Review : 2003 Lincoln Navigator


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

SEE ALSO: Lincoln Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowden and Brian Moody The Car Place

GOOD STUFF

Breakthrough innovations
Major comfort
Easy to drive

BAD STUFF

Price
Poor fuel mileage
Flawed ergonomics
(Navigator) Possible hazard with folding seats
(Navigator)

Specifications

Style: luxury sport utilities Engine: 5.4-liter V8 Transmission: four-speed automatic Drivetrain: selectable four-wheel drive Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5,000 rpm; 260 hp @ 4,500 rpm Torque: 355 ft-lbs. @ 2,750 rpm; 350 ft-lbs. @ 2,500 rpm EPA mileage: 11 city/16 highway; 13 city/17 highway Weight: 5,686 lb. Base price: $54,210 (Navigator); $38,795 (Expedition XLT) Price as tested: $61,335 (Navigator); $42,460 (Expedition XLT)

Just the bottom line They are better than the GM competition. These actually have a useful third row!

That's the best that can be said of Ford Motor Company's humongous SUV twins, the groundbreaking Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition XLT.

If your needs are such that only the biggest SUV will suffice, consider these. If you can get by with anything smaller, your pocketbook and the world will thank you. Behind the wheel of either, you will not be loved by anyone else on the highway. You will be perceived as a selfish fuel hog and you will be despised for the height of your headlights that irritate the driver of every car you approach from behind at night.

And in the Navigator, you will be frustrated by numerous features that should put a smile on your face.

Understand now that both of these coddle those inside. They have taken luxury-car concepts and applied those desirable features to what is basically a truck. But for $61,335, a buyer should expect a near-perfect vehicle. And the Navigator comes up short in ways I'll detail below. After a week in each of these Ford utes, I came to prefer the simpler Expedition.

Both utes contain an air curtain safety system that is first-rate, forming a kind of soft cocoon around those inside for either crashes or rollovers. Both have a sophisticated traction/stability control system to help keep drivers out of trouble in the first place. Both are much, much improved over last year's models. The Expedition, particularly, has better steering, handling and ride comfort. It is almost as effortless to drive as a car (but parking is still a bear).

So while both are comfortable, luxurious and filled with conveniences, the focus now turns to why one would be preferable over the other, or the competition. Begin with the innovations:

A SLIDING RUNNING BOARD

Of all the features pioneered by the Navigator -- and there are several -- the sliding running board impresses most. Pull any exterior door handle on the four-door Navigator and puddle lights in the outside mirrors come on and the running board on that side of the vehicle slides out!

It's a long climb up into a Navigator, so running boards are essential assists. On the Expedition, the boards are fixed.

The Navigator's running boards startled -- and delighted -- everyone who experienced them during test week.

Enter the Navigator, close the door, and the board tucks back under the body.

In safety testing, I found I could easily fit a shoe between the sliding running board and the hard body of the Navigator. There is thus little or no danger of a foot becoming trapped should a system failure occur. Since the boards will not retract until the doors are closed, the likelihood of a problem is further minimized.

We'll see how these sliding boards hold up in severe winter conditions.

A video of the board in action is available here.

DVD ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM

Behind the front seats, on the headliner, is a flip-out screen and DVD console. Pull the screen down, insert a DVD movie, and your young ones will be fixated for a couple of hours. Worked with my test twins. We couldn't even talk to them, so engrossed were they in "Shrek".

But there are problems with the Navigator's system.

The system comes with two headphone sets and plenty of cord. But that means only two can enjoy private sound. For our test drive with the kids, there were three aboard -- a seven-year-old in the third row who wanted to watch "Shrek" too.

So headphones were out. The Navigator's speakers had to be used.

Movies have soft sound and movies have loud sound. In a moving vehicle, the softest sounds still need to be audible or your audience will complain. That meant we had to crank up the volume. And that sent the adults in the vehicle searching for a way to fade the sound to the rear of the vehicle.

Ooops. Sound can be balanced and faded when the audio system is in use, but not the DVD system.

What was entertaining to the children became a two-hour torture for the adults.

Worse, the father of the children was riding in the third-row, driver's side, seat with the mother on the other side and the seven-year-old in between. The biggest speaker in the Navigator, a subwoofer, was pressed against the father's left side. It was like vibration therapy. His complaints were loud! And there was nothing we could do about it. Believe me, he read the vehicle's manual to try to figure out how to stop the torture.

(And the older child complained he was muffling the sound!)

For the driver -- me -- things were also bad. Not only were nerves being frayed by the audio, but the DVD screen, flipped down, completely blocked the view to the rear from the inside rear view mirror. I became dependent on the outside mirrors. Might as well have been driving a delivery van.

I did not get to test the system at night, but other roof-mounted systems have created rear visibility problems with the light being emitted from the screen.

The DVD system is a $1,295 option.

POWER FOLDING THIRD ROW SEATS

The power folding third row seats are much touted by Lincoln. You have probably seen them demonstrated in television commercials. And they are a breakthrough. One has only to tussle with the manual third row in an Expedition to understand how convenient power seats can be.

But I came away from tests of these seats concerned that they might pose a danger.

The potential for danger came after watching the two curious almost-three year old twins play with the buttons that control the seats.

There are two sets of buttons. The set at the rear of the cargo bay poses little problem. The rear liftgate powers up and down -- and reverses if it encounters an object -- and the two buttons for the third-row seats are located on the passenger side, out of reach for curious twins. Ah, but there's another set of buttons...

The second set of buttons is designed to allow a person to open the driver's side rear door, reach inside, and raise or lower the third-row seats. These buttons are just behind the second-row driver's side bucket seat. Easily in reach of a child.

A fact one twin quickly discovered on her own.

I was alarmed to see her press a button and watch the seat move while her sister crawled around the cargo bay. What would happen if....

If the seat were being raised from a flat position, it seemed to me that a small child would be tumbled backward into the remaining area of the cargo bay. Not terribly dangerous. No entrapment danger is obvious. But closing a seat would present a different scenario.

I decided to test several possibilities.

For the first test, I strapped an infant-size bear into a seat. The bear did not have a soft inside; it was firm but not solid. It was, however, lightweight, and this might have skewed the results. With video camera rolling, I began lowering the seat.

Thankfully, the buttons are not one-touch. They operate like a dead-man's throttle. Turn lose and they stop their action. But, much as a child might do in play, I continued to depress the button as the seat folded forward, jutting out the base, then closing like a clamshell. The seat never seemed to recognize that the infant-sized stuffed bear was being squashed.

Indeed, it closed so tightly that small lungs might be collapsed by this pressure.

You can view a Quicktime video here of Harley the test doll strapped in as the seat tolds forward.

Next, I placed the bear prone across the two seats. The jaws again clamped down on the bear and the seat folded down to its most extreme position -- completely flat. The bear had been flattened into the seat by the pressure.

You can view the Quicktime video here. There is a missing bad frame and a small bump of the camera. Sorry 'bout that, but the experience isn't changed.

On raising the seat, the bear slid into the crack between the two seats and became trapped there, upside down.

Finally, I tried the test with me sitting in a seat.

I sat in that third-row seat and pressed the "close" button for my seat. The seat moved -- then stopped. I could not make it close on me.

I turned sideways and rested my feet on the adjacent seat. Again I pressed a button to close that seat. And it began closing.

So it appears Ford has a weight-recognition system for the seats. If the base detects sufficient weight, the seat will not close. But what weight? Attempts to find out were unsuccessful. What seemed clear is that a pressure-sensitive system, such as is used on the power liftgate, is not used with the seats. If one is, it is clearly not sensitive enough.

Finally, a further danger might be presented by the exposure of the closing mechanisms. As the seats fold, the base first lifts, and in doing so exposes a scissors-like set of arms. Danger to little fingers is obvious.

If you do not have small children who might play in this big sport ute, none of this may matter to you. The powered third-row seats are marvelous, and Ford need only address resistence issues to perfect these. With the seats folded, a truly large cargo area is created, as you can see in the photos.

ERGONOMIC ISSUES

It was ergonomic concerns, more than anything, that made the Expedition more desirable than the Navigator.

The Navigator frustrates.

And it had a flaw I've never before encountered in any vehicle.

Power window switches -- one-touch up and down -- are not located on the doors, where they should be, but are confusingly clustered on the center console between the front seats. This is a bad idea from Range Rover. It was bad there. It's bad here.

But here's the kicker....

At interstate speeds, the one-touch up driver's side window will not close.

It won't close because it reverses on the slightest of pressures. Now, that's good. Reversing is essential to prevent pinched fingers, crushed dog's or baby's heads, etc. Windows must reverse easily and quickly when they encounter an object. But this window encountered only air.

Pressure differences are created when a vehicle is in motion. At 70 to 75 miles an hour, this difference can be witnessed by watching cigarette smoke stream toward the cracked window opening. Pressure differences create air flow, just as they do to create a hurricane in nature.

In the case of the Navigator with its extreme flat sides (and side windows so squared off that they reflect the instruments at night), the volume of air flowing through the closing window prevents closure. The pressure on the top of the closing window is falsely recognized as an object -- and the window reverses.

During test week, it was hilarious to demonstrate this to unbelieving passengers.

But it also was irritating. The window cannot even be nudged to closure, using rapid on-off tweaks. It simply will not close.

Boy, is this fun when you run into a thunderstorm. You can't close the window. So you have to pull under an interstate overpass and then close the window.

I have never had this happen with other one-touch-up windows.

There are further problems:

Begin with the expensive ($1,995) navigation/sound system. The navigation screen is too small to read from the driver's seat and its black background is suited only for night use. Yet it stays that way. In daylight, in fact, the instruments lack contrast and can't be read, and the green digital readouts disappear when sunglasses are worn.

But let's try to play a CD.

Press the Eject button on the dash and out pops -- the navigation CD!

The in-dash unit contains only the navigation CD. The audio CD player is down in the passenger footwell! The unit will hold multiple CDs, but this is not the way we want to use a CD. We need in-dash units, where we can easily swap CDs. No in-trunk. No in-cargo bay. And certainly not in the passenger footwell.

It's in-dash in the Expedition, which has no navigation system. Pssst. Put the nav CD in the passenger footwell of the Navigator and the audio CD in the dash...

Now let's change a tire. That flat tire you just got from a nail is mounted on 18-inch wheels that look appropriate for a tractor-trailer. So let's find the spare tire.

It's under the rear of the Navigator and Expedition. It's secured against the underside of the vehicle. That means you'll have to slide under this beast and somehow release the spare, making sure it doesn't drop onto your face or chest.

If Ford can create power third-row seats, they can certainly power out the spare tire through the rear bumper, so it can be hoisted up, not dropped.

A final problem back here is that the license tag is on the liftgate, not the bumper. That means if the vehicle is put in motion, with long objects hanging out the rear and the liftgate raised and tied into an open position, the tag will not be legally visible. Tags belong on bumpers.

********

The Expedition doesn't share some of these problems simply because it doesn't offer cutting-edge features in the XLT model. The CD is in-dash, for instance. There is no $1,495 moonroof to add wind noise. Power windows are not one-touch up.

The redundant cruise control buttons on the steering wheel of the Expedition are far less confusing than those on the Navigator, where it is too easy to "cancel" cruise control while trying to "resume" speed.

The Navigator seems to be trying to do it all at once. Engineers came up with "advances" and designers could not fit them logically into the Navigator. So they just .. went in.

But it's easy to see an evolution of this vehicle that corrects the ergonomic flaws, that fixes any danger power seats might present. Not so easy is how to lower a $61,000 price tag for the Navigator. Given the two vehicles similarities and current features, the temptation is to buy the Expedition, enjoy the comfort and utility, and go on an extended cruise with the $20,000 you can save.

'nuff said.

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