By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
July 8, 2010
In 1923, famed British climber George Mallory was asked by a reporter why he wanted to climb the yet-to-be-conquered Mt. Everest. His answer went on to live in the pantheon of exploring quotations: "Because it's there."
One could be forgiven for thinking this was Lexus' reasoning in producing its 2010 GX 460 sport utility vehicle.
See, the GX is a body-on-frame SUV. That's an old-school way of producing a vehicle; the body of the vehicle is a separate component that is mounted to the chassis, which is the frame, drivetrain and suspension. This method lends itself to superior off-road and towing capabilities and not much else. Unibody construction, where the chassis and the body are a single entity, is lighter and offers better handling. It's also how nearly every vehicle on the road is produced today, including the other SUVs in the GX's class.
So why would Toyota's luxury division, whose vehicles are known for their refinement and technology, build an SUV using a construction method popular when Mallory was stocking up on wool socks?
Because the GX is basically a tarted-up version of Toyota's 4Runner, itself a body-on-frame SUV. Redesign the exterior, swaddle the interior in gobs of leather and drop in a modified version of the V-8 from Toyota's Tundra pickup, and quicker than you can say "Wharton MBA case study" Lexus has itself a midsize, seven-passenger family/boat hauler that fits nicely in its lineup between the crossover RX and king-kahuna LX.
Like a starlet who goes to great lengths to hide her rural, corn-fed upbringing, the GX 460, with a base price of about $52,000, almost never reveals its humble roots.
The interior is decidedly upscale with a fresh, clean dashboard featuring large, well-marked controls. Lexus mixes faux metal finishes with wood inserts and real leather trim to create a welcoming, comfortable environment. The front seats are a particular delight, in all their heated, cooled and thickly-bolstered glory. Middle-row seats are pleasant, but full-size adults relegated to the power-folding third row had better sign up for some yoga classes. . Even getting back there is a challenge, so that row is best left to the pint-size Justin Bieber fans in your caravan.
With the third-row seats up, there is very little cargo room left behind them (11.6 cubic feet). Think one row of grocery bags or a pair of carry-on suitcases. To make matters worse, the rear door (it's a wide one) on the GX is hinged such that it swings toward the curb when you're parked on the street. Minor, but annoying when you're loading cargo and forced to run around the door. Fortunately, if you're in a tight space, the rear glass pops open independently.
On the outside, the only thing the Lexus shares with its Toyota cousin is its shape. The GX 460's exterior features softer angles and more curves than the 4Runner, giving it a tasteful, sumptuous look while still maintaining airs of utility. There's enough chrome to look classy, but nothing gratuitous that says you were on a gift registry at Pep Boys (looking at you Mercedes GL). The tall and narrow body does give the vehicle a higher center of gravity. This, paired with a suspension that falls on the soft side to placate the delicate sensibilities of the traditional Lexus consumer, means the vehicle is predisposed to some body roll around tight corners.
This will likely only be noticeable to drivers not used to the feel of a luxury SUV and is relevant only in light of a memorable hiccup in the GX's history.
In April, Consumer Reports issued a rare "don't buy" warning on the GX over concerns that the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) took too long to intervene when the SUV was engaged in a skid. Toyota quickly recalled all GX 460s to reprogram the software and has since resumed selling the vehicle.
Despite the body roll in the post-recall model I tested, at no point did the GX feel unstable, unsafe or cause me to alter my driving tendencies in any way. The (standard) VSC toed the fine line between oppressive nanny and indolent supervisor and did its job admirably both on road and off. This was despite repeated attempts to push the software to its limits in circumstances similar to Consumer Reports' test.
Trust me, I tried.
If a driver is pushing this or any vehicle beyond the limits of common sense, no amount of electronics or software is going to override karma and gravity. (But if either of the two do get the better of you, the GX has 10 standard airbags, including driver and passenger knee airbags and roll-sensing side curtain airbags for all three rows of passengers.)
For the two of you actually considering taking this vehicle into the mud, the dust and the dirt, you'll be amply rewarded. It is here that the geriatric setup of body-on-frame design and live rear axle truly shine, and Lexus adds to the GX's prowess by offering fancy-pants off-road aids such as Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), Rear Adjustable Height Control (RAHC) and Crawl Control. The sparkly maroon/plum Claret Mica (I think she went to my high school) GX I tested had none of these off-road options. Yet with the four-wheel drive system in 'Low,' I was still able to climb and descend grades steeper than BP's public relations tab.
The six-speed automatic transmission is just as smooth on road as it is off, and it modulates the 4.6 liter V-8's 301 horsepower and 329 pound-feet of torque with aplomb. If you do intend to soil the GX's britches on uneven, rocky terrain, consider buying your Lexus with the AVS and RAHC, as the stock setup gives you only 8.1 inches of ground clearance, and it is soft enough to give your skid plate and differential a run for their money.
Gas mileage is rated at 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. (During 500 miles of city, highway and off-road testing, I averaged 15.3 mpg.) If you really want to kill your fuel economy, consider towing something. Although body-on-frame vehicles excel at towing, the GX is rated at 6,500 pounds; other SUVs in this class can tow at least 1,000 pounds more. This is more a result of the transmission and engine than the frame on which they sit.
Most GX buyers are as likely to tow a few tons or take the vehicle off road as they are to climb Everest naked. But hey, it's still there.
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