Lincoln Navigator, a survivor of the luxury SUV boom and bust, gets a new look

DETROIT – The Lincoln Navigator, a hulking holdout from the era of bling and cheap gas, is getting a fresh face.

Lincoln Motor Co. — Ford’s luxury arm — says the 2015 Navigator will have more than 20 upgrades, from bigger wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel to a 3.5-litre EcoBoost V6 engine to replace its old V8. It also has Lincoln’s signature split-wing grille and wraparound taillights, so it will fit better into updated Lincoln showrooms.

Lincoln plans to publicly unveil the new Navigator next month at the Chicago Auto Show. Pricing will be announced in April, and the SUV — which will be built in Kentucky — goes on sale this fall.

It’s the first update for the Navigator since 2007, an eternity at a time when many vehicles are refreshed every two or three years. The eight-passenger SUV languished while Ford restructured its operations and then worked on bigger sellers like the new MKZ sedan and the MKC small crossover, which goes on sale this summer.

But the Navigator couldn’t afford to sit still much longer. Its chief competitor — the Cadillac Escalade — will be updated this spring, and the Infiniti QX80 also got a recent upgrade.

The Navigator was one of the first big luxury SUVs when it went on sale in 1997. It was an instant hit with celebrities and single guys with extra cash to cover its $43,000 price tag (that has since ballooned to $57,000). Shaquille O’Neal had one; so did David Beckham. Rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs and singer Jennifer Lopez were riding in one when they raced away from a New York nightclub after a shooting.

Navigator sales peaked in 1998 — its first full year on the market — with 43,859 sold. But soon it was facing a raft of competitors, including the Escalade and the Lexus LX. U.S. sales of full-size luxury SUVs topped out at 103,152 in 2004, the same year gas prices first crept past $2 per gallon, according to Kelley Blue Book.

As gas got more expensive, and the market was flooded with more efficient five-seat SUVs like the Lexus RX and the Mercedes-Benz M Class, demand for big luxury SUVs fell. Sales plummeted to around 37,000 in 2009, according to Kelley Blue Book. They’ve hovered around 42,000 for the last four years; around 8,000 of those have been Navigators.

Andrew Frick, Lincoln’s marketing manager, expects sales of full-size luxury SUVs to rise to around 50,000 and stay there for several years. Families who need the Navigator’s 9,000-pound towing capacity are now its primary customers, not rap stars. Lincoln will likely focus ads on the fuel savings from the new 370-horsepower EcoBoost engine. The current four-wheel-drive Navigator gets an abysmal 15 mpg in combined city and highway driving.

Frick said the Navigator attracts younger customers in their low- to mid-50s — compared with the upper 50s and 60s for the rest of the Lincoln brand. The SUVs customers are extremely loyal. Around 75 per cent of Navigator customers trade in for a new Navigator.

The redesign isn’t a drastic one. The Navigator retains its basic boxy shape and underpinnings, but will have nicer features like ambient lighting and a Lincoln logo that shines on the ground when the doors open. IHS analyst Stephanie Brinley says it’s enough of a change to keep the Navigator competitive while Lincoln designs an all-new model.

“There are only so many customers who need and want a vehicle this size, and are willing to give up fuel economy to get it,” she said. “You don’t want to change the formula too much.”