SHENANDOAH, Va. -- Running over swoopy asphalt wrought with serpentine kinks on Skyline Drive, the ridge route perched high above Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, we're prodding our vehicle to cover the convoluted course at a rather quick clip in order to see how nimble it can act due to a menu of facile mechanical features which include a rigid chassis and fully independent suspension system, fast-response rack and pinion steering plus beefy brakes.
And it shows us through right-left-right chicanes on the Virginia wiggle road that it can dance like a sporty machine reinforced with powerful V8 muscle.
The incongruity of this vehicular tango is that the machine we're steering is not some cat-clawed sports car but a rather tall and exceptionally long sport utility vehicle of extreme full-size proportions with a cabin capacity for multiple passengers plus a load of cargo.
Our wagon -- the 2012 Navigator L, Lincoln's long-stretched and luxuriously outfitted full-size SUV -- executes each bend in the curvy mountain road with a pavement-hugging poise rarely found on such a jumbo-size hulk of a wagon, much less one whose roots trace directly to a humongous pickup truck.
To our surprise it feels almost sporty, so agile the posture and smooth the ride quality, yet the Navigator L has a wheelbase nearly 12 feet long and a high-rise body structure which smothers some 18 feet of pavement and its vast passenger compartment provides three tiers of seats for as many as eight riders.
Launched in 1997 as a 1998 product, Lincoln's Navigator initiated the class of luxury full-size SUVs. In original treatment, it dominated the segment with a 5.4-liter V8 engine and traction modes for two-wheel-drive (2WD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD).
A new design emerged in 2003 with more power and torque, plus a standard third-row bench seat that tucked below the flat cargo floor for a slick disappearing act.
For added safety, a side curtain-style air bag system came with the new design, and the 4WD model gained a multi-phase Control Trac system to direct engine torque to whichever wheels might need it.
In 2007 a new version -- Navigator L -- stretched even longer to carve out 25 cubic feet of extra cargo space by adding 12 inches to the wheelbase and 14.9 inches to the body length.
For the issues of 2012, more standard equipment goes into Lincoln's luxurious SUV, such as integrated blind-spot mirrors designed to help drivers spy vehicles in their blind spot, and AppLink for the voice-operated Lincoln Sync system which enables voice control for specific mobile phone apps like Pandora.
Additional standard features include power-folding running boards, a power liftgate, PowerFold third-row seat, ten-way power controls for heated and cooled front buckets with leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals, the steering wheel trimmed in leather and wood with power tilt and tabs for cruise and audio controls, twin electronic automatic temperature control systems, electrochromatic inside rearview mirror, power exterior mirrors with heat elements, variable intermittent rain-sensing wipers, front and rear parking sensors, hard-drive navigation system with dashboard touchscreen and voice activation, Bluetooth connectivity, a deluxe THX II audio system with AM/FM/CD/DVD/MP3/USB and 14 speakers, Sirius traffic satellite radio, foglamps, a rooftop luggage rack and 18-inch aluminum wheels capped by 255/70R18 all-season tires.
Options range from a power moonroof and 20-inch polished aluminum wheels to a remote start system, Invision headrest DVD entertainment system, second-row bucket seats with center console deleted or second-row bench split 40/20/40, and a Monochrome Appearance Package with monochromatic paint treatment.
Sole powertrain for Navigator and Navigator L is a 5.4-liter V8 with a cast-iron engine block, dual overhead cams (DOHC) and variable valve timing (VVT) controls. It musters 310 hp at 5100 rpm, with the torque extending to 365 lb-ft at 3600 rpm.
Controlling that massive engine torque is a wide-ratio automatic transmission featuring six forward gears.
The rigid truck frame underpinning Navigator is composed of single-piece hydroformed boxed rails in the rear for extra strength to support a suspension system rarely found on a truck-based wagon -- there are independent components suspending all four wheels.
For brakes, a big ventilated disc mounts on every wheel and all tie to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with computer-controlled electronic brake force distribution (EBD) plus the AdvanceTrac electronic stability control device with Roll Stability Control (RSC), which measures vehicle motion on both the yaw and roll axes.
Front riders have dual two-stage frontal air bags plus seatbelts with load-limiting retractors and buckle pretensioners, while in the rear there are anchors to tether a child's safety seat. Side-impact air bags mounted on outboard front seats and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows are also on tap.
The optional Control Trac 4WD traction system adds a knob on the dashboard for dialing up a driving mode, from rear two-wheel traction to four-wheel high and low or automatic all-wheel-drive. For pavement ventures the system seamlessly distributes traction to wheels that grip, but when heading off-road the 4WD high and low modes lock the differential and apply torque evenly to all wheels.
Lincoln's luxury SUVs for 2012 come with dear prices. Navigator with 2WD lists for $57,780, or $60,680 for 4WD. Navigator L with 2WD goes for $59,945, or $62,845 in 4WD.