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2020 Lincoln Aviator First Drive: A Surprisingly Sporty Luxury SUV

The winding country roads around Yountville, Calif., are some of the most scenic I’ve ever driven, with one postcard-perfect vineyard after another, as well as pine hillside forests and the occasional lake dotting the landscape. That’s unsurprising, as the town sits in the heart of California wine country. But what was surprising was how the new 2020 Lincoln Aviator, a luxury SUV, hustled up and down mountain switchbacks that seemed tailored for performance cars and sport bikes.

Related: Auto Show Face-Off: 2020 Cadillac XT6 Vs. 2020 Lincoln Aviator

The Aviator’s handling chops were a pleasant surprise, but the three-row mid-size SUV still exudes luxury in high-end Black Label trim thanks to an elegant, richly appointed interior. At Lincoln’s invitation, we traveled to Northern California to drive gas-powered and plug-in hybrid versions of the Aviator for the first time. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events.) Related to the recently redesigned Ford Explorer (Lincoln is Ford’s luxury division), the Aviator is arriving at dealerships now.

Entertaining to Drive

It’s not one single thing that makes the Aviator a confident backroad carver, but rather a combination of systems — drivetrain, steering, suspension — tuned well and working together.

It starts with the SUV’s standard 400-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 and 10-speed automatic transmission. The Aviator builds speed quickly, and the automatic makes the most of the engine’s considerable power: Shifts are smooth and refined, and the transmission always seemed to be in the right gear for the driving situation.

The Aviator comes standard with fixed shock absorbers and coil springs, but our test car had the optional Dynamic Handling Package that includes adaptive shocks and air springs, plus adaptive steering. The SUV also has five standard drive modes — Normal, Conserve, Excite, Slippery and Deep Conditions — and Excite, the performance-oriented mode, proved especially useful on our drive route.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

In Normal, the suspension is tuned for comfort. There’s a fair amount of rebound over rises and dips in the road, as well as noticeable body roll in corners. The experience changes completely in Excite; body roll largely disappears as the Aviator hunkers and confidently charges up twisty mountain roads. The whole experience is grin-inducing, which is not the norm in this class.

The drivetrain gets better in Excite, too, as accelerator responsiveness increases. The steering is precise and weighty, but it lacks road feel.

Black Label trim levels come with 22-inch wheels and tires that give the SUV a great look, but they seem to counteract one of the typical advantages of an adaptive air suspension: pillowy ride comfort. The 22-inch wheels and low-profile tires give an underlying firmness to the suspension’s forgiving nature; you feel cracks and rough patches in the pavement. Smaller wheels with higher-sidewall tires — a combination that tends to improve ride comfort — are also available, but the Aviator’s air suspension comes exclusively with the 22s.

A Luxurious Yet Confining Interior

The Aviator competes with mid-size luxury SUVs like the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90, both of which offer impressive cabin quality. Apart from the Aviator’s door-mounted power seat controls, which look a bit out of place finished in black plastic, the Black Label’s interior is richly finished in soft-touch surfaces and peppered with high-tech features, like a digital instrument panel, widescreen head-up display and 10.1-inch touchscreen multimedia system.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

Our test vehicle had 30-way power-adjustable front seats that are part of the available Luxury Package. The seats include power-adjustable side bolsters, thigh support, upper backrest angle and head restraint position, to name a few. The seats are supportive, but their narrow design hurts overall comfort; even with their many adjustments, it took me a while to find an acceptable driving position. I’ve been more comfortable in seats with far fewer adjustments, proving once again that more isn’t always better.

Like the front bucket seats, the available second-row captain’s chairs are also on the small side. The chairs slide and recline, but they don’t offer much thigh support, which compromises comfort.

The Aviator’s two-person third-row seat is even less accommodating for adults. Headroom is decent but legroom is limited, and you sit with your knees uncomfortably elevated. Taller adults could fit back there in a pinch, but it’s really designed for smaller passengers.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

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Advanced Safety Tech

The Aviator comes standard with important active safety features like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert and lane keep assist. The available Lincoln Co-Pilot360 Plus Package adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, lane-centering steering, speed-limit sign recognition, rear automatic braking and a self-parking feature.

The adaptive cruise and lane-centering systems work well, making highway driving less taxing by managing vehicle speed and the Aviator’s position between lane markings. You must remain attentive, however, as the system is quick to alert you if it doesn’t detect a hand on the steering wheel. (Thus far, just Cadillac and BMW offer hands-free driving.)

In the Market

The 2020 Aviator starts at $52,195, including a $1,095 destination charge, for a base rear-wheel-drive model. Our well-equipped Black Label model was $83,540, which is around what high-end versions of the Q7 and XC90 cost.

From a performance and luxury standpoint, the Black Label Aviator holds its own against those two competitors. First- and second-row seat comfort, however, are its biggest negatives, so be sure to pay extra attention to both if you take the Lincoln for a test drive.

2020 Lincoln Aviator

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