“Ford is selling more Lincoln Navigators than it can make” screamed a headline from the New York Post in February.
And it’s true. Customers are driving new Lincoln Navigators home a week after the gargantuan SUVs arrive at dealerships – a tenth of the time new vehicles on average sit on lots awaiting buyers, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Such furious demand has led Ford to boost production by 25 percent of both the Navigator and its counterpart, the Ford Expedition, allocating $25 million to speed up assembly of the SUVs.
Lincoln wants to slipstream the popularity of the Navigator to expand its luxury SUV brand across the utility space. That effort began with Wednesday’s introduction of the Lincoln Aviator at the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS).
The all-new, three-row, mid-sized SUV impressed Cars.com so much, the site crowned the Aviator “best in show” yesterday.
“The Aviator is truly stunning, with promises of being powerful, stately, stylish and luxurious. Lincoln is playing catchup to many of its competitors, but it’s absolutely nailing it in the process,” gushed Jennifer Newman, Cars.com’s editor-in-chief.
What’s truly stunning to us is how forward-thinking and proactive Lincoln is being about adopting and offering technologies to drivers that might otherwise disrupt the customer relationship and sales of Ford’s luxury brand.
At the show Lincoln emphasized what it called the Aviator’s quiet, smooth ride and ease-of-use, including a smartphone-activated unlock, lock, ignition and trunk opening feature it’s added to its “Lincoln Way” app, so users can get rid of their key fobs if they want.
Besides the phone-as-key technology, pickup and delivery for servicing is standard on the Aviator, a feature the automaker has pioneered since 2016 and will be offering in Canada and soon China as well. Lincoln’s click-to-purchase online shopping program is also available across the U.S. this year.
Ford’s luxury brand is also expanding the lightly owned vehicles available in its pilot luxury subscription service to 2017 model year Lincolns from prior types it’s been offering for nearly two years in West L.A. and San Francisco. The program allows clients to select a Lincoln of their choice to use as their own vehicle for as long or as briefly as they want with insurance, warranty and delivery to home or work all bundled into a monthly payment.
This emerging, single brand version of a click and deliver, Amazon-style subscription experience is aimed at preventing startups like Beepy, Carvana and Shift from moving customers away from the pre-owned dealership channel to these multi-brand digital sales sites. Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, Porsche, Volvo and others already offer their own various iterations of such subscription services.
While automakers have for years quietly allowed buyers to negotiate purchases and leases of new vehicles via email and have these autos delivered to home or work upon request, such services are becoming more standardized and digitized for new models as well as old, as automakers continue to try to make purchasing less painful for customers.
“We’ve taken a leading role in transforming the way our industry thinks about service,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets. “[Lincoln’s] a small brand, but we can use that to our advantage. At Lincoln, we’ve learned to obsess about the customer … by focusing on the customer’s pain points. Like, ‘I love the remote start but I don’t like having the key in my pocket. Or, ‘Having the third row is great but the second row is really hard to operate. Or, ‘How do I get to the dealership when I’m working 14-hour days?”
The Aviator, which goes on sale next year, and another SUV Lincoln has yet to describe but will release sometime thereafter, have been built to resolve those issues.
“It’s a pivotal time in the brand’s history,” said Lincoln President Joy Falotico, who introduced the Aviator’s tech and service features on Wednesday at NYIAS. “We are continuing to define and develop services that differentiate Lincoln by making the ownership experience even more effortless.”
The SUV revealed in New York is expected to closely resemble the production version of the Aviator. If so it will have softer edges than its bigger Navigator cousin, plus a roof that arcs downward toward the back like a Range Rover.
“This preview model shows our intent for our next production utility,” Falotico explained. “Aviator’s design is inspired by aeronautics – from the powerful presence of the signature front grill to the sculpted lines that pull back and downward that suggest the Aviator is ready to take flight.”
Farley got nearly transcendental when describing the purpose behind the Aviator’s name:
“Our obsession with customers has shaped our DNA, and we call that DNA, ‘quiet flight.’ It’s a concept, supported by four things: Beauty, gliding, humanity and sanctuary. Lincoln will always deliver ‘quiet flight’ through our products but especially our services.”
The Aviator is also the vehicle in which Lincoln is introducing “co-pilot 360,” which the automaker says is an advanced suite of standard driver-assisted technologies including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, paired with Lincoln’s previously released “blind spot information system” as well as a number of other features all aimed at providing 360-degree accident avoidance. Also available is reverse brake assist, which uses rear sensors and a camera to supply automatic braking if it detects an obstacle a driver is failing to avoid.
Wireless smartphone charging and WiFi, meanwhile, keeps passengers connected – if not to each other, then to various addictive apps, social media profiles and news feeds.
The Aviator will additionally come with a hybrid plug-in option, as Lincoln has committed to electrifying all of its lineup globally, but especially in China and the U.S.
“Electrification will play a big role for us because it helps us deliver effortless power, seamless acceleration and the quiet feeling of gliding on the road,” Farley said. “It’s the perfect expression of ‘quiet flight, and it’s also really important in China: Now the largest premium market in the world, premium battery electrics are expected to account for about a fourth of the vehicles in China in the next couple of years.”
Nonetheless, the Aviator plug-in hybrid model will be the first vehicle Lincoln has offered that’s able to use the automaker’s twin-turbocharged engine when needed to boost range.
The Aviator comes with rear-wheel drive, “which helps deliver that capability that luxury customers want and allows for three rows,” Farley said. “It moves you forward in Lincoln’s quietest, smoothest, most powerful drive yet, thanks to being a plug-in electric. Quick yet quiet acceleration of the electric powertrain but without the range anxiety thanks to its twin-turbocharged engine.”
The Aviator is equipped with Lincoln’s first suspension preview technology, which automatically scans and adjusts for oncoming road variations to optimize the ride, which, Farley said, “gives you the effortless feeling of gliding through life.”
SUVs are driving automakers’ sales today globally. The mid-sized luxury utility segment in particular accounted for 585,000 units sold domestically last year, almost a quarter of all the luxury utilities sold here.
“It was the largest luxury segment in the U.S.,” said Farley, who predicted “continued growth” in the market “driven by the older millennials who are now starting families. They want roominess, the safety of a utility, but they want a much more sophisticated package. It’s also worth noting that the number of women who now choose our utilities has grown by 44 percent.”
The shift to SUVs is especially apparent in China, Farley said, where utilities make up almost half of all the luxury autos sold on the mainland now.
He added that “half of Navigator customers are all-new to Lincoln,” what automakers feverishly call “conquests,” meaning customers who have purchased or leased from competitors prior.
“They’re coming from Range Rover, Cadillac and Mercedes,” Farley claimed. “We’ve also launched Lincoln in China and we’re rapidly growing our dealer network there.”
You can get a closer look at the Aviator at NYIAS, which runs through April 8 at the Javits Center in Manhattan.
Until then, here’s a video of Farley and Falotico introducing the Aviator in New York last week: