A first look at Lincoln’s new Navigator concept at the New York Auto show.
Video by Chris Woodyard and Michael Struening/USA TODAY

NEW YORK — At first, it looked like Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand was going to take the bold step of going directly after Tesla on a key design feature of its next full-size SUV.

The gasps came when the big SUV drove on the stage at a fancy studio here and the side doors opened up, so-called gullwing doors, which open upward like seabirds’ wings, are a feature of Tesla’s new Model X crossover.

But in interviews after the unveiling, Kumar Galhotra, president of the Lincoln brand for Ford, said the gull-wing doors are terrific at showing some of the cool features that could work their way into the next Navigator, but are too impractical for most consumers.

“Gullwing doors are not at the top of their needs right now,” said Kumar Galhotra, president of the Lincoln brand for Ford.

“There are two reasons that we did this. One is that it’s a concept. Concept (vehicles) offer great ways to explore ideas,” Galhotra said.  “The second is that the interior of the vehicle is very important…and this is a great way to showcase that interior.”

And so it went for the concept that could be one of the hits of the New York Auto Show, which opens its media preview Wednesday.

One note of encouragement: Galhotra said the production version of the Navigator that goes on sale in 2017 will look a lot like the concept version.

The gullwing doors that cover pretty much the whole side, instead of hinged, side-opening doors, weren’t the only signature feature. It also has horizontally ribbed seats, a flat, retro center console and a push-button shifter that designers compared to piano keys.

The exterior has an elegance accentuated by an updated version of Lincoln’s new signature front grille and “radial, directional turbine-themed,” 24-inch wheels.

The production version of the vehicle is scheduled to go on sale next year, exactly 20 years after it was first introduced. The Navigator quickly became popular at a time when there was an arms race in the automotive industry to build bigger and more luxurious SUVs. It’s Lincoln’s best known nameplate.

One thing that wasn’t disclosed: Whether the Navigator will stay as a body-on-frame vehicle, like most full-size pickup trucks, or whether Ford would migrate it to a unibody, in which the chassis and body are one piece. Unibodies save fuel because they lighter, but body-on-fram vehilces are considered more stiff, for better handling, and more rugged.

Historically, the Navigator has been built on a truck frame with room for seven or eight passengers and plenty of cargo and towing capacity.

Galhotra said the next Navigator will be equipped with twin-turbo V-6 engine with more than 400 horsepower. With its current V-6, Navigator, in its front-wheel drive version, is rated at 18 miles per gallon when city and highway driving are combined. Sales of the Navigator increased 14.7% in 2015 to 11,964.

Galhotra and Lincoln executives say they expect sales of full-size luxury SUVs to remain steady in the coming years. Last year, Americans purchased about 170,000 full-size luxury SUVs and global sales for the segment topped 420,000.

If nothing else, the bold, adventurous approach Lincoln is displaying with the Navigator concept is evidence of a company that has regained confidence and believes it finally has momentum after a comeback that has been in the works for at least five years.

While several other premium brands have increasingly emphasized performance and more aggressive styling that appeals to male buyers who want fast-powerful vehicles, the Lincoln brand is aiming for what it calls “quiet luxury.”

“That (performance) segment is only part of the luxury market” Galhotra said. “Some of them are going after very aggressive styling but we don’t stand for aggressive…Lincoln has a very clear heritage of elegance.”

The brand’s sales are increasing in the U.S. and globally, it will launch two new or refreshed cars this year and will launch the Navigator next year.

Follow Chris Woodyard on Twitter at @chriswoodyard and Brent Snavely at @BrentSnavely.

More from the New York International Auto Show:

  • Toyota unveils new Prius hybrid at New York Auto Show
  • Electric Vehicles In Big Push at NY Auto Show
  • Nissan unveils the 2017 GT-R
  • Lincoln unveils upscale Navigator SUV concept
  • Nissan's new electric Mobility Concept