DRIVEN: First Drive: 2010 Lexus GX 460

By Don Sherman - November 23, 2009
As a sign of the times, Lexus is discounting the numeric portion of its mid-size sport ute's name by ten counts, though not at the expense of capability, price, or prestige. To the contrary, the new second-generation GX 460 is slightly quicker and all the more laden with luxury touches. The surname change is attributable to the new V-8's displacement change from 4.7 to 4.6 liters.
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While the GX 460 is not part of the headlong market shift to crossovers, it does achieve a couple more miles per gallon in EPA highway and combined ratings. This is the last body-on-frame, live-rear-axle classic SUV in the luxury class, largely because this Lexus shares core components with the lowly Toyota 4Runner, a longstanding member of the ground-pounding (off-road) fraternity.
According to Lexus, the 2010 GX is a clean-sheet design embodying a new body, frame, and powertrain. Unfortunately, customers are leaving this segment in droves. Lexus has its fingers crossed that 56,000 youthful, well-heeled customers will remain behind and that it will be able to snare a quarter of them to sell 14,000 GXs this year. That seems like a stretch to us.
Six years ago, when Automobile blessed the GX 470 with its All-Star award, fuel was cheap, life was great, and a luxurious three-row family hauler was a gratifying ego stroke. Then competitors flooded in, the world economy imploded, and fickle consumers took refuge in smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient conveyances.
L Finesse Design
While the concept of L finesse is largely lost on western eyes, Lexus offers a machined and polished steel bar as the new GX's thematic model. The GX's exterior is slightly more chunky appearing, especially in the more prominent rear haunches. Basic proportions are longer, lower, and wider though the 109.8-inch wheelbase is unchanged and dimensional alterations are modest. One curiosity is that exterior dimensions now align perfectly with Toyota's mainstream crossover, the Highlander.
Consistent with the solid steel bar theme, curb weight is up a hefty 400 pounds over the previous model thanks to the addition of more sound deadening and added electronic entertainment gear.
Exterior highlights include meatier grille bars, a more elegant front to side surface blend, and a more dazzling headlamp cluster. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard on both base and premium editions. The upscale model has extra side chrome and ding protectors attached to the lower door areas. All rear lamps are LED designs, the wiper is tucked out of sight beneath the roof spoiler, and the rear glass can now be opened without unlatching the surrounding hatch to deposit small items in the cargo hold.
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Lap Of Luxury
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The GX 460's cabin faces the challenging mission of accommodating seven passengers in three rows while making one and all feel like lotto winners. The effort is a success in the first row where the instrument panel glows with polished wood, elegantly simulated metal, and enough electronic gadgets to overwhelm a Best Buy clerk. Other occupants suffer with insufficient padding to support them comfortably on a long trip. At least everyone in rows two and three benefits from an adjustable backrest.
Access to the third row is a tight scrunch on the right side only and the kids sentenced to those seats are likely to feel they've been punished for bad behavior. Leg room is limited, the view forward is restricted, and escape is frustrated by a hard-to-actuate release lever. Any parent who neglects to purchase the optional rear entertainment system is toying with disaster for any trip longer than a run to soccer practice.
The problem is packaging. After the live rear axle, the husky frame, and the full-size spare are accommodated, the 109.8-inch wheelbase and 189.2-inch overall length don't provide sufficient space for full-grown rear-cabin occupants. Only 4.2 cubic feet of cargo space is provided behind the third row. To make the space as usable as possible, Lexus has added a power folding feature as standard equipment.
Another concern is access to the cargo hold. The GX's cousin-Toyota's 4Runner-has a simple roof-hinged hatch with a roll-down rear glass. But here the door swings open on a right-side hinge, which exposes users to traffic. In addition, attaching a trailer severely restricts the door's opening angle.
The standard leather and dark wood accents are up to Lexus standards for quality and refinement. A 4.2-inch center-stack display monitor is standard and an 8-inch touch screen is included with the optional navigation system. The metal-look control knobs are satisfying to see and operate. The previous transfer case shift lever has been replaced by a toggle switch that efficiently engages all four 4wd modes.
A remarkable 10 air bags are standard. Also impressive are the 10 grab handles sprinkled throughout to assist entry and exit. The instrument cluster is a delightful array of three liquid-crystal displays and four glowing needle and digit gauges. Scrolling through the menu allows displaying such useful info as which way the front wheels are pointing. Camera monitors provide a clear look at three sides of the vehicle to avoid backing over obstacles and for hugging curbs during parallel parking. This is also a handy way to keep an eye on boulders, cacti, and crevices during off-road excursions.
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Giddy with Gadgets
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XM radio, a 6-disc CD changer, and a 9-speaker audio system are standard. Bluetooth wireless accommodation, a mini audio jack, a USB connection, and extra 12-volt power sockets are also included as base gear. A 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system rated at 330 watts is available that can itself be upgraded to 7.1-channel architecture with an extra high-output amplifier. To chill the kids, there's rear AC and an entertainment system that positions video screens on the back of each front seat. With two distinct channels available, the kids can enjoy DVD movies or games or both simultaneously.
In the safety category, the new GX offers radar-based cruise control that will automatically activate the brakes and tighten the seat belts if the likelihood of a collision is detected. A camera also determines whether the driver is paying attention or is distracted by text messaging or child rearing. Flashing lights and audible beeps serve as the wake-up call. A lane departure alert sounds a buzzer and displays a warning image when the vehicle wanders from its proper path.
Plenty of Power
The new 4.6-liter V-8, shared with the Toyota Tundra, features variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust systems but not direct fuel injection. (Lexus admits that this desirable feature was skipped for cost reasons.) Compared to the outgoing 4.7-liter V-8, power is up 38 horses and torque is better by 6 lb-ft. In conjunction with a new 6-speed automatic (replacing last year's 5-speed), the run to sixty mph is shorter by 0.3 seconds and mileage is improved one mpg in city ratings and by two mpg on the highway. The top two gear ratios provide overdrive and the axle ratio is slightly taller than before.
This powertrain has impeccable manners. It's quiet, smooth, and throttle responsive. Versus the V-6s common to the competition, Lexus has a definite advantage here. The 6500-pound tow rating complies with the SAE's new rigorous testing standards.
The 4wd system operates full time thanks to a center differential with a Torsen limited-slip device. That differential (but not the rear one) can be locked in both high and (2.566:1) low range. Another worthwhile off-road feature is a creep system that inches the vehicle along with the driver able to adjust velocity between one and 3.7-mph with a toggle switch located next to the shift lever.
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Unusual Underpinnings
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Live rear axles have gone the way of the buggy whip except for pickup trucks and large, traditional SUVs. One still resides here so that Lexus can share a few parts with a lowly Toyota and to maintain the GX's reputation for off-road and towing stamina. To help this seemingly crude configuration work better than it should, all GXs are equipped with what Lexus calls a Kinetic Dynamic Suspension. That fancy label stands for a means of disabling and interconnecting the front and rear anti-roll bars when doing so delivers a handling benefit. In addition, a rear air suspension and electronically adjustable dampers are available as an option on premium-grade editions.
The chassis package works remarkably well off road. Huge disruptions are taken in stride and the suspension never crashes noisily into the bump stops. The GX is also compact enough to slip through tight confines without littering trails with sacrificial parts.
Unfortunately, the GX doesn't shine on-road. The no-feel steering and mushy brake pedal kill cancel any chance of this ride appealing to driving enthusiasts. The vehicle's nose dips during even modest brake applications and there's noticeable squat during acceleration. The turn circle is unwieldy and major bumps excite the rear axle's tendency to hump the rear of the vehicle into the air.
Out of Phase With the Times
When this new GX got the green light four or so years ago, the world was a different place. Today, Lexus doesn't really need two V-8-powered, body-on-frame utility vehicles. A more appropriate stable mate to the successful RX model might be a crossover patterned after the GMC Acadia which delivers about 10-percent better gas mileage and more interior space, albeit without the GX's off-road prowess.
That leaves the new GX 460 as a niche product, just the ticket for longstanding Lexus devotees and a great alternative to the Land Rover LR3 but otherwise an expensive indulgence with limited appeal.
LEXUS GX 460
Base Price:
$52,845 (standard grade)
$57,640 (premium grade)
As Tested: $60,000
Powertrain:
Engine: 4.6-liter DOHC 48-valve V-8
Horsepower: 301 @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 329 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: full-time 4-wheel
Measurements:
L x W x H: 189.2 x 74.2 x 72.6 in.
Legroom F/M/R: 41.7/34.2/29.3 in.
Headroom F/M/R: 38.0/40.4/35.2 in.
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 4.2/64.7 cu. ft.
Curb weight: 5305 lb
EPA rating (city/highway): 15/20 mpg

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