By Chris Haak
Soft, cushy, and comfy. All three words describe the experience of driving the all-new 2010 Lexus GX460, which is basically a softer, more luxurious, and far more expensive Toyota 4Runner. It’s not easy to see any family resemblance when looking at the two SUVs side by side; they wear completely different bodies with different interiors. The Lexus includes a power-folding third row, while the Toyota no longer offers it. The Lexus has a standard V8, but the Toyota is available only with a V6 (also an overmatched four cylinder for 2010, but that option is disappearing for the 2011 model year). Most of the Lexus’ interior boasts soft-touch materials; most of the 4Runner’s interior is covered in hard plastic.
But having spent a week in a new GX460, it’s easy to see why these body-on-frame SUVs are quickly becoming extinct in the marketplace. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Toyota would create another generation of the 4Runner/GX after this generation’s life cycle has run its course. There are just too many compromises inherent with this type of vehicle to make it feasible as anything other than as a competitor to other legitimate luxury-oriented backcountry bruisers like the Ranger Rover Sport.
Originally, we were to have reviewed the GX460 earlier in the year, but the new SUV’s well-publicized failure in Consumer Reports’ handling test (where the stability control’s intervention during a mid-turn throttle-lift situation caused the vehicle to snap oversteer for what seemed like an eternity before the vehicle was righted by its electronic guardian angels. Frankly, the guy who tests cars for Consumer Reports must be brave, because we had no – zero – interest in taking a vehicle that has the same height as its width around curves quickly. So, Lexus reprogrammed the GX’s stability control, CR re-tested the GX, and CR’s “do not buy” recommendation and Lexus’ “stop sale” recommendation were lifted, and we finally got a GX to test at 100 Autosavant Plaza.
Though the 2010 GX460 is literally all-new, with a new frame, body, interior, and powertrain, its shape is immediately familiar to those who recognize the first-generation model, sold through the 2009 model year. Differences are mainly in the details, with Lexus’ L-finesse design theme applied to items such as window surrounds, headlamps, and the grille’s trim. The fenders, particularly in the rear, are more bulbous than on the previous model’s. We hate to say it, but the GX’s new shape is perhaps a bit too similar to the far cheaper Toyota Highlander’s, particularly in profile. However, the expected Lexus design cues are all present: swept-back projector headlamps, LED taillamps (also swept back), and chrome trim round the windows, door handles, and body-side mouldings. At the end of the day, the GX460 does look like a Lexus, and conveys enough ruggedness to convince observers that it is a bona-fide SUV with true off-road credentials.
Working toward the GX’s objective of being a credible off-pavement vehicle, it skips the low-profile tires that some of its contemporaries offer, and sticks with relatively tall 18 inch six-spoke wheels, shod with 265/60R18 Bridgestone mud & snnow tires. Under its new skin, it has a full-time 4WD system with Torsen limited slip center differential, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), and crawl control – all of which prove that its body-on-frame architecture is indeed for go and not for show. The electronic off-road traction aids are the same as those offered on the off-road variants of the Toyota 4Runner, and make the GX460 very capable off road. That is, if you plan on doing that to your new $58,000 SUV.
Upon opening the door, you’re greeted by the familiar high-quality Lexus interior. The design of the interior echoes the upright, conservative stance of the GX’s exterior, which actually works well for an SUV. The seats, covered in semi-aniline leather, are sublimely soft and comfortable, and in fact smell great. Of course, they’re also heated and ventilated in the front row, and heated in the second row. The dashboard has a tasteful combination of faux-metal, walnut veneer, and stitched leather-like material. As noted in the opening paragraphs, nearly everything in the GX is soft-touch.
Controls are large and easy to use. Our tester was equipped with the $1,990 hard disk-based navigation system, which is very easy to operate and worked without a hitch. We wish Lexus would allow destination entry while the vehicle is moving; in many cases, it may be safer to look down briefly to enter a destination (or better yet, ask a passenger to enter the destination) than to pull off to the side of the freeway to enter a destination. The technology and convenience features expected in a vehicle with the Lexus nameplate are included in the GX. There is parking assist, tri-zone automatic climate control, power-folding third-row seats, ten airbags, Bluetooth, iPod connectivity, nine-speaker audio system with XM satellite radio, and the aforementioned off-road assist technology.
Moving counter to a trend of ever upsizing engine displacement, Lexus has actually installed a slightly smaller engine in the 2010 GX460 than the 2009 GX470 had. Rather than the overmatched 263-horsepower 4.7 liter V8 that the old model featured, the 2010 gets a new six-speed automatic and a 301-horsepower 4.6 liter V8. The 4.6 liter V8, though it shares a displacement number with the 4.6 liter V8 found in the GS and LS luxury sedans, is actually the same engine installed in the Toyota Tundra pickup as its mid-level engine choice.
The new engine is smooth and strong (more than once, we assumed that its published 301 horsepower output must be less than its actual output) and is a good match for the GX. Zero to sixty times are in the low- to mid-seven second range, and the combination of the new engine and extra cog in the transmission improves the GX’s city fuel economy by one mile per gallon (from 14 to 15) and its highway economy by two miles per gallon (from 18 to 20) versus the 2009 model. It’s even more impressive considering that the 2010 GX weighs more than 400 pounds more than the outgoing model. Incidentally, we observed about 16 miles per gallon over a few hundred miles of mixed highway/city driving.
That extra weight surely isn’t coming from extra interior volume. In the 2010 GX460, every dimension is smaller or the same as the same measurement in the 2009 GX470. And that’s just for the first two rows. Aft of the second-row seat, the comparisons with the old GX become even less favorable. Hip room decreases by 13.3 inches, should room by 2.2 inches, and headroom by 1.3 inches. But for some good news, the third row’s legroom increases by 4.4 inches. It’s easy enough to see where Lexus gets the extra legroom; cargo volume behind the third row goes from adequate to “I can fit more in my Lexus IS convertible,” falling from 13.2 cubic feet to just 4.4 cubic feet, a 67 percent decline. Lexus is too embarrassed to put a photo of the minimum cargo area on its media website, but you can get the idea from this photo. Also, the company stole some of the second row’s legroom to add to the third row; second row legroom fell by 2.7 inches.
On the subject of the cargo area, one annoyance is that the giant rear door is hinged on the side rather than on the top. Worse, the hinge is on the curb side (the right side), so to load the vehicle along a street, you have to stand in traffic. If the $16,000 Nissan Cube can have its rear door hinged on different sides depending upon whether it’s sold in a left-hand drive or right-hand drive market, why can’t the GX? At least the window glass opens separately from the door if desired, which makes it easier to load smaller items.
Push the button to power-fold the tiny third-row seat, and cargo volume becomes decent, though again, much smaller than the old GX’s. It has dropped from 49.7 cubic feet to 34.4 cubic feet, a 31 percent decrease. Maximum cargo volume, when all rear seats are folded, falls less dramatically, from 77.5 cubic feet to 64.7 cubic feet, which is a 17 percent decrease.
Acceleration feels more sprightly than the numbers really say it should, or actually does. Good performance, however, is about far more than straight-line acceleration. The six-speed automatic kicks down reasonably quickly for passing maneuvers, but one should think twice before venturing much beyond the speed limit in this vehicle. The steering wheel is huge, and effort is somewhat overboosted, with a slow steering ratio.
The brakes, meanwhile, are actuated via a spongy-feeling pedal that has a long travel before really biting in to stop the 5,300 pound midsize SUV. Once the four wheel discs do clamp down, their ultimate stopping power is foiled by the low grip of the high-profile all-season tires, which emit a big yelp when approaching the limits of their grip.
Speaking of the tires, they also conspire against the GX’s handling prowess. Taking a curve a little faster than normal (though nowhere near what the CR test driver did), the tires will howl and screech earlier than you’d expect them to. We’d consider them to be something of an early-warning system that kicks in even before the stability control engages to tell the driver to take it easy, because the tall SUV does not like to be goaded quickly into curves.
Pricing for the 2010 GX460 is a bit steep; our seemingly-loaded tester was actually missing several thousand dollars worth of available equipment, yet still rolled out the door with a $58,039 MSRP (including destination). Missing features included the Mark Levinson audio system, adaptive cruise control, and headrest-mounted DVD screens. The GX bases at $52,845 including destination, then our tester added the $720 wide-view front and side monitor system with crawl control, $1,990 navigaton system with XM NavTraffic, $500 intuitive parking assist, $1,770 Comfort Plus Package (semi-aniline leather-trimmed interior, three-zone automatic climate control, and heated middle row seats), $150 cargo-area tonneau cover, and $64 cargo net.
For what it is, the GX is a comfortable, well-appointed vehicle. Lexus vehicles are hardly a bargain these days at the time of purchase, with the $35,000 LS400 a distant rear-view memory. (However, that $35,000 LS400 would cost $60,000 in today’s dollars, not far from the $65,380 that the LS460 starts at today.) But for those who want a luxurious off-road vehicle with similar capabilities to what the more utilitarian 4Runner offers, while still providing Lexus-like reliability, the GX may be for you. As for us, we’ll stick with crossovers.