It was a surprise that Lincoln chose the tight and twisty backroads of sleepy Santa Barbara, California, to begin the first drive of the luxurious new 2003 Navigator, rather than an expansive horse ranch or Beverly Hills country club. It was an even bigger surprise that the jumbo SUV seemed as nimble on those roads as many other, smaller vehicles. And as the day wore on and the miles accumulated, it became increasingly easy to forget about the Navigator's large size thanks to significant changes to the chassis, steering, and suspension. It's not a coincidence that ride and handling improvements are the first things we noticed about this vehicle: Navigator engineers spent quite a bit of time studying the Lincoln driving experience, and set out to achieve consistent driving dynamics across the Lincoln line. Calling it "Lincoln DNA," engineers wanted to create an "addictive driving experience, unique for Lincoln" and embed it "across every vehicle in the lineup. This is what today's luxury vehicle customers expect," says Engineering Director, Dr. Mike Renucci.

To achieve this new level of refinement, the Navigator has moved to a fully boxed hydroformed frame that is 70 percent torsionally stiffer than last year's more traditional frame for reduced noise, vibration, and harshness, even on rough and uneven road surfaces. With a more rigid platform to hang from, an all-new suspension could be fine-tuned to better balance ride comfort, off-road ability, and payload capability. The new front and rear suspension assemblies employ upper and lower control arms with spring-over-shock load-leveling air springs and monotube dampers instead of the independent front / solid-axle rear configuration found in the previous Navigator and standard in the current Cadillac Escalade and Lexus LX 470. Navigator replaces its previous recirculating ball system with a carefully tuned rack-and-pinion setup for friction-free steering with smooth transitions and low effort around town, completing the dynamics transformation.

Like the chassis, the exterior receives a comprehensive makeover for 2003. With the exception of the roof panel and front doors, all of the bodywork is new. In front, behold Lincoln's signature grille, clear-lens quad-beam halogen headlamps, and integrated tow hooks and foglamps. For easier entry and exit, optional power running boards deploy when a door is opened -- sliding out four inches from the rocker panel and three inches toward the rear -- and retract when the doors are closed. The power-assisted liftgate can raise or lower the door in about 10 seconds, and automatically retracts should it encounter an obstacle (effectively demonstrated when Lincoln Mercury Product Specialist Jim Cain confidently stuck his arm under the closing gate).

Inside, seating surfaces are leather with a milled pebble finish, floor and mats are plush carpet, A-pillars and headliner are textured fabric, and other surfaces, including the center panel, controls, switches, and bits of trim are painted a low-luster satin nickel color with sparing touches of chrome for an elegant look and feel. Standard features include dual-zone climate control with auxiliary outlets and controls for the second- and third row passengers; two-driver memory setting for front power seats, mirrors, brake and accelerator pedals; AM/FM premium sound system with in-dash six-disc CD changer; remote keyless entry with keypad; and an Extended Rear Park Assist system that uses a combination of ultrasonic sensors and radar to detect obstacles when reversing. Split folding second- and third-row seats boast three-point belts at each position, and the third-row seats can optionally power-fold with just the push of a button. A lower-tech contribution to the lux quotient, more extensive sound absorbing materials and better body sealing help provide a more quiet cabin.

Underhood, Navigator retains its previous 5.4-liter/300-horsepower DOHC iron-block V-8 with aluminum heads and four valves per cylinder kicking out 355 lb-ft of torque at 2750 rpm, with 90 percent of peak torque available between 1750 and 4700 rpm. Horses make their way to the wheels via electronically controlled four-speed automatic tranny with shift points that adjust depending on throttle and engine load. Models with 4x4 can tow up to 8300 pounds (a 300-pound increase from last year) and 4x2 models can tow up to 8500 pounds. Standard Michelin 255/70R18 Cross Terrain tires wrap 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels, with optional Michelin Pilot LTX 275/65HR18 rubber wrapping 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels. Stopping power comes from 13-inch vented front rotors with twin-piston calipers and 13.5-inch vented rear rotors with single-piston calipers, four-wheel ABS, and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution to adjust front-to-rear brake bias.

We had the chance to experience Navigator's AdvanceTrac four-wheel stability and traction control system on a closed autocross course. AdvanceTrac measures wheel speed, steering angle, and vehicle yaw rate to determine whether the vehicle's path matches the driver's intent, and then adjusts power and braking to assist stability and traction. We found that AdvanceTrac helped correct understeer and oversteer by braking front and rear wheels, and even reduced engine power as required to help the mighty SUV stay on the road through a series of decreasing-radius turns, slalom cones, wet skid, and avoidance maneuver sections. Performance was impressive with a minimal level of body roll, especially compared to other luxury sport/utilities we experienced that day.

The 2003 Navigator will be available in three levels: Luxury, Premium, and Ultimate, each with an assortment of additional features. Base-level Luxury models start at $52,325 and come well equipped with standard features mentioned previously. Premium models begin at $53,575 and add AdvanceTrac, heated/cooled seats, 18-inch chrome wheels, power moonroof, DVD rear seat entertainment system, and navigation system, plus an optional tire-pressure monitoring system that will be available later in the year. Ultimate models start at $54,950 and include the power liftgate, power-folding third-row seats, and HID headlamps. Optional power running boards are only available on the Ultimate model. The Ultimate Model we drove wore a sticker with a suggested retail price of $60,040, which included optional navigation system ($1995), moonroof ($1495), power running boards ($925), wheel and tire upgrade ($675), and destination and delivery ($740). Additionally, all trim levels include a four-year 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty with three years of complimentary maintenance and transportation and 24-hour roadside assistance.

Those interested in an SUV in the full-size category but who don't wan't to spend quite so much, might want to consider Ford' platformmate, the Ford Expedition. The 2003 Expedition ranges from $32,000 to $42,000 and also benefits from a hydroformed chassis, new independent suspension, freshened exterior, and numerous refinements, making it an attractive, less costly alternative to the decidedly more luxurious Lincoln.

Due in dealerships this summer, the 2003 Navigator truly delivers more of everything that made its original model such a success: luxury, refinement, and performance to match. On the outside it seems mighty big, but inside, it's mighty manageable.

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