After 40 years of selling cars, Jere Law sees something new and shocking.
“People are writing $100,000 checks for a vehicle,” said the general manager of Varsity Lincoln in Novi. “That may not sound like a lot in other places, but that’s the first time happening for Lincoln here in Michigan.”
Business executives, doctors, pro athletes and parents with big families are placing orders for the new Lincoln Navigator luxury SUV.
It's selling as fast as it can be made, with factory workers in Kentucky working multiple shifts seven days a week.
“This vehicle has sizzle,” Law said. “We’re negotiating now with a pro coach in town and a president of one of the pro sports teams.” (He wouldn't disclose names.)
A basic 2018 Lincoln Navigator Premiere isn’t cheap at $73,250. And, depending on the options added, known as “trim,” consumers are spending even more for Select, Reserve and Black Label versions.
In fact, 85% of the Navigator sales top $81,205.
“I didn’t expect that,” said Robert Parker, global director of marketing, sales and service for Lincoln. “I mean, even our entry level product is amazing. But customers are voting with their wallets. It’s a pretty strong vote of confidence.”
And the waiting list? “It’s a good problem to have,” he said.
'Like driving a La-Z-Boy'
Many consumers request the top-level Black Label, which starts at $96,905 and can reach $103,200. Extras include a rear entertainment system with wireless headphones and a cargo management package.
The price points are unprecedented for a Detroit Three automaker and among the highest in the industry. In January alone, Lincoln saw average transaction prices on the Navigator jump by $21,300.
Joey Maruskin, 55, a pump and valve sales representative from Highland Township, picked up his new Navigator a few days ago. “It’s like driving a La-Z-Boy down the freeway."
He explained, "I went with the Black Label for the 30-way adjustable seats. This one has lumbar support in five different places, massage elements from the back of the knee to the back of your neck. It’s amazing. You can adjust the seats not just forward and backward or up and down but around your legs and rib cage.”
He drives more than 30,000 miles a year and sees a significant technology difference since his 2015 Navigator.
“It’s like going from the Flintstones to the Jetsons,” Maruskin said. “I can transport six kids and there’s no arguing over USB outlets because there’s enough for everybody. Nobody has worry about batteries dying. The only thing I didn’t get is rear entertainment, because the kids have their own tablets and use the WiFi. That way they can watch what they want.”
High end features include Venetian leather seats, leather-wrapped instrument panels, suede head rests, plush carpet, Mahogany wood interior or teak wood accents, a panoramic roof, a 20-speaker sound system, aligned wood grain patterns, illuminated handles and safety belt buckles, and a piano key shifter on the console.
U.S. sales in the large luxury SUV segment have doubled since 2011 to 216,684 vehicles in 2017.
Viktor Gjonaj, 40, a commercial real estate broker from Shelby Township, traded his 2015 Navigator for a Black Label. “It’s understated elegance. I’m 6-feet-6-inches tall with a wife and four daughters, so we need a ton of space. Nothing else felt so refined.”
For the past 10 years, General Motors has dominated sales in the large luxury SUV segment with the Cadillac Escalade, and still leads. Its sales slightly dipped to 37,694 in 2017. Navigator sales slightly rose to 10,593 in 2017.
Dealers say about half their new Navigator buyers are Lincoln customers, and the rest are turning in their other Range Rovers, Escalades and even Mercedes vehicles.
“Escalade conditioned the clients for this vehicle, which has made the Navigator a natural fit at $100,000,” Law said. “The conquest is unbelievable. We are appraising more off brands than we ever have in the past.”
Pedro Ramos, 26, a restaurant owner from El Paso, Texas, and father of four, traded his 2015 Escalade for a Black Label. He said the front-row seats weren’t as comfortable as he hoped, the third row was hard to access and the entertainment system felt outdated.
“We have three car seats on the second-row bench seat,” he said. “While driving around town or on long trips, I really disliked the idea of carrying 20 DVDs with us everywhere.”
The self-described car enthusiast read Navigator reviews months before placing his order and picked it up in December at North Park Lincoln in San Antonio.
Trips to dealers have decreased over the past five years as buyers such as Ramos prefer to research and make choices online, then go to the dealer for confirmation.
More Navigators are sold in the Lone Star State than anyplace else.
Chris Poulos, vice president and general manager of West Point Lincoln in Houston, remembers selling the Navigator 20 years ago for $42,100, so the latest price seems natural. His average sale now for the Navigator is $96,000.
“I have sold every one I can get,” he said. “We sold 30 in January. We sold 19 in February. I’ve got 61 orders in the bank and 53 of those are spoken for. And 90% of everything is high-end.”
Marcus LeLeux, 47, a retired banker from Park City, Utah, traded his 2016 Volvo XC90 for a Black Label because the family spends so much time driving in the mountains and visiting relatives in Texas and Colorado.
“I’ve never purchased a Navigator before. We had a Range Rover," said the stay-at-home dad with an 11-year-old son. "But this 2018 model had class-leading horsepower. I love cars. I like power. I’m a guy.”
The Navigator was named North American Truck of the Year — it was hauling ability that threw the luxury SUV into the truck category. The Navigator can pull an 8,300 pounds.
But towing isn’t a big selling feature, Poulos said. “People want the styling. They really like the Chroma Crystal Blue with the Yacht Club Theme of the Black Label. Women are taking the lead when it comes to making the decisions on color and trim options.”
Amy Matchett, 33, a school administrator from Van Vleck, Texas, traded her 2015 Toyota Highlander for a Black Label. Her two daughters initially “freaked out” when they realized the vehicle had no DVD player. But now they use the Amazon Fire TV Stick with WiFi because the vehicle is a mobile hotspot with uninterrupted internet service.
“They can watch Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, and Disney is supposed to come out with a streaming service soon,” Matchett said.
Her husband, who works in petroleum processing operations, still drives a 2015 Toyota Tundra. But family commitments required something special.
“We drive two or three hours to softball tournaments in Texas, drive six hours to play in Louisiana and 14 hours to play in Florida. Last summer, we went to Yellowstone. This summer, we’ll go to the Smoky Mountains. We literally live in the car. I think most families do, whether it’s for softball, baseball, soccer, rugby or dance.”
Having searched so many brands, Matchett said, finding the right colors was the most challenging. She fell in love with a burgundy velvet exterior with a mahogany interior. Space for softball gear, an ice chest and luggage closed the deal.
“The possibilities are endless for the things you can cram in there,” she said. “If you start looking at vehicles this size, the lower end is like $83,000. Once you get that point, well, what’s another $12,000 to $15,000 for top of the line everything? You’re in your vehicle more than your home sometimes, so it’s worth it.”
Buyers are skewing younger than traditional Lincoln shoppers, dealers say. And people are talking about Lincoln in the same breath as the $229,000 Bentley Bentayga and the $123,600 Mercedes G-Class.
Carrie Way, executive manager at Crest Lincoln in Sterling Heights, said even dealership technicians are in awe when a Navigator is delivered. “The colors, the stitching, the piping on the seats. If you’ve ever walked through a Saks Fifth Avenue and seen a beautiful handbag on the shelf that’s glorious, well, that’s what we have here.”
Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst for Ford, said Navigator sales have spiked coast to coast.
“And our dealers aren’t even fully stocked up," he said. "You can’t compare sales numbers yet.”
In coming months, automakers will carefully monitor consumer behavior.
Keith Buglewicz, senior associate editor at Kelley Blue Book, said “everybody pretty much agrees” that the Navigator is priced fairly for what it delivers. “Interior is above and beyond, and it drives really well.”
Fuel economy has improved in recent years. Gas is cheap. The economy is healthy. Consumer confidence is high. Mileage has improved.
“The stars have aligned perfectly for this vehicle,” said Bernard Swiecki, senior automotive analyst at the Center for Automotive Research.
Bigger is clearly better for consumers these days.
The Navigator launch has even led to an increase in sales and transaction prices at Cadillac, said GM spokesman Jim Cain. “They’ve succeeded in stimulating new interest in the segment and we’re benefiting. We’re growing and not by a little.”
Industry analysts say Lincoln should have unveiled the redesigned Navigator sooner.
“We’ve been in eight years of economic recovery and the Navigator was the first luxury SUV,” said Eric Noble, founder of The CarLab, an automotive product consulting group, and a professor of vehicle technology at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“Ford launched it, made a lot of money, turned it into a cash cow and failed to update it. They saw market share erode for the last decade, when the luxury SUV market wasn’t eroding. General Motors just stepped in.”
Now, he and others said, the Lincoln is back on top.
“The Navigator massacres everything else,” Noble said. “We’ve driven the vehicle. This is the best full-size luxury platform on the market. If the F-Series pickup trucks are making $10,000 to $15,000 profit per unit, these will be higher."
Navigator color packages are meant to create specific moods with options including rhapsody blue, ebony, cappuccino, dark slate, iced mocha and chroma molten gold.
Lincoln officials say product interest is driving overall web traffic and interest. And numbers are growing in the U.S. and China.
While the Escalade is the primary competition stateside, the Lexus LX570 dominates the luxury SUV scene in Asia. Lincoln is making inroads there, too.
“Early Navigator demand is even bigger in China than the U.S.,” Parker said. “In the past, this type of vehicle was popular regionally, like in a snowy province where it’s cooler and mountainous, like Beijing. But now we’re seeing the warmer areas, which have a climate more like Atlanta, in places like Shanghai, they want the Navigator, too.”
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid