Review: 2011 Lexus GX 460
By Roger Boylan
The only drawback to having a high-end vehicle to test for a week is my certain knowledge that, no matter how much I like it, I’ll never be able to afford one. Such was the case with this week’s tester, a 2011 Lexus GX 460, a swift and solid luxury SUV that, in Premium guise, sashays off the lot for a cool $62K. Opt for the “base” model, sans Mark Levinson sound system, dual-swivel “adaptive front lighting system” (i.e., the headlights swivel as the steering turns, an innovation dating back to the 1967 Citroën DS), intuitive parking assist, and a couple of other goodies (including, according to my Monroney, “cargo net: $64”), and you can drive one off your local Lexus lot for a measly $52K. Well, I don’t envisage having that kind of moolah for a set of wheels any time soon.
But I don’t believe in buying new, so in a couple of years, there might be relative bargains around. Plus, you can get one of this beast’s humble Toyota cousins for much less—a 4Runner, for example, to which the GX is closely related, for between $30K and $40K, or a Highlander, admittedly a crossover rather than a true-blue SUV, for even less than that. And a decent used late-model Lexus RX350 should be available for around $35K.
But the GX 460’s sui generis, the real thing, a body-on-frame SUV that’s also enough of a luxoboat to please a Greek shipping magnate, if there were any left. It manages to combine the luxury of a leather-and-wood interior and sublimely comfortable power leather front seats with a rugged off-road driving system that gives it real cred out on the trail. High range is permanent; low range is activated by the flick of a simple switch on the center console. Working busily away underneath, if needed, are hill ascent and descent control, together with something Lexus calls the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, a mechanism that will temporarily release the anti-roll bars, if needed, to enhance off-road suspension travel. I was thus enabled to comfortably and rapidly ascend and descend my favorite off-road track, misnamed Serenity Trail, which snakes up the side of a small mountain near Canyon Lake, Texas, and offers no more than shattered boulders, potholes, and tree trunks as a driving surface. These fazed the GX not at all; with nary a squeak nor rattle, and tossing its passengers’ heads from side to side only slightly, it powered onward and upward and downward again, taking all obstacles in stride. (I should note, however, that the low running boards probably rule out any hard-core Rubicon Trail exertions.)
Back on the more serene trail of recently-paved blacktop, the GX reverted to its other personality, that of luxury cruiser, and cruised quietly along, regaling us with the impeccable sound quality of the Mark Levinson super sound system (an option that adds $3930 to the sticker–ouch) and the equally impressive sound quality of its V8-powered 4.6-litre engine (hence the numeric part of its alphanumeric moniker) when the mill was urged to provide greater speed. It did so in an impressive 7.5 sec from 0 to 60, according to my timeless Swiss timepiece: 0.3 sec less than the official Lexus claim.
The engine showed no reluctance to let the world know it was working hard, either, not that I object to the throaty growl of a V8 going about its business, pulled along by 301 doughty ponies and 329 lb.-ft.of torque. But that was the only time the engine noise intruded. Lexus lathers sound insulation throughout the vehicle, so most of time the GX is as mute as a Trappist–a simile I’m going to extend further, because your average Trappist, although rendered speechless by his vows, never said anything about not knocking back the ale, and, like them, the GX has a weakness for the strong stuff. Not that 15 mpg in town and 20 on the highway are especially bad figures for a 2 ½ ton V8-powered 4X4, despite its need for premium. They aren’t great numbers, but on the other hand I never needed to refill over the 300+-mile trajectory of my week-long test, which tells me the 23-gal. tank would allow for at least a few daily round-trip commutes before you have to hit the filling station. (Anyway, if you’re forking out 60 large for this baby, what do you care about fuel economy?)
On-road performance is enhanced by the reasonably responsive steering. The brakes are superb, for which dimwitted Mr. Squirrel, who halfway across the street suddenly remembered what he’d left back in the tree trunk, should have been truly thankful. As for the handling, you can just about sense the potential for cornering lean if you hit the curves a tad too fast, but it never happens, thanks to you being a sensible driver and realizing you’re not in a Miata, and thanks also to the ESC system and, no doubt, a software update installed in the wake of Consumer Reports’ 2010 road test that nearly resulted in a rollover (according to CR) and resulted in a temporary suspension of GX sales. (Odd: CR never made that complaint about the 4Runner, which sits on the same platform. Go figure.) But that’s behind us, and things are hunky-dory once again.
The GX is a nice-looking truck inside and out. Inside, you find what you expect in a Lexus: understated elegance. Everything is soft-touch or padded, and there are lots of shiny satin-finish buttons. They mostly tend to be intuitive to use, though, as do the controls for the HVAC system, seat heaters, and audio system, which are lined up on the discreet center stack. But there’s a great big LCD screen smack dab in the middle of the dashboard, and finding out how to use some of the touch-screen controls may drive some of us to the enormous Manhattan phone book that passes for a driver’s manual. It did me, but at least I found things made sense after a quick read of the relevant info. It’s just that I’ve never been a big fan of the inherent distraction that an LCD screen represents. So pull over and figure it all out before you take off, OK?
Outside, despite leering Noh-Theater headlights that closely resemble those of, among others, the current Subaru Outback–is there a Mad-Kabuki/Noh-Theater-headlight bin all the Japanese manufacturers dip into?— somehow, together with the restrained grille and the recessed air dam, the GX looks handsome without being garish, and the sheer body sides accented by pronounced front and rear fender flares contribute to a muscular, truckish appearance. Big, wrap-around LED tail-light clusters and a step-up bumper adorn the truck’s rear, most of which forms a fifth door that swings open toward the right, impeding loading at the curb in countries that, unlike Japan, drive on the right-hand side. The RAV4 has the same flaw, a minor one to be sure, but one you’d figure mighty and multifarious Toyota would be able to fix; after all, Nissan’s lowly Cube had its door hinges switch sides when it crossed the Pacific. I assume not enough customers have complained; it certainly doesn’t seem to have slowed down RAV4 sales. Still, the rear door of the GX contains a flip-up rear window that allows for loading and unloading of smaller items, which adds some convenience.
And convenience is, of course, the watchword of the Lexus genre–along with safety, especially in view of the Consumer Reports incident and previous claims of unintended acceleration in the Toyota clan. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety hasn’t rated the 2011 GX yet, but on my Premium-level test vehicle were such impressive features as a raft of airbags, front, side, knee, and overhead; intuitive parking assist, whereby the darn thing all but parks itself; a “Safety Connect” assistance system, including collision notification, emergency assistance, stolen vehicle location, and roadside assistance; a backup camera (an excellent innovation, as I’ve said before, especially in a hefty SUV); self-leveling driver-adjustable air suspension with Sport, Normal, and Comfort modes (oddly similar to a feature also offered on the old Citroën DS); antilock brakes; and anti-whiplash head restraints. Also on board were rear air conditioning, the afore-mentioned Mark Levinson sound system with XM satellite radio, Bluetooth technology and USB audio plug; front- and rear-obstacle detection; adaptive cruise control; and a fancy navigation system into which Lexus’ Enform system is bundled (why must corporations embrace these silly spellings?), including navigation destinations that the driver can program on a home computer and send directly to the vehicle, which will then bound away on its own. (No, I made that last part up, but it won’t be long now.) Oh, and the GX has a third-row power split-folding seat which, sad to say, I had great fun raising and lowering from the control panel at the back but which, in all honesty, is mostly for decoration, or extremely diminutive passengers. However, when lowered, the tiny dwarf-seats free up a decent if not spectacular loading platform of 46.7 cu. ft., expanding to 91.9 cu. ft. with the second row also lowered.
The body-on-frame concept, central to automotive engineering since the early 20th century, is going the way of the dinosaur, superseded by the integral unibody design common to all crossovers. So the GX might be the last hurrah of the old-style SUV. But it’s a great way to leave the stage.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.