There may well be a new darling of the premium three-row SUV segment, and it’s deserving of all the praise – and prizes – it’s received so far.
But the 2021 Lincoln Aviator Reserve is here to provide a not-so-subtle reminder that not all entries are created equal. While the Genesis GV80 continues to rack up one award win after another, the brand’s first-ever sport utility isn’t without a noteworthy flaw: a lack of space inside. It also happens to be one the Aviator addresses with ease while delivering a similarly balanced drive.
The Aviator certainly plays to its strengths – and its size. Much like the Ford Explorer with which it shares a platform, this Lincoln is among the larger entries like it on the market, which makes it impressively roomy for both people and their stuff. Granted, it’s no Navigator, but as far as this slightly smaller class is concerned, the Aviator is about as good as it gets.
As a tow rig the Aviator is rated to pull 3,039 kg (6,700 lb), which is fairly average for an entry this size. Carrying cargo is perhaps its biggest strength, though, with enough room behind the third-row seats to fit the AutoTrader.ca cargo-testing pedal car – rare amongst SUVs this size. On top of that (well, underneath it, actually), there’s some extra underfloor storage, while folding or raising the rearmost seats is done automatically via buttons near the tailgate opening.
Like any sport utility this side of the Navigator, the third-row seats aren’t especially spacious, though your 6-foot-3 author managed to squeeze back there without much contortion – a task that simply wasn’t possible in the GV80. Doing so came at the cost of some second-row legroom, though there’s enough space inside that all six seats in the Aviator (or seven, should a second-row bench be optioned) can be occupied at once without it feeling like a clown car.
With the rearmost seats stowed, there’s 1,184 L of cargo room behind the second-row captain’s chairs and generous space for a family of four. Both the first- and second-row seats feature standard three-stage heat and ventilation in the Aviator Reserve, while the optional 30-way adjustable front seats add massage functionality as well.
Even so, the driver’s seat wasn’t quite as comfortable as the GV80’s, which was put to the test over the course of an extensive road trip and passed with flying colours. It’s safe to call this a close second, then, though some upper-leg discomfort managed to set in after just a couple hours behind the wheel. The front seats are also rather tall, and while headroom is adequate the sun visor obscured your author’s line of sight even when it was stowed, while the top of the head-up display screen could only be seen when slouching in the driver’s chair.
The ride quality isn’t quite as comfortable as the GV80’s but it’s close, with the adaptive dampers doing well to soften the blow of most road imperfections. The suspension can be further upgraded with a road preview system like the GV80’s that uses camera and navigation data to pre-emptively adjust for bumps and cracks in the road ahead, though the feature wasn’t equipped here. Much like the smaller Lincoln Corsair, it’s only the way the suspension manages (or doesn’t manage) the unsprung weight of the massive alloy wheels – in this case, measuring 22 inches – that leaves something to be desired as far as ride quality is concerned.
Driving Feel: 10/10
The Aviator certainly leans into something of a heftier, more traditional and truck-like ride than most in the segment, but there’s a similar duality like with the GV80 in the way it blends some satisfying dynamics with luxurious comfort that makes it feel special. The heavy steering and opulent disposition almost makes the Aviator come across as lumbering when driven casually, which makes its poise and controllability especially impressive.
It’s far more nimble than its size would suggest – while not quite as big as the body-on-frame Navigator, this is still an imposing SUV – and takes advantage of its adaptive dampers to adjust for body roll when driven enthusiastically, snaking its way through winding ribbons of road like a smaller sport utility. It’s responsive and quick to change direction, with outstanding (though slightly artificial) steering feel from the electrically power-assisted system, and it easily rivals some of the segment’s best in that regard.
Where the Aviator lags the GV80 a little in on-road comfort it makes up for with superior engine performance. The twin-turbocharged V6 is the same one that powers the Ford Explorer ST and it generates a fairly ludicrous 400 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque, the latter of which is capable of providing surprising bursts of forward momentum when a heavy right foot is applied to the accelerator pedal. The Aviator might not deliver the total performance package of an AMG-tuned Mercedes GLE-Class, but as far as engine output and acceleration goes it’s awfully close.
All-wheel drive is standard on this side of the border and the system is fully automatic, shuffling torque around to the wheels that need it – and even disconnecting the back ones when four-wheel traction isn’t required. However, there are a handful of drive modes that can prioritize traction, performance, or efficiency as needed, while also changing the suspension damping and the shift points of the 10-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
The Aviator runs on a diet of premium-grade gas and consumes it to the tune of a combined 11.9 L/100 km, according to Lincoln. With the drive dial in its most efficient setting during much of a roughly 220-km evaluation loop split in favour of highway driving, the actual average clocked in slightly worse and settled at 12.1 L/100 km. The final tally stood at 12.8 L/100 km over 730 km split evenly between city and highway settings – not quite as good as the GV80 managed over a far more highway-intensive evaluation period, albeit in worse weather conditions. Consumption-conscious shoppers can also check out the plug-in hybrid Aviator, or the decidedly less luxurious (but more affordable) Ford Explorer Hybrid.
Shopping for an Aviator is about as straightforward as it gets: first pick your powertrain (gas-only or plug-in hybrid), and then add your extras. In the case of the gas-powered Reserve, it starts at $71,150 before tax and can be optioned extensively from there. This tester wasn’t quite fully loaded but it was close, with add-ons totalling nearly $13,000 for a pre-tax selling price of $84,000.
For context, that price is about the same as what Genesis charges for a top-of-the-line GV80 3.5T Prestige ($85,000 before tax) with its comparable powertrain and comfort and convenience content, while rivals from German brands can easily touch six-figure territory. Meanwhile, the Lexus GX that’s a little more old-school in its approach – and feels slightly dated these days – rings in at about $85,000 when loaded with options.
The quilted Nappa leather that comes in the GV80 looks a little more impressive but the perforated stuff inside the Aviator feels a little bit better, and the total package nearly matches that top trim in just about every way for the money. One noteworthy absence is the pack that includes the road preview functionality for the adaptive dampers that’s an additional upgrade here but comes standard in both V6-powered Genesis trims (the 3.5T Advanced is even cheaper at $80,000).
Even so, what’s included is competitive – particularly with the options added here. Standard for the Reserve’s $71,150 starting price is stuff like heated and ventilated first- and second-row seats, a heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, and active noise cancellation, as well as a 14-speaker stereo, 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment with Wi-Fi hotspot and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, four-zone automatic climate control, and interior ambient lighting.
There’s also that V6 engine, which outduels the four-cylinder that comes in the GV80’s cheapest two trims, as well as the adaptive suspension, a height-programmable power tailgate with a kick sensor, and all kinds of advanced safety features – but more on those shortly. Adding all the features found here like massaging front seats (not available in the GV80), head-up display, second-row centre console, and 22-inch wheels, among others, transforms the Aviator into an impressively premium machine for the money, with little left to be desired in an SUV this side of six figures.
The Aviator Reserve is equipped with all sorts of active and passive safety equipment, too, including front and rear parking sensors, a surround-view camera (that’s in addition to the government-mandated rear-view one), blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic braking.
A package that includes adaptive cruise control can be added one of three ways and also includes reverse automatic braking and a self-parking system that works in both parallel and perpendicular spots. The adaptive cruise control features steering assistance that chips in with some help on the highway – assuming both hands remain on the wheel – and works as well as some of the best systems on the market, including what’s offered in the overhauled Nissan Rogue.
User Friendliness: 8/10
Opting to use the steering assist is done via a clearly labelled button on the steering wheel that illuminates when cruise control is active. The steering wheel also features simple joystick-style controls for audio and infotainment functions, as well as a voice command button at about the 10 o’clock position that’s easily engaged at unintended times.
Most other controls are fairly intuitive, too, though there are a few exceptions. Take the buttons used for the gear selector; they’re the same ones found in the Corsair, only they’re far more awkward to use here, with the P-R-N-D toggles tucked between the dash and floating centre console. There’s also the so-called Convenience package ($2,000) that adds items like the head-up display, wireless phone charger, and the ability to remote start the vehicle via smartphone app, as well as soft-close doors. But rather than conventional levers inside to open the doors, the Aviator uses buttons that certainly take some time to grow accustomed to.
In that way, the cabin is something of a bizarre meeting place of conventional and unnecessarily convoluted controls. Traditional switches and knobs for HVAC and audio are contrasted sharply by buttons where there normally aren’t any to cause confusion and require some relearning.
The infotainment response also proved surprisingly lacklustre compared to the Corsair, not to mention other Ford products employing the same system. Often sluggish when switching from one screen to the next – particularly when jumping between menus and Apple CarPlay – it proved frustrating on the go and out of character for the automaker’s generally good-but-not-great interface.
The cabin’s design employs quite a bit of smudge-attracting gloss-black plastic just like its smaller sibling, though it’s complemented here by genuine wood trim pieces that span the width of the dash, as well as make up parts of the front and optional rear consoles to class the space up considerably.
The exterior boasts a unique look for the segment, with a swept-back profile that accentuates an almost bulbous front end, though it’s stylish nonetheless. It’s fairly simple as far as accents go, with art-deco-style fender badges boasting the Aviator name, and propeller-like wheels finished in all-black here. It might not make as bold a statement as the GV80 and its gaping grille, but the Aviator certainly has its own presence.
Make no mistake: the hype around the Genesis GV80 is well deserved, and if nothing else it gives this segment a much-needed shakeup. But it’s equally important to remember that it’s not the only alternative to the usual suspects out there, and the Lincoln Aviator offers up a lot to like – especially for those that might need just a little more room without stepping up to a full-size SUV.
It’s priced well, too. While adding the full complement of options – road preview, rear-seat entertainment – can push the price of the Aviator Reserve to $90,000 before tax, there’s a lot to like for the money. Balanced, smooth, and spacious, it quietly goes about its business as one of the best kept secrets in the segment.
|Engine Cylinders||Twin-Turbo V6|
|Peak Horsepower||400 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||415 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||13.7 / 9.7 / 11.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||519 / 1,184 / 2,201 L seats up/down|
|Model Tested||2021 Lincoln Aviator Reserve|
|Price as Tested||$84,100|
$12,850 – 208A Package, $6,750; Illumination Package, $2,250; Convenience Package, $2,000; Pristine White Paint, $900; Rear Centre Console w/Controls, $750; All-Weather Floor Liners, $200