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1998 Lincoln Navigator

In journalism, it's hard to admit you're biased. It's not considered good form. But I have to confess that I went into our test of Lincoln's Navigator mega-ute fully expecting to either hate it or to thoroughly disapprove of it.

After all, any vehicle this big, this expensive, this thirsty, this ostentatious and this impractical should easily burst through the envelope to where excess becomes indefensible.

But the big lug almost won me over. Almost.

Lincoln has taken Ford's self-consciously truck-like Expedition and has created a more civil automobile, a very pleasant machine to live with.

The week I had the Navigator, the McRaes were equipping son Rob's new grad student digs in Kingston. For the radical Lincoln, that meant a lot of time on the road, including a trip to the Burlington IKEA for a load of knocked-down furniture, and the subsequent run to KTown.

For the drivers it meant a lot of time behind the wheel. Time well spent in comfort, with minimal fatigue.

Given its bulk, the Lincoln moves with a heavyweight grace light on its feet, although quick moves are met with some resistance. Any attempt to rush around a turn will generate considerable amounts of tire squeal and body lean. But, with a little patience and moderation on the part of the pilot, the kilometres roll on by.

A few days into the test period, an acquaintance asked me whether the massive luxury sport utility "drove like a truck or drove like a Lincoln?" Provided the comparison is with a Town Car, the answer is yes, it drives like a Lincoln.

The Navigator is a 'good-handling' vehicle in the way our fathers understood the term. 'Easy-handling' is more apt. Like any true Lincoln, it has that Pearson-era king-of-the-road feeling that inspires you to wheel rather than steer it around. When parking the brute I found myself spinning the wheel with the palm of my hand. Gosh, I haven't done that in 30 years.

More to the point, the Navigator's easy-handling ways tend to offset its majestic size out on the open road as well as in tight quarters. (For this behemoth that's any parking lot!)

Much of the Navigator's civility can be traced to the vehicle's air suspension. Electronically-controlled air shocks and springs are a modern miracle that act to stabilize and smooth out the ride when travelling without a load. Plus, they act to level the ride height when the cargo area is put to good use. (The 4WD Navigator also employs the air system to lower the vehicle a tad while at rest to reduce the step-in height.)

I blasted our tester across deep pavement undulations, through potholes and I made repeated runs over a great hump-shaped level crossing.

Regardless of the challenge, the pressurized suspenders never lost their composure particularly impressive given the huge weight the system must control.

SOFT BUSHINGS

Modern miracles notwithstanding, old habits die hard.

The Navigator's engineers have reverted to the perennial Ford practice of using soft suspension bushing densities to get the last iota of harshness out of the vehicle's boulevard ride.

As a result, deep or sharp suspension movements, though sweetly controlled by the air system, are accompanied by minor judders and aftershocks.

Like its fraternal-twin Expedition, the Navigator is powered by Ford's new 5.4litre Triton truck engine. Rated at 230 h.p. and 325 foot-pounds of torque, the V8 is a forceful motivator.

Every previous time I've tested the 5.4 it has been hampered by an automatic transmission that didn't seem to know what it was doing.

SEAMLESS POWERTRAIN

Somebody, either Ford's truck team or Lincoln's power package specialists, has finally managed to do a superb job of harmonizing the Navigator's engine and transmission.

The pair in our tester deployed their efforts as seamlessly as any current minivan powertrain and that's high praise.

The eager smoothness of the power delivery does a lot to disguise the fact that the heavy Navigator is bog slow.

Accelerating from a standstill up to 100 km/h took longer in the Navigator than in any gasoline-fueled vehicle I've tested in recent memory – fully 13.75 seconds.

Once all that mass is cruising along, the engine has a somewhat easier time of it. Nevertheless, passing acceleration from 90 to 120 klicks still required over nine seconds. That's a long time by contemporary standards, but in the real world of the 401, I found that the Navigator did just fine.

That said, I should point out that the load of furniture kits noticeably slowed the Lincoln's responses. This is not a work truck, heavy cargo will not be its forte.

Depending on model and equipment, the Navigator can be tow-rated for up to 3,629 kg (8,000 lb). We won't doubt that the vehicle will move such a load without hurting itself. Progress on the road, however, will be frustratingly torpid.

GAS GUZZLER

Progress of any sort in the Navigator will also be costly. Transport Canada hasn't yet provided fuel-use ratings for this '98 model, but they tell us that the Expedition consumes 18.2L/100 km in the city and 12.5 on the highway. I calculated 18.6L/100 km with the furniture onboard, combined city and highway.

But, hey, if you can afford a $64,000 truck-wagon, you can certainly afford to pour gas through it.

Sixty-four grand? Yup, on a base of $58,995 our tester had a few options that included rear-seat a/c, audio system upgrades and $1,695worth of wheels and tires. Total: $63,689.

For that, one receives the panache of the Lincoln nameplate.

But the Navigator is not a uniquely luxurious sport utility, at least not relative to what is familiar fare on Explorers and Grand Cherokees for many thousands less. Same old stuff:

leather, plastic woodgrain and chrome.

Fortunately, for those who need to show off their worldly success, this Lincoln is instantly recognizable. While primarily a result of the baleen-like grille, the Navigator's

identifiability also derives from bodywork that is subtly, but noticeably different from the Expedition's. I'm told that the only exterior panel they share is the roof. While I prefer the more conservative shapes in the Navigator sheetmetal, I wish the stylists had used similar restraint when penning the overblown plastic parts that attend the running boards and make up the lower grille and bumper.

Ordinarily I'm not a fan of glitter, but in true Lincoln style the Navigator has just enough lost-in-the-'50s chrome bits to give the exterior some sparkle.

Inside we find expansive front bucket seats designed to accommodate expansive, well-fed passengers. Second-row seating is another pair of buckets flanking the mother of all centre consoles. Behind that, there's a removable rear bench.

DIFFICULT ACCESS

Access to the bench is via one of the second-row tip-forward buckets a route that would test a gymnast.

Moreover, the presence of the bench essentially defeats any use of the cargo area. Taking it in and out is a two-person task. I'll bet these seats languish at the back of the garage. The Navigator is best used as a four-seater.

A further downside to the odd seating arrangement is the lack of an extended load floor. The rear buckets' backs don't fold and that console sticks right up where it's in the way. This definitely takes some of the 'ute' out of this sport ute.

Finally, I have to comment on the Navigator's ridiculous height, made worse on our tester by the optional tall tires and made not a whit more acceptable by the air suspension's low-rider routine.

A 4X4 Expedition will not fit in many indoor parking facilities. I didn't even try it with the Navigator. The sales brochure includes photos of luggage, skis and a mountain bike on the roof rack. Maybe, if you plan on bringing a step stool. Getting a bike up there would require a ladder.

The step-in height is another affront. Those running boards are an absolute necessity. Getting in is a trick for anyone, very difficult for small children, and impossible for many seniors.

Methinks the demography of those who would lust for a Navigator has to be very narrow. I suppose the target individual would be a wealthy male, with an ample physique, old enough to appreciate the values implied by a chrome-tinged Lincoln but still young enough to make the climb inside.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on a weeklong driving experience in a vehicle supplied by Ford of Canada.

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