats. The power-operated third-row seat folds easily with one tap of a button, unlike competitors like the Lexus RX L that make you keep the button pressed. Towing capacity trumps many close competitors at 6,700 pounds, though German luxury SUVs do even better.

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR - DRIVING EXPERIENCE

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The Lincoln Aviator starts out with a powerful spec — literally. In a world of base four-cylinder engines, Lincoln borrows a headline-grabbing 400-horsepower V6 from the Ford Explorer’s high-performance ST trim level.

This 3.0-liter turbocharged engine, standard equipment even on the Aviator’s base model, also makes an even mightier 415 lb-ft of torque.

The Aviator is a heavy vehicle, so it still won’t beat competitors’ performance models in a straight line — most stopwatches put its 0-60 time in the mid- to upper 5-second range — but Lincoln laughs in the face of Cadillac’s base 237-horsepower XT6. Lincoln’s six-cylinder engine isn’t merely powerful, but also smooth, quiet, and rich-sounding compared to even a luxury-grade four-banger. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 18 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 21 mpg overall with the standard rear-wheel-drive, and about one mpg less with all-wheel-drive. That’s pretty good considering the vehicle’s weight and output, but it trails some competitors, especially since Lincoln doesn’t let you choose a smaller engine to save fuel. The engine is happy with regular-grade fuel, a nice money-saver in the long run. And we beat the EPA estimate to average about 23 mpg during our week in an all-wheel-drive model.

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You can also get the Aviator as a plug-in hybrid called the Grand Touring, which can travel an EPA-estimated 21 miles on an electric charge before its engine is needed; mileage then improves from the standard Aviator’s 20 mpg to 23 mpg even after the range is depleted. This is a potentially desirable option if you frequently have short drives, but it wouldn’t save you much gas on long highway cruises. The Grand Touring’s output jumps to 494 horsepower and 630 lb-ft of torque, but the weight of its big batteries and electric motors means it’s only a few tenths of a second quicker to 60 mph than the standard Aviator.

The Aviator’s ride and handling start with promise, with the rear-wheel-drive platform and an available adaptive suspension. On the road, though, our test car’s ride smoothness was marred by its massive 22-inch wheels. (Even the base model rolls on big 19s.) Bumps register more harshly than we’d expect, given the smooth, silent vibe. This isn’t a stiff-riding SUV, but it’s not the gentlest. We said Lincoln never aimed for the Aviator to be merely acceptable, and that’s still the case here. The company even fits the vehicle with an available adaptive air suspension, whose “road preview” function scans the road ahead to soften the suspension in advance of big jolts. But the oversized wheels are evidently too much for the system to overcome, resulting in just-OK ride quality overall.

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The Aviator does handle pretty well for a three-row crossover. And if you’re cross-shopping it against Lincoln’s larger Navigator instead of a similarly sized Cadillac XT6 or Audi Q7, the Aviator is even more impressive. This isn’t a performance car, but nor is it a ponderous barge. The steering is gracefully light at parking-lot speeds, so you can almost twirl it with your finger like a Lincoln of old, but firms up nicely when you get moving. It always feels natural and easy without seeming disconnected from the road, a difficult combination to master. It’s just not going to set your heart on fire if you’re interested in the tauter responsiveness of a BMW X5. One issue in our test car was that the brakes required inconsistent effort, with the vehicle trying to drift forward even when it felt the brake was fully pressed. But we haven’t seen that issue reported elsewhere, so that could be a one-off.

2020 Lincoln Aviator drivetrain specifications
Engine 3.0-Liter Turbo V-6
Fuel Gasoline
Horsepower 400 HP
Torque 415 LB-FT
Transmission 10-Speed Automatic
Drive AWD
Towing Capacity 6,700 LBS
Fuel Economy 17/24/20
Curb Weight 4,897 LBS
Fuel Capacity 20.2 Gal

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR - PRICING

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The 2020 Lincoln Aviator starts at $51,100 plus a $1,095 destination charge. That’s more than an Infiniti QX60 ($44,350), Acura MDX ($44,500), Cadillac XT6 ($47,995), or Volvo XC90 ($48,350), but it undercuts the Mercedes-Benz GLE ($54,250), Audi Q7 ($54,950), and BMW X5 ($59,400) — to say nothing of the more Aviator-sized Mercedes GLS and BMW X7, which both start above $70,000. What’s more, just looking at the prices would obscure what the Aviator delivers for the money. The QX60 and MDX feel downscale of the Aviator; the GLE and X5 have less usable three-row seating, and none of these crossovers comes close to supplying 400 horsepower as standard equipment. Most have a base four-cylinder engine of around 250 horsepower, with the Cadillac bringing up the rear at 237 horsepower.

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Other Aviator standard equipment on the base Standard trim level includes all the convenience, safety, and aesthetic glitz that many buyers could want. The interior includes 12-way power-adjustable front seats, heated front seats, a 10.1-inch front touchscreen, and a 5.8-inch second-row touchscreen, a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, a navigation system, and three-zone climate control. LED headlights and taillights, along with 19-inch alloy wheels, dress up the exterior. And for technology, even the base Aviator provides a forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring with a rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, a backup camera with a built-in washer, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a power liftgate. You get leatherette upholstery instead of genuine cowhide, and there’s no sunroof of adaptive cruise control, but that about covers it for actual absences. All-wheel-drive, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel are among the options on the base model.

The next up is the Reserve trim, like our test vehicle, which starts at $56,190. This is already the domain of glorious excess, with 14-way front seat adjustments, a 14-speaker Revel sound system, 20-inch wheels, a power-adjustable steering column, power second-row seats, four-zone climate control, a surround-view parking camera, and genuine leather upholstery. Among the Reserve’s numerous options are the Elements Package Plus ($1,180) with heated and ventilated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and heated windshield wipers; the Convenience Package ($2,200) with a head-up display, soft-closing doors, a wireless smartphone charger, and the capability to use your phone as the vehicle’s key; Co-Pilot360 Plus ($2,500) with adaptive cruise control with full stop-and-go capability, lane-centering, automatic evasive steering, rear automatic braking, and self-parking capability; a Luxury Package ($3,300) that has the 30-way seats, rear door sunshades, and a 28-speaker Revel surround-sound system; and a Dynamic Handling Package with the adaptive air suspension ($3,000).

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You can also bundle these options into the Reserve I package ($4,930), which combines the Elements Package, CoPilot360, and a panoramic sunroof, or the Reserve II package ($11,625), which also adds the Luxury Package, a tow hitch and related equipment, upgraded lighting, and 22-inch wheels. Our test vehicle was a Reserve II that also included the Convenience and Dynamic Handling packages, plus all-wheel-drive, for a total of $76,310. For greater decadence, you can upgrade to the Black Label trim level ($77,695 and up), which has most of the features you’d find in a loaded Reserve but adds unique aesthetic details and some exclusive ownership perks. But the sweet spot of the lineup is either the Standard, or the Reserve either with or without the Reserve I package — lots of features, gorgeous looks, seven-passenger seating, and 400-horsepower performance for the low $60,000s or less.

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The plug-in hybrid Aviator starts at $68,800 in its base Grand Touring trim level (roughly equivalent to the Reserve) and $87,800 for the Black Label Grand Touring. It’s both quick and economical (at least in short bursts), and a federal tax credit of $6,534 helps blunt the sticker shock. Even factoring that in, though, it’s several thousand dollars more than a comparable gas-only model, and you can’t buy it in base Standard form.

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR KEY COMPETITORS

2021 Cadillac XT6

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The Cadillac XT6 is a natural competitor to the Lincoln Aviator. Both are all-new models that debuted around the same time, from historic crosstown rivals. But where Lincoln worked to never settle for merely acceptable, the XT6 embraces that label. It’s handsome without being head-turning or risky. Its interior already looks a generation old and feels like it should cost $15,000 less. Overall, this Cadillac follows the old formula of taking a decent mainstream car (in this case, the GMC Acadia) and making it a little bit nicer, so it’s usefully spacious and generally pleasant to drive. And to Cadillac’s credit, the XT6’s exterior wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but a Caddy. But the Aviator, despite some niggling complaints, is a truly special vehicle while the XT6 is an ordinary one. And what’s more, once you upgrade from the newly standard 237-horsepower four-cylinder engine to the 310-horsepower V6, you don’t even enjoy a price advantage over the Aviator.

Read our full review on the 2021 Cadillac XT6

2020 Lincoln Nautilus

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Lincoln still sells a spacious crossover that has the same general flavor as the XT6: the Nautilus, a premium version of the midsize five-passenger Edge. If you’d rather have relative affordability and simplicity than the Aviator’s boundary-pushing pizzazz, and you don’t need three rows of seats, the Nautilus is the best of its breed. It handily trumps its two closest rivals — the Cadillac XT5 and Lexus RX 350 — for ride, handling, and interior spaciousness. Its gently rounded exterior is subtly handsome, though its dashboard, while user-friendly, wouldn’t turn heads even in the less-expensive Edge. Prices start at just $41,040, and its front and second-row seats are just as spacious as the Aviator’s.

Read our full review on the 2020 Lincoln Nautilus

2020 Volvo XC90

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Like the Aviator, the Volvo XC90 is a three-row luxury crossover that looks beautiful inside and out, doesn’t aim to be invigoratingly sporty, and comes up a little bit short for ride smoothness. It’s an older design whose best innovations, like a once-massive touchscreen and an available plug-in hybrid powertrain, have since been widely copied. But it remains a family-friendly luxury vehicle that you don’t need a family to appreciate. Between the two, the Aviator is quicker while the XC90, sold only with a choice of four-cylinder powertrains, is more fuel-efficient.

Read our full review on the 2020 Volvo XC90

2020 Acura MDX

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The Acura MDX is a value leader in the luxury three-row crossover segment, which has made it a consistent best-seller. And it provides firm, responsive steering and agile handling — a sportier driving experience than the Aviator. And because the Acura is several hundred pounds lighter, its 290-horsepower V6 isn’t much less responsive than the Lincoln’s 400-hp turbo. But the Aviator’s extra weight helps it feel more substantial and expensive, its cabin looks far richer, and its infotainment is a generation or two ahead of Acura’s. You also get a longer list of available features on the Aviator, albeit at a much higher price.

Read our full review on the 2020 Acura MDX

The Germans

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The Aviator fits in size between the BMW X5 and X7 and between the Mercedes-Benz GLE and GLS, though it costs less than any of them. It’s also slightly roomier than the similarly sized but more expensive Audi Q7. Even aside from the price difference, the Aviator can compete on substance for its interior and exterior aesthetics — it has the design and build quality to stand among these elite models. And its 400-horsepower V6 laughs at pricey Benzes and Audis that come standard with four-cylinders. Ride and handling composure fall short of perfection, though; when that matters more than seven-passenger seating, the Germans do advance beyond the Lincoln.

2020 LINCOLN AVIATOR IN A NUTSHELL

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Forget about the idea of Lincolns as warmed-over Fords. The new 2020 Aviator stands on its own. It’s a markedly different experience than you’d get from a Ford Explorer, and it looks like nothing else in its class — inside or out. This serenity-focused vehicle would benefit from a smoother ride, and perhaps some buyers who appreciate quiet elegance would rather pay a few thousand dollars less for a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine. But while the Aviator is not always perfect, Lincoln’s efforts to make it special have paid off.

Brady Holt
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