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2020 Lincoln Aviator first drive: Stylish SUV takes flight with smart tech

Roadshow logo Roadshow 8/20/2019 Antuan Goodwin

a car parked in a parking lot

© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc.

After a warm reception at its 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show debut, it's finally time to hit the road in the 2020 Lincoln Aviator. Slotting below the full-size Navigator, the smaller of Lincoln's three-row SUVs scales the design language and creature comforts of its larger sibling to more athletic midsize proportions.

Research the Lincoln Aviator on MSN Autos

However, the Aviator is more than just a baby Navigator. The new model also debuts a number of new technologies for the Lincoln brand, helping the Aviator not only stand out from its Navigator sibling, but shine bright in a growing crop of luxury SUVs.

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2020 Lincoln Aviator is a first-class flier

Ditch the fob with Phone as Key

As someone who both hates having full pockets and is troubled by how large automotive key fobs have become, the Aviator's optional Phone as Key feature -- which is also coming to the 2020 Navigator -- is one of the most intriguing additions to Lincoln's technology portfolio. Here's how it works.

The system uses 11 Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) antennas spread throughout the Aviator to detect the owner's phone, which has been paired using the Lincoln Way app for Android or iOS. So many antennas allows for precise location detection around the vehicle within three primary zones.

Within about 130 feet of the Aviator, the Lincoln Way app is able to use Bluetooth for low latency remote control functions -- features like locking or unlocking the doors, opening and closing the windows, honking the horn, etc. As the phone moves within 10 feet of the SUV, the Aviator begins the "Lincoln Embrace," a greeting sequence where the front and rear lights activate and the suspension lowers to an access height that makes it easier to climb in.

Getting within about 3 feet of any of the doors or the rear hatch, enables passive entry where the doors unlock and can be opened. Owners don't even need to take their phone out of their pocket or purse. Just grab and go.

a car parked in a parking lot: The Lincoln Embrace suspension kneeling is a neat bit of theater, but why bother rising back up after the driver walks away, rather than just staying down until their return? Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. The Lincoln Embrace suspension kneeling is a neat bit of theater, but why bother rising back up after the driver walks away, rather than just staying down until their return? Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Once the Aviator detects the phone (and its owner, presumably) are inside, the vehicle can be started with a tap of the Start button, put into gear with a tap of the D or R transmission buttons, and driven away. Should the phone's battery die or the handset is lost or broken, Phone as Key users can still gain access to their vehicle by entering a five-digit PIN on the driver's door keypad. Then an eight-digit passcode can be used to start the car and get back on the road.

Lincoln drivers are fancy folks who'll probably need to valet their Aviator at some point. Putting the Aviator into Valet mote randomly generates a one-time, eight-digit password that can be given to a valet driver or written on the valet ticket. The first five digits unlock the door and the full code starts the Aviator. When the driver gets their car back and exits Valet mode, the code is cleared to maintain the privacy and security of the vehicle.

Of course, Phone as Key is completely optional, the Aviator will still come with a remote key fob that'll open and start the SUV for those who like to keep things simple.

Twin-turbocharged V6 power

Another totally new thing the Aviator brings to the Lincoln brand is the twin-turbocharged plug-in hybrid option, but I'll talk about that as part of a separate review in the very near future.

The standard Aviator powertrain uses the same 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine as the hybrid setup -- sans the electrified extras -- and makes 400 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque. That's 15 more pound-feet than we originally expected, which it puts through a standard 10-speed automatic transmission to either the rear wheels or an optional all-wheel drive system.

a close up of a plane: We can't talk about the hybrid just yet, but the Aviator's standard twin-turbocharged V6 engine is no slouch at 400 horsepower. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. We can't talk about the hybrid just yet, but the Aviator's standard twin-turbocharged V6 engine is no slouch at 400 horsepower. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Four hundred horsepower feels like a good amount of oomph for an SUV of this size -- it outclasses the similarly sized Cadillac XT6's naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 by a full 90 horsepower and 144 pound-feet. It's more efficient, too, returning an EPA-estimated 18 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined in rear-wheel drive configuration.

On the road, the turbocharged V6 is a smooth operator with good passing and launching power when you need it, and quiet performance when you don't. No, it doesn't sound great at full chat, but the Aviator is meant to be a comfortable ride, not a particularly sporty one, and I don't think drivers will spend much time at wide-open throttle.

On the other side of the performance coin is yet another brand first: the Adaptive Suspension with Road Preview. This technology pairs an air suspension with road-scanning cameras that can detect bumps in the road from to 2 to 8 inches high (or potholes just as deep). When it sees a big hit coming, the Aviator can pre-adjust and soften (or stiffen) its suspension to soak up the blow, so your spine doesn't have to. The system works so fast that it can make adjustments up to 100 times per second and it's smooth enough in its transitions that I didn't even feel it working as I rode along.

This system doesn't seem as advanced as Audi or Mercedes' 48-volt predictive suspensions that can act extremely quickly to lift the wheels over bumps and up out of potholes. However, Lincoln's setup is still plenty comfortable, balancing smoothness over road imperfections with decent cornering ability (for a vehicle of this size).

a car parked on the side of a vehicle: The Aviator's oddly placed voice control button will feel either brilliant or bone-headed, depending on your hand-on-wheel style. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. The Aviator's oddly placed voice control button will feel either brilliant or bone-headed, depending on your hand-on-wheel style. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Co-Pilot 360 Plus

Lincoln's Co-Pilot 360 suite of driver aid technologies comes standard on the 2020 Aviator, bringing blind-spot monitoring, pedestrian detection with automatic braking, a rear-video camera and automatic high beams with it.

Upgrading to Co-Pilot 360 Plus adds active safety features including reverse emergency braking, adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic and adds lane-centering functionality to the lane-keeping system. I especially like that the steering wheel buttons for lane keeping and cruise control only illuminate when those systems are active, to reduce distraction. Other upgrades include evasive steering assist, which helps the driver to swerve around obstructions at speed, and an active park assist feature.

That last bit functions similarly to other semi-automated parking systems but, in addition to handling the steering for you, the Aviator is also able to automatically brake and swap from drive to reverse as it shimmies into position. Active Park Assist Plus requires the driver to keep their finger on the activation button during the entire parking maneuver as a failsafe. Removing that finger immediately stops the vehicle in its tracks.

Meanwhile, in the Aviator's plush cabin, the driver is treated to the latest generation of Ford/Lincoln's Sync-based infotainment suite. Ahead of the driver is a standard 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and in the middle of the dashboard -- sticking out like a sore thumb -- is a large, 10-inch touchscreen. It's the most awkwardly placed element of the Aviator's interior design, but at least it's a high quality screen with bright colors and crispy graphics. The placement also makes it easy to reach all four corners without much of a stretch.

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard via USB connectivity. However, the Sync software is so good that I didn't feel obligated to immediately connect my phone.

The top-trim Black Label model upgrades to Lincoln's Perfect Position seats with 30-way power adjustment. Even the thigh leg supports are individually articulated. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. The top-trim Black Label model upgrades to Lincoln's Perfect Position seats with 30-way power adjustment. Even the thigh leg supports are individually articulated. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Pricing and competition

For now, the 2020 Lincoln Aviator sort of blows the Cadillac XT6 out of the water. It's got a lot more power, similar efficiency and a selection of unique comfort and convenience technologies unavailable on the Caddy.

It's also similarly priced… at least, to start. The 2020 Aviator starts at $52,195 (including a $1,095 destination charge) for the base, rear-wheel drive model, or $54,695 if you want all-wheel drive. That gets you a solid smattering of creature comforts, standard Co-Pilot 360 tech and 400 horses worth of twin-turbo V6. Stepping up to the Reserve trim level adds 20-inch wheels, a 14-speaker Revel audio system, a hands-free rear liftgate and swaps out the standard rear camera to a surround-view setup.

The top-trim $78,790 Black Label model adds Lincoln's Perfect Position front seats with 30-way power adjustment, heating ventilation and massage, a head-up display and a 28-speaker version of the Revel audio system, which sounds pretty sweet. Black Label examples also step up to the Co-Pilot 360 Plus version of Lincoln's safety suite and grant owners access to a selection of Black Label concierge and premium services.

But we're not done yet. We've still yet to dig into the plug-in hybrid Grand Touring models. That will have to wait until our separate first drive coming in just a few days, so stay tuned for details about this even more powerful, efficient and pricey version.

a car parked in a parking lot: Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Research the Lincoln Aviator on MSN Autos

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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