By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Lexus GX460 is kind of plain for a $50,000-plus SUV. It doesn’t flash its wares — its MSRP — like a Vegas escort service “date.”
This is a good — or bad — thing, depending on what you want from a $50,000-plus premium SUV. If you want a lower profile on the outside, with all the comforts inside — and all the cojones underside — the GX has got you covered.
WHAT IT IS
The GX460 is a seven-passenger, three-row luxury SUV that combines premium amenities and roughneck capabilities — including body-on-frame construction and real-deal 4WD with Low range gearing — in a package that’s more under the radar than competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and Land Rover LR4.
Prices start at $53,245 and ascend to $58,040 for the Premium.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
Base trims get color-keyed side moldings with chrome accents; Premium trims get shiny ree-uhms . . . gnomesayin’ ?
More subtle than the Look At Me LR4 and other premium SUVs.
A much better deal than the $61,570 to start Mercedes GL-Class.
Rides like an armored limo; the outside world is far away.
Capable 4WD system with low-range gearing; rugged body-on-frame construction.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
A much worse deal than the $47,650 to start (and much more powerful) Land Rover LR4.
Corners like an armored limo.
Third row seats are a squeeze.
Less cargo space than competitors.
UNDER THE HOOD
The GX comes standard with a 4.6 liter, 301 hp V-8, six-speed automatic and automatic four-wheel-drive with driver-selectable 2WD/4WD high settings and two-speed transfer case with 4WD low range gearing.
In the premium SUV class, the GX’s engine is a bit on the underpowered side. The $47k LR4, for example, comes standard with a 375 hp 5 liter V-8; the Benz GL’s standard 4.7 liter V-8 makes 335 hp; its optional 5.5 liter V-8 makes 382 hp. You can also get a diesel engine in the GL; it might not make all that much horsepower (210) but it does produce massive torque (400 ft.-lbs.) with the engine barely idling (1600 RPM).
Zero to 60 in the GX takes about 8 seconds flat — about half a second off the pace of the quicker models in this segment like the 375 hp LR4.
Gas mileage is about what you’d expect from a 5,300 lb. heavy-duty, full-frame 4WD SUV equipped with a V-8 engine: 15 city, 20 highway.
But in context, this is actually pretty good — almost as good, in fact, as the $61k Benz GL350 BlueTEC diesel’s 17 city, 21 highway and better than the $62k gas V-8 version of the Benz GL, which really sucks it down (13 city, 18 highway). The LR4’s even hoggier: 12 city (yes, you read that right… twelve MPG) and 17 city. Good thing the LR4 has a low (for this class of vehicle) base price; it makes up some for what you’ll pay at the pump.
The GX’s maximum tow rating is 6,500 lbs.
Both the LR4 and the Benz GL have higher maximum tow ratings; 7,700 lbs. and 7,500 lbs, respectively.
ON THE ROAD
The GX doesn’t feel as beefy (or top heavy) as the LR4 — and it accelerates more strongly than the diesel-powered GL350, which needs almost 9 seconds to lug itself to 60 mph. (The V-8 powered GL is about as quick as the Lexus, but its starting price is almost $10k higher. The 5.5 liter-equipped Benz is quicker — but costs $80k, too.)
Though it is a large vehicle, it’s still technically a mid-sized vehicle — so it’s not as massive-feeling as full-sized SUVs such as its bigger brother, the LX570 — which weighs about 600 pounds more, is about three inches wider through the hips and another half-foot longer, overall.
It is also not a forbidding vehicle.
The LR4 has lots of buttons and switches that can be inscrutable if you’re not a 4×4 Jedi Master. But the GX is pretty straightforward — “get in and go” — with one hideous ergonomic flaw that must be mentioned. The on/off knob for the audio system is located on the lower left of the center console, almost directly in line with the driver’s right knee. It’s convenient to reach by hand, but it is also easy to bump it with your knee while driving — which will turn off the audio system. This might not be a problem if you don’t have long legs, as I do. But take note of this “feature” during your test drive and make sure it isn’t an issue for you.
Other than that, the GX is an extremely pleasant, easy to drive and easy to live with SUV. Step-in height is moderate even though there is more than 8 inches of ground clearance. Conveniently placed garb handles (and running boards) further ease entry/exit.
The ride is dead calm and quiet — typical of heavily sound-deadened full-frame SUVs with thick-gauge steel bodies and triple seal weatherstripping. Credit for the beautiful ride also should be given to the GX’s standard Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which continuously adjusts shock damping and suspension travel to best suit road/driving conditions. The optional Adaptive Variable Suspension lets you manually tailor the settings for different driving conditions. This system also includes a load-leveling feature for the rear suspension, which lets you raise or lower the tail by about an inch — for more ground clearance or easier loading access, etc.
But don’t let the GX’s luxo-liner serenity in a straight line — and at high freeway speeds — lull you into thinking this is a car — or a car-based “crossover” SUV. All that 4WD capability underneath you imposes compromises in the corner coming up ahead of you. Take it at a faster clip than you should (which will typically be anything much faster than the posted recommended maximum) and the GX’s electronic stability control system will cut in to remind you what you’re driving. Same thing happens in the LR4 (and also the Benz GL). It’s the nature of these beasts.
Drive it reasonably — understanding what its limitations are — and you’ll have no problems on-road.
And the real-deal 4WD will take you almost anywhere off-road.
AT THE CURB
Here also the GX straddles the middle between the boxy/upright traditional SUV look of the LR4 and the almost station wagon-ish Benz GL-Class. It doesn’t call as much attention to itself as others in the $50k and up segment — which can be a nice thing, especially if you have to drive through not-so-great neighborhoods or park it on the street — while still looking tough enough to put distance between itself and the scores of minivan/familymobile looking crossovers out there.
Cargo-carrying capacity is less than in the LR4 and GL-Class. The GX’s more compact exterior dimensions (it is almost a foot shorter overall than the GL350) leave less room to work with inside. The GX has 65 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity vs. 90 cubic feet for the LR4 and 83 cubic feet for the GL350.
With the GX’s third row in place, the cargo area behind them drops to just 4.2 cubic feet.
Still, the third row (with power folding, standard) does make it feasible to carry seven people — or at least, five adults and two kids. And not everyone needs 80-90-something cubes of cargo space — in which case, the GX’s smaller footprint (and easier maneuverability in close quarters) can be a trade-off well worth making.
One more thing. The GX has an unusual swing-out tailgate. Some reviewers don’t like it, but I do. I think it’s more user-friendly than the more common lift-up tailgate — which can be awkward to use if you’re not long-armed (and fairly strong) and which therefore usually requires power assist.
The swing-out gate doesn’t.
There’s also a separate flip-up glass section, which lets you access the GX’s cargo area when you can’t swing open the gate (as when parked on city streets with another car close behind you).
As everyone knows, Lexus — through parent company Toyota — has taken some rabbit punches to the kidneys recently over the Runaway Prius Acceleration debacle (which, by the way, was only a debacle because the media picked up on and ran amok with unsubstantiated stories that later proved to be false stories).
The good news is the fallout from that — and the fallout from a cratered economy — has forced Toyota/Lexus dealers to be more amenable to haggling after years of being able to sell their vehicles at full MSRP, take it or leave it.
The GX also starts out some $8,300 less than the Benz GL-Class; and as nice as the LR4 is, there’s still reason to be cautious about Land Rover the company — whose quality control issues in the recent past make the recent Toyota/Lexus imbroglio seem trivial in comparison.
The standard four-year/ 50,000 mile comprehensive warranty is exactly the same as the LR4’s and GL’s — but Lexus gives you a stronger six year/70,000 mile warranty on the powertrain.
As far as safety: A large, heavy SUV is one of the most crashworthy vehicles you can drive — in terms of protecting you if you’re hit by someone else. The GX’s natural strengths here are supplemented by head/curtain air bags that deploy if the system senses an imminent rollover.
For off-road safety, there’s standard Hill Descent Control as well as Hill Start Assist, which use throttle modulation and automatic brake application to keep the vehicle from building up excessive speed going downhill (HDC) or slip-sliding when trying to climb up an incline (HSA). Lane Departure Warning beeps at you if inadvertently cross over the double yellow. The cruise control system is “adaptive,” which means it adjusts its speed automatically to keep pace with the ebb and flow of traffic — and prevents the GX from exceeding the set speed when going downhill.
A Pre-Collision system is available optionally that “preps” the vehicle for a possible crash by helping the driver apply full braking power and cinching up the seat belts when a potential crash is detected.
Lexus is also now offering a concierge feature similar to GM’s OnStar. It’s called Eform and like OnStar, it’ll summon an operator to help with directions if you get lost (or can’t figure out the GPS).
THE BOTTOM LINE
The GX may be the best all-arounder in its class. Its combination of reasonable price, not-bad gas mileage, excellent on-road manners and serious off-road capabilities, taken together, amount to a more appealing overall package than others in this segment that might offer more This or That — but not the whole ball of wax.