Thursday, February 6, 2014

First Impressions - 2015 Lincoln Navigator

Do we even remember that the Navigator even exists?

While I've waxed poetic about the fortunes of Ford's luxury arm, I've pretty much given Lincoln the benefit of the doubt. One must remember that Cadillac had to go through a serious renaissance that began with self realization and then effective planning. Lincoln appears to be currently going through this with, well, limited success. We have the new MKZ which, despite looking nothing like it's more mundane Ford Fusion sister, is still based on a Ford platform (a good one to be honest). And while the split-wing grille has been proliferating throughout Lincoln's lineup, one large, tuxedo-wearing gorilla in the room has been left untouched until now.

Not many people remember that it was initially Ford that came up with the idea of sticking a chrome grille to the front of its regular Expedition full-size SUV, adding more standard equipment and calling it the Navigator in the mid '90s. So successful was this formula (at the height of the body-on-frame SUV craze) that Cadillac jumped on the bandwagon, imitating Ford's move by rehashing the Chevy Tahoe into the Escalade. At first, it was the Navigator that ruled the full-size luxury SUV roost until 2002 when Cadillac redesigned the Escalade, making it more angular in the vein of the then-new CTS. Thus began the tipping of the scales. The Navigator quickly became relegated to the back burner in the wake of not just the Escalade's bling-bling factor but new competition from the Infiniti QX80 (previously QX56), the Mercedes GL Class and regular stalwarts Range Rover and Lexus LX. In fact, so old is the current Navigator that seven years (an eternity in the automotive universe) have passed since it was last fully redesigned. With Lincoln focusing its energy on the MKZ sedan and MKC small crossover, not much funding was left to initiate a full redesign of the aging barge so instead, a heavy refresh would have to do and thus, we have the 2015 Navigator.

Looking head-on or astern, you would be forgiven for mistaking the big Navigator as an all new product. The heavily chromified split-wing grille is a better adaptation than what you'd find on the humpback-whale MKT crossover and includes LED lighting trim and standard HID headlights. To my eyes, it looks much better than the metallic mess that adorns the current model. However, from the A-pillar rearward, its pretty much business as usual. Looking from the sides however, you can't tell the old from the new as the greenhouse is largely the same. At the rear, an attempt was made to make the Navigator's huge butt look less substantial but the only nice thing I can think of when looking at the full-width LED lighting is how much it pays homage to the Dodge Durango's rear end. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I suppose. Twenty inch wheels will be standard fare, replacing the base 18s of the current model, and massive 22s will be available as part of a higher priced 'Reserve' trim to compete with the Escalade's Platinum model. The chassis is largely the same seven year old bones as the current model which means an all independent suspension front/rear, differing only by the adaptation of Lincoln's Continuously Controlled Damping system. This allows the driver to configure the dampers between three modes: Normal, Sport (!?) and Comfort.

The biggest change to the Navigator lies under the hood. Gone is the tried and true 5.4 liter Triton V8 and in its place is Ford's much touted 3.5 liter twin turbo EcoBoost V6 engine with preliminary power figures of 'over 370hp and 430lb-ft of torque'. While much lower than the rival Escalade's 420hp/460lb-ft 6.2 liter V8, Lincoln claims the 2015 Navigator will out-tow the Cadillac to the tune of 9000lbs while posting class-leading fuel economy figures. Power is directed through a six-speed automatic to either the rear wheels or an optional all-wheel drive system. Also for the first time, electric power steering will be equipped to enable ease of handling the big beast.

Inside, the Navigator will still have the largest interior volume of any full-size luxury SUV. Up to eight passengers will be coddled with three different kinds of leather wrapped seats (one of them only available on the Reserve trim) and, in the extended wheelbase 'L' version, the benefit of more cargo room. The front occupants will face an updated dash with an 8 inch touchscreen housing the MyLincoln Touch infotainment system. Euro stitching will be sprinkled around the cabin though I couldn't help but notice in some of the images, the addition of cheap looking plastic surrounding the climate control vents, some of the door surfaces and the center console. As a whole, it looks rather nice but until I get actual seat time I'll reserve judgement.

Can the 2015 Lincoln Navigator restore Ford's luxury arm to its former glory? Can the luxury 'ute that started it all for Cadillac and Infiniti entice rappers and moguls to return to the Lincoln fold? For all the refresh dollars spent on this vehicle, there's only so much plastic surgery can do. When placed up against the redesigned 2015 Cadillac Escalade, things look downright negative. However, the full-size luxury SUV segment is still a big time market and Lincoln can at least claim a fair amount of loyalty among its customers. Perhaps this heavy refresh will entice current customers to stay in the fold while attracting new ones looking for an efficient luxury rig to tow their expensive toys while hauling 7.4 kids. Lincoln needs inspiring vehicles that are able to stand on their own in order to properly compete with established luxury marques. The MKZ and new MKC are steps in the right direction but in the face of Cadillac's commitment in faithfully redesigning its Escalade, Lincoln's attempt to renew interest in the Navigator looks downright awful. In other words, don't expect 2 Chainz or Lil Wayne to start rapping about lusting after the 'gator on 22s anytime soon.

Images courtesy of Lincoln.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Short Test - 2014 Lexus ES350

A brief history lesson.

Lexus began selling its wares 25 years ago, spearheading its assault on the German luxury institution with the shocking Mercedes S-Class competing LS400 and the smaller Toyota Camry-based ES250. No doubt when examined, the LS has been quite the success, putting the German marques on notice and providing a distinctly Japanese alternative in the luxury game while providing Toyota levels of reliability and quality. However, it is the ES that really contributes to Lexus being the giant it is today, offering buyers an affordable way into the Lexus lineup with most of the bells and whistles of the pricier LS at a more attainable level. Just how successful is the ES? For every full-size LS sold, seven ES sedans leave the showrooms.

Before the CT200h arrived to anchor the entry point to the Lexus portfolio, the ES has been the car that Camry drivers aspired to eventually give up their humble Toyotas for. Continuing that tradition is this newest iteration, the 2014 ES350. While past generations have had jelly-bean proportions and staid (read: cautious) exterior styling, the new ES350 looks slightly more interesting with the adoption of the corporate spindle grille that's been proliferating throughout the Lexus lineup. Headlights are slightly more angular than before and integrate Nike-swoosh LED DRLs for a look that resembles the next-rung-up GS350. In fact, from a distance, it would be hard to tell the two apart were it not for the dedicated brake-cooling ducts of the higher-performance GS. Unlike the previous model, the new ES features a level of creasing along its sides and stylistic treatments to its rump that try to ape its more exciting GS brother. This is a bid to encourage a younger audience to give the ES a try. While the other models have been getting more aggressive engineering and styling to reflect Lexus' new role of chasing BMW's skirt, don't expect any of that LFA-magic to find its way into the ES. In fact, the only thing linking the ES to the LFA really is the big 'L' on the nose. Lexus isn't stupid enough to forget what makes the ES such a sales success so the model carries on with a quiet, elegant, no-frills nature.

If the 2014 ES350 looks slightly larger in person, well, it is. Finally dropping its Camry roots and switching to the larger Toyota Avalon platform, the ES350 grows slightly in every exterior dimension. The move to the Avalon platform does wonders for the interior. Now, properly a large luxury car, the ES has more than enough room to suit its role as the Japanese take on the classic Buick. Legroom is good for front seat passengers while rear seat passengers yield the most gains in interior space. Both front seats are 10-way power adjustable so finding a good driving position wasn't difficult. Bolstering in the driver's seat was a bit unexpected but welcome when the time came to show the ES some corners. Want to know the easiest way to spot a driver's car? If you don't feel cocooned in the driver's seat, then chances are the car isn't built for the enthusiast driver and the ES350 has never alluded to such. This one is no different; the dash is flat and horizontally spans the width of the cabin albeit with quite supple materials. At the top of the dashboard lies a 7 inch screen for the infotainment system with redundant buttons and knobs below for the sound and climate control systems. Between the front seats lies a rotary controller to manipulate the infotainment screen (I found this more preferable than the Remote Touch system in higher trim models) and the Lexus Drive selector that offers three modes for the transmission: Normal, Eco and Sport (more on this later). The interior build quality is typical Lexus elegant and nothing squeaked or rattled.

Powering the 2014 ES350 is a carry-over 2GR-FE 3.5 liter V6 with 268hp and 248lb-ft of torque driving the front wheels through an also carry-over six speed automatic transmission. So quiet is this powerplant that I had literally strain my ears inside to make sure it was running. Active engine mounts as well as acoustically laminated glass are responsible for the engine's operation being masked from the interior. Underway, acceleration was strong if not pin-you-to-your-seat quick and torque steer was kept to a minimum. The six speed automatic slurred away through the gears with a deliberate prod to the accelerator resulting in a quick downshift and an authoritative if subdued growl from the engine bay. Befitting its mission, the electric power steering offers quick and easy turn ratios but lacked in feel, responsiveness and isolates the driver from the road. At highway speeds, the ES350 glides along in a composed and quiet fashion, tracking dead straight. Bumps and potholes are registered with a distant thump that is heard but not felt through the seats. Putting the ES through its dynamic paces however, the all-McPherson strut suspension took even moderate cornering with the same enthusiasm the Pope has for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. The ES never feels completely settled during quick maneuvers, protesting with almost cruise ship-like levels of body roll and the all-season 17 inch tires howling away. Which brings me to the Lexus Drive selector. Bearing the ES350's target audience in mind, it baffles me as to why Lexus would offer a Sport mode in this model, not to mention two other modes. Starting the car, Normal is the default setting and a switch to Eco dulls the transmissions shifts softens throttle response and quickly aims the slushbox for the highest gear. Sport mode on the other hand, quickens throttle response, holds gears longer and increases steering effort. During my time with the car, Sport mode was almost always engaged as it was just more usable in everyday operation. With Normal mode selected, the ES350 seemed perfectly fine, until a call to the engine room was made for more power. The transmission would think about it for a second or two (committee-choice?) before finally deciding to kick down a gear, then another as it realizes you really DID want the power in the first place. Sport mode largely mended most of this (though I wish it would remain engaged whenever I started the car).

My 2014 ES350 tester was a base model priced at $37,530 ($910 handling fee included) and included the $3923 Premium package which featured Expresso Bird's Eye maple wood trim, backup camera, the 7 inch infotainment display, an eight speaker Premium sound system, Intuitive Park Assist, Blind Spot Monitor system, Bluetooth Audio and Phone, heated front seats and wood on the steering wheel and shift knob. As tested, the price was $41,453. Luxury and Ultra Luxury packages are available that bring features such as Semi-Aniline leather surfaces, navigation with traffic and weather, Sirius/XM satellite and HD radio as well as the Lexus Enform Apps suite and a host of other goodies that will ring the register near the $50k mark.


Even with Buick and Lincoln aiming directly at the ES350 with their LaCrosse and MKZ sedans, Lexus will still find continued success here. It would be unfair of me to judge the ES350 for not being an enthusiast car as that isn't (and perhaps will never be) it's intended mission if Lexus is keen on not messing with its formula for high sales. On the merits of transporting its occupants to their destination in a cocoon of refinement, luxury, isolation and cushiness, the 2014 ES350 excels at its purpose. It will no doubt continue to find success with the kind of people Cadillac more or less left behind to be America's version of BMW. For the enthusiast driver however, Lexus would be glad to sell you an IS250/IS350 sports sedan.