It's easy to overlook the 2003 Lincoln Aviator because of its Ford Explorer roots. A bit of trim, new body cladding, an upgraded interior, and–of course–the Lincoln grille are all that's needed, right? Not really. Though the mechanical package is similar, the Aviator's tuning, and some equipment, is different than that found on the Ford. According to Dr. Mike Renucci, Lincoln's Scottish-born engineering director, derivatives of volume products introduced during the 2000 to 2004 timeframe–like the Aviator–will point toward the ultimate target, but still fall short of Lincoln's ultimate goal. "While we wait for the first vehicles built around a Lincoln-optimized architecture to arrive in 2005," says Renucci, "we are making our existing products as consistent as possible in terms of comfort, refinement, and precision. The Aviator is the latest iteration of that progression."
The most apparent differences between the Aviator and Explorer are found in the front cabin. Cold cathode ray technology illuminates the instrument faces, while the indicators are backlit. No big deal there, Lexus has done that for years. More interesting is the technology used to light the buttons and switches. Sporting the same satin-nickel finish found on the instrument panel center stack, console, vents and trim panels, the buttons and switches are formed out of black polycarbonate, painted, then a legend is laser-etched into the surface. In daylight, the inscription appears black, while at night–and under low-light conditions–white LEDs provide illumination. There are more than 100 LEDs throughout the Aviator's interior, plus an ambient light sensor that determines whether it's necessary to illuminate them or not, and at what intensity.
That intensity level is controlled via pulse-width modulation which increases or decreases the number of full-power pulses to either brighten or dim the LEDs. Rated for 10,000 hours of use, more than twice the life of incandescent lights, white LEDs can fall into a broad color band from pale blue to pale yellow. Therefore, each LED is tested before assembly by an automated system that takes just 20 microseconds per LED. Those that fall outside Lincoln's specification are automatically rejected.
Compared to this, the other unique items in the cabin pale by comparison, though they point toward how Lincoln will differentiate its products from its less costly kin. For example, the Aviator's laminated front side glass is thicker than the Explorer's or Mountaineer's in order to reduce noise levels. Front seat adjustment controls–inconveniently located on the side of the lower seat cushion in the Explorer–are situated on the door panel in the Aviator which also allows a wider cushion to be used. Unique door panels eliminate the visible part lines, large graining, and gaps found in the Explorer. And rear seat passengers get foot space carved out from the back of the center console, a gas strut to assist in folding the middle seat, and an outer latch on that seat which folds out of the way to ease ingress and egress to the third-row.
The mechanical refinements are no less impressive. Aviator's 302-hp aluminum 4.6-liter V8 gets a variable-length intake that helps it produce 95% of available torque from 2,250 to 5,400 rpm. Four two-piece isolators–with a micro-cellular upper and butyl rubber lower–are fitted between the frame and body for greater road isolation. Key suspension attachments are 200% stiffer for better ride and handling. The anti-roll bars use oval bushings that match a flat spot in the bar to sharpen steering response. ZF's Servotronic 2 variable-assist steering is used for its low friction and compliance, and has been tuned to meet Lincoln's overall steering bogeys. It's helped by the magnesium cross-car beam that acts as the mounting surface for the instrument panel and steering column. Structural foam fills the voids in the roof, pillars, and floor to cut noise and vibration. Plus, a position sensor on the driver's seat track couples with a belt-use sensor to determine air bag deployment speed.
Despite their similarities, a number of details differentiate the Aviator from the Explorer and Mountaineer, more than separated the original Navigator and Expedition, in fact. The Navigator has been a rousing success. There's no reason to think the Aviator won't have the same appeal.