Although Lincoln was first into the full-size luxury SUV market with the 1998 Navigator, it has been sitting by the sidelines as Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and, more recently, BMW and Acura, have fielded entrants in the luxury midsize-ute segment. Until now, that is. For 2003, Lincoln flies in the Aviator to square off against the Benz ML500 and BMW X5 4.4i, which both have V8 engines like the Lincoln. The Lexus RX 300 and Acura MDX, both V6-powered, might be considered peripheral competition. If you think we goofed and provided pictures of a new Navigator instead of the Aviator, that's understandable. The resemblance is purely intentional and gives the Aviator the appearance of a 3/4-scale Navigator, an upscale look befitting this segment. And if you think that the Aviator is simply a reskinned Ford Explorer (or Mercury Mountaineer), well, you're wrong. These vehicles do share most dimensions and some mechanical and body components, but there are a number of significant differences between the Aviator and the Mountaineer with which it will share showroom space. The cabin is all Lincoln and features a symmetrical dash (that recalls the 1961 Continental), plenty of real wood trim, power adjustable pedals and leather seating, even for the (standard) third row. In addition to providing a choice of buckets or a bench for the second row, the Aviator also boasts more third-seat legroom than the full-size Cadillac Escalade. Controls are illuminated at night by white LEDs (that vary in intensity according to ambient light), and the steering wheel has controls for the audio and climate control systems. The Aviator has a 32-valve 4.6-liter V8 that cranks out 302 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, a healthy 62-hp increase over the 16-valve V8 available in the 2002 Explorer and Mountaineer twins. A five-speed automatic sends this considerable thrust to either the rear wheels for the two-wheel-drive version or all four in the all-wheel-drive Aviator. That muscle-bound V8, along with the Aviator's stout body-on-frame design, gives the Lincoln a serious towing advantage over its less rugged competition. At 7,300 pounds (all-wheel-drive version), the Aviator's best-in-class towing capacity is 46 percent higher than that of the Mercedes-Benz ML500. Top-shelf hardware is used throughout the chassis as well, including monotube shocks, beefy stabilizer bars and a power rack-and-pinion steering system. The engineers' goal was to provide precise handling and steering feel without sacrificing a smooth ride. We'll let you know if they succeeded once we get some seat time. An impressive safety features list includes hefty antilock disc brakes (the fronts measure 13 inches and have dual-piston calipers) and side-curtain airbags (that also provide protection in a rollover). Later in the year, Lincoln's stability control system, dubbed AdvanceTrac, will become available.