It’s shocking to think that the Lincoln Motor Company doesn’t build cars anymore. As of the 2021 model year, Ford’s luxury, um, vehicle division, once a maker of famously big and glitzy sedans, sells only SUVs. Positioned in the meat of that model range is the mid-size Nautilus, which has received several significant interior updates for 2021 that aim to better align its aesthetics and equipment with the rest of the lineup.
Changes are not a new thing for the Nautilus; it’s been a work in progress since its 2018 introduction, when it was called the MKX. Just one year into production, Lincoln replaced the MKX’s front end with a completely new design replete with the handsome, rectangular grille that other Lincoln models were then starting to feature. To underscore the change, Lincoln rechristened it as the Nautilus for 2019.
For 2021, the interior of the Nautilus has been reworked to reflect the latest Lincoln design ethos. The instrument panel is new, with a shelflike lower portion that sweeps from door to door, mimicking the design seen in the brand’s other SUVs. Atop that shelf sits a new 13.2-inch touchscreen that looks about the size of a desktop computer monitor and houses the latest Sync 4 infotainment system, which is about as easy to operate as a smartphone’s interface. It incorporates everything from cloud-based connectivity to apps such as Yelp and TomTom. It supports over-the-air software updates and includes a phone-as-a-key function, so you needn’t wear yourself out carrying around the key fob. Its natural-speech voice recognition feature did a good job of understanding our garbled commands, calmly instructing us to say, “Hey, Lincoln!” in order to request its support.
Below the big center screen is a new piano-key-like shifter setup, one of the most intuitive electronic shifters on the market. There’s also a new center console with easy-to-use buttons for operating the climate controls and the standard Revel audio system—which includes physical volume and tuning knobs as well. The interior of the mid-level Reserve model we drove was finished in handsome, upscale, and tightly assembled materials. This is a comfortable and luxurious command post.
The latest Nautilus is mechanically unchanged compared to last year’s model. Familiar powertrains include a standard 250-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and an optional 335-hp twin-turbo 2.7-liter V-6, both of which mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission and your choice of front- or all-wheel drive. Adaptive dampers are standard with the V-6. Add $2495 to the Reserve model for all-wheel drive and $2700 for the V-6. Options include black 20-inch wheels and exterior trim, 22-way power-adjustable front seats with massage, and the top 19-speaker Revel Ultima audio system. Adding all those extras inflates its price from a four-banger, front-driver’s base price of $42,935 to $66,890. Top-spec Black Label models can soar past $69K with options.
The Nautilus’s price range and its tweener size—it slots into the Lincoln lineup above the compact Corsair and below the mid-size, three-row Aviator—pitch it against a wide array of potential competitors. These include compact luxury SUVs such as the Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLC-class, as well as mid-sizers of the BMW X5 and Cadillac XT5 variety. From the input of a car-savvy neighbor who mistook our slate gray Reserve model for a Jaguar in the fading evening light, the Nautilus has the looks to compete in this space.
The Nautilus is better at coddling its passengers than exciting its driver. The V-6 Reserve specializes in comfort, with a ride that sponges up undulating pavement and a powertrain that delivers effortless acceleration, a muted snarl, and a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic. Rushing it through tight corners results in some unnerving powertrain surges that cause the body to pitch like a speedboat hitting a swell. If you’re after an SUV with sharp reflexes and the ability to change direction like Rob Gronkowski, look elsewhere.
Although we have yet to take a 2021 Nautilus to the test track, the mechanically identical 2019 model turned in a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.8 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 14.3 seconds. We’d expect the 2021 model to deliver similar numbers, which are respectable enough for everyday driving. About the only thing diminishing the luxury ambience this time around was a low-frequency grumble from the engine below 2000 rpm, where the V-6 spends a lot of its time. It’s something we haven’t experienced in previous tests.
The Lincoln lineup has changed radically in the last couple of years as the brand has shifted solely to SUVs. Its current models are instantly recognizable from their similar exterior and interior styling, and they share a focus on handsome design and luxe features, rather than the pleasure of driving for driving’s sake. With this latest round of changes to the Nautilus, it fits right in.
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