Lincoln debuts Navigator Concept with gull-wing doors

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

New York — Lincoln made a bold statement Wednesday at the New York auto show with the debut of a lavish Navigator Concept that previews the all-new, fourth-generation vehicle coming in late 2017.

The full-size luxury SUV concept makes a striking statement with two upward-opening gull-wing doors with concertina steps. With a prominent grille and sweeping exterior lines along the sides, it puts forward the “new face of Lincoln” design language that debuted a year ago on the Continental Concept.

Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields reiterated that the production model Navigator due out next year will not have the gull-wing doors.

“Clearly, when you look at what we’ve done with Lincoln over the past three or four years we’ve set out with a very specific plan to make the brand differentiated but relevant,” he said after the debut. “We thought let’s have a little fun with it … It makes a statement.”

Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra told The Detroit News that the doors were a “fun yet very practical” way to draw attention and showcase the six-passenger concept SUV’s interior: “The Navigator is an incredibly important vehicle for us on multiple levels,” he told The Detroit News earlier this week.

The brand’s mild-mannered spokesman Matthew McConaughey helped Lincoln introduce the concept. The actor who most recently appeared in a Lincoln ad talking to dogs while driving the current Navigator said he’s “happy to be a part of Lincoln’s growth.”

“As a previous and a present owner of Lincolns, I’m excited to see this new concept of the Navigator,” he said, adding he was able to previously see a clay model of the concept.

Galhotra said the concept vehicle, which was shown to select members of the news media Monday prior to its official debut, strongly symbolizes what Lincoln hopes to accomplish when it releases the production Navigator next year. It will be the fifth new vehicle from Lincoln since the “rebirth” of its lineup started in 2012.

He said the Navigator will follow the lead of the Lincoln Continental. A lavish concept of the flagship sedan was shown a year ago at the New York auto show, followed by a production model that debuted at the 2016 Detroit auto show. The production car left intact the design language and many of the technological features of the concept car.

“We have different levels of change of different concepts for different purposes,” said Lincoln Design Director David Woodhouse. “I would say the level of change here is consistent with Continental.”

The Navigator Concept, Woodhouse said, was designed with families in mind, and its interior is meant to encourage interaction.

Large high-definition screens can connect with one another on the headrest. An intercom system allows occupants in the front to talk to passengers in the second and third rows.

“Navigator, we know, that the customers are all about family and protection, so these are things that we’ve embodied in this concept,” Woodhouse said. “The other really significant aspect is to embody elegance and beauty on a full-size SUV of this kind of grand scale is a great challenge.”

Lincoln’s design team, Woodhouse said, drew inspiration from luxury sailboats and yachts when designing the concept, “ taking the Navigator name literally to navigation. It is a very optimistic, light interior.”

One of the unique aspects of the SUV was enabled by technology: It’s a customizable storage wall or “wardrobe management” system with room to hang shirts and other items at the back of the cabin. It runs the cabin’s full height. It was made possible by a large high-definition rearview mirror that transmits images with a camera, so it doesn’t matter if the view to the rear is blocked.

The Navigator Concept is powered by a new 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 engine that delivers more than 400 horsepower. Galhotra would not say what engines will be available in the production model. He also declined to discuss other expectations such as fuel economy, pricing and if it will feature the architecture or aluminum body of the Ford F-150.

The current Navigator is built alongside the Ford Expedition and Super Duty at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. The recently negotiated contract between Ford and the United Auto Workers stipulates that all three vehicles will continue to be built there. The plant will get a $600 million investment over the course of the four-year deal.

Lincoln attributes itself with inventing the large luxury SUV with the introduction of the original Navigator in 1997. The brand led the segment but eventually lost its edge due to its near-bankruptcy and new competitors including the Cadillac Escalade.

Lincoln was selling more than 30,000 Navigators a year at the beginning of the 2000s, peaking at nearly 39,000 in 2003, according to Kelley Blue Book. Sales bottomed out to below 110,000 from 2009-13, as the company focused on staying out of bankruptcy and customer preference shifted away from large SUVs due to high gas prices.

A refresh of the third-generation SUV in 2014 helped boost sales above 10,000 the past two years but remain far from their sales heyday.

“With the all-new Navigator Concept, we are once again helping people re-imagine how luxury can be viewed,” Galhotra said during the media event previewing the concept.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer believes the elaborate concept is exactly what Lincoln needed to draw attention to the Navigator and Lincoln. The brand has continually struggled for the better part of the past decade.

“The fact that they would even show something like this shows that Ford is ready to aggressively invest in growing the Lincoln brand,” Brauer said, attributing the concept’s “over-the-top” design to China, a market Lincoln entered in 2014 with high hopes of increasing sales.

Brauer said he believes Lincoln could charge an elaborate amount of money for the gull-wing doors in a production model — particularly for China: “There would be a few in the U.S. and a whole bunch in China that would just write the check because of that dual-door system.”

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst, said while the vehicle is “clearly” a concept, it shows Lincoln is ready to once again be competitive in the luxury SUV segment that it helped mold 20 years ago.

“Large luxury sport utilities are selling well and we’re seeing people want them loaded with features,” she said. “In that regard, they are headed in the right direction. The design certainly looks fresh and contemporary.”

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