Until the 1970s, America’s wealthy drove big Lincolns and Cadillacs. Sure, some quirky Georgetowners may have brought over delicate smaller European cars, but even in the most affluent sections of Northwest, Detroit iron was well represented.
Today, the full-size American sedan commands far less status. Today’s Lincoln Continental can boast plenty of legroom at half the price of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but that doesn’t really stir the soul. It’s Mercedes’ sedans, not Lincoln’s, that occupy the District’s most valuable garage spaces and diplomatic driveways.
But plenty of buyers still love the traditional merits of a huge, posh American luxury vehicle. The difference: Now those cars are full-size SUVs rather than full-size sedans.
Witness the fully redesigned 2018 Lincoln Navigator. Its road-hogging size, 450-horsepower engine and extreme opulence recall the brand’s glory days, winning it plenty of fans among D.C.’s local and international elite.
And while the competing Cadillac Escalade shares its desirable status, the Navigator blows it away for people-hauling potential with an adult-friendly third-row seat.
Priced from $74,500, the Navigator is a luxury version of the Ford Expedition. The Expedition impressed when tested over the summer, bringing class-leading fuel economy and passenger comfort along with a higher degree of refinement and luxury.
The Navigator’s transformation is even more impressive. Not only was the old Navigator crafted from cruder origins, but Lincoln hadn’t done as much to elevate it to luxury status. Loads of extra chrome trim added more flash than class, and the interior quality couldn’t rival a European luxury vehicle.
The new model takes a superior starting point (the redesigned Expedition) and also goes farther toward creating a high-end experience. The new Navigator’s exterior design shows admirable restraint, letting the full-size dimensions speak for themselves, wearing the vehicle’s clean lines with grace.
The interior is even more impressive. The Navigator’s dashboard shares nothing with the Expedition, which itself borrows heavily from the Ford F-150 pickup truck. Instead of blocky plastic, the Navigator blends modern curves with the rectangular vibe of a 1970s Continental, down to the strip of wood across the dashboard. You can even get a burgundy color scheme like the old days, like on the tested Navigator, or your choice of more conventional hues.
But don’t expect a dated throwback feel. A well-executed 10-inch touchscreen floats at the middle of the dashboard, and the rectangular gauge cluster is a customizable digital display. Lincoln took some design risks, but they paid off, and high-quality materials also help the Navigator a car to covet rather than merely an affordable alternative to a European vehicle.
On the road, the Navigator feels more like a truck than a car. You tower over Mercedes or Audi crossovers, but you also lose such vehicles’ sublime ride and handling. The big Lincoln is a glitzy truck, but it’s still a truck underneath, with a healthy 8,300-pound towing capacity and the usual harshness over D.C. potholes. (The same applies to its closest competitors: the Escalade, GMC Yukon Denali, Infiniti QX80, and Lexus LX 570.)
A recently tested QX80 pointed to its own strengths in this market. It’s an aging design, dating back to 2011 when it was called the QX56. The dashboard shows its age next to the Navigator, with an 8-inch touchscreen looking lost in a huge upright instrument panel, and also lacking the Lincoln’s beautifully rendered graphics and its advanced smartphone integration through Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The QX80’s fuel economy also remains behind the times. The Navigator gets up to 19 mpg in mixed driving, courtesy of its turbocharged V6 and 10-speed automatic transmission. The Infiniti, with a naturally aspirated V8 and a seven-speed automatic, trails by a significant 3 mpg.
But otherwise, the QX80 holds its own.
A design update for the 2018 model year delivered sharper styling to the front and rear ends, while 2019 brought a new Limited trim level (as in the tested vehicle) that has some unique exterior details and fancier interior materials.
The QX80 rides and handles as well as the Navigator despite its age, and its big 400-horsepower V8 engine delivers burly performance to help justify its fuel consumption. Meanwhile, while its third-row seating isn’t quite as accommodating as the Navigator’s, it still beats the class norm. You don’t get the Lincoln’s retro cues, but the feel and overall presence of a luxury land yacht is still a ’70s throwback.
What’s more, the QX80 delivers its luxury experience at a lower price point than the Navigator, starting from $66,795. That’s in part because the QX80 is more closely related to its Nissan Armada sibling than the Navigator is to the Expedition, but on the plus side, the Armada is a more upscale starting point than the previous-generation Expedition.
Again, the Navigator and QX80 aren’t cars you buy for purely logical reasons. Their size is a liability on crowded Northwest streets, and their heavy-duty construction trades everyday comfort for capability that D.C. residents will rarely get to use.
On the other hand, if you crave the feel of a huge, powerful truck loaded with goodies inside, you’ll probably like the QX80 and love the Navigator.