The Pearl in the Knight's Armor
Families on dirt bikes turn to look with some surprise at the 2010 Lexus GX 460 bounding down the trail toward them. Down goes the L-badged nose into a dip, and oh, here it comes back up again as both front wheels catch air over the rise. The GX 460 is shoveling so much dirt, it looks like a new kind of premium-badged bulldozer.
Seriously, who does this to their luxury SUV?
Well, there's us and there's...us. And indeed, the 2010 Lexus GX 460 comes away from the afternoon at California's Hungry Valley with a few nasty scrapes on its chin. But it hasn't developed any rattles; it isn't leaking fluids; and most importantly, we haven't scratched the Knight's Armor Pearl paint, at least not in places you can see.
So the 2010 Lexus GX 460 is kind of tough. Maybe it doesn't need to be as tough as it is, but maybe it doesn't need that kiddie-size, fold-flat third-row seat, either.
It seems almost quaint now to ask this much of any one SUV, but the seven-passenger 2010 Lexus GX 460 is one of just a handful of jack-of-all-trades utility vehicles that are still on the market. You don't buy it to do a specific task. You buy it because it offers solutions to situations you haven't even thought of yet.
Its ruggedness comes from its Toyota 4Runner lineage, as if the GX 460 were the rich, upwardly mobile cousin. The body-on-frame architecture and live-axle suspension needn't scare you, though. Lexus engineers have gone in and refined the GX so comprehensively that you'll probably never notice the truck-style stuff.
For instance, the engineers have fitted a set of very large, adaptive stabilizer bars (the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, or KDSS) to the GX as standard equipment. These bars suppress body roll as the GX 460 is rounding corners on public roads, but automatically disengage when you're off road to give your luxury rig maximum suspension travel. The engineers have also specified adaptive dampers for this truck. These aren't strictly necessary for a utility vehicle, but they allow you to dial up a little more control or a little more comfort depending on your mood.
Four-wheel drive with low-range gearing is still necessary on a by-the-book SUV, but the 2010 Lexus GX 460 doesn't trouble you with its complexity. Until you hit the 4-Lo switch or the center differential lock button, the GX is just like any other all-wheel-drive vehicle with a Torsen limited-slip center diff.
Understandably, a vehicle of so many talents requires a V8. This one is a sophisticated 4.6-liter engine with variable valve timing and lift on both the intake and exhaust side, for 301 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 329 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. Impressive numbers for sure, but the stout 270-hp V6 from the 4Runner line would also get the job done.
But you never can predict that one day out of a thousand when you'll feel all nostalgic and buy an Airstream trailer. On that day you'll be glad for the V8-equipped GX's 6,500-pound tow rating versus the Toyota's 5,000-pound limit.
My First 4x4
As for us, we're able to resist making a down payment on an oblong silver travel trailer, but not the call of the wild. That's how we've ended up at Hungry Valley SVRA with a tow strap, a high jack and a Clif bar. But the 2010 Lexus GX 460 has enough technology that even the most poorly planned off-road adventure has a good chance of being survivable.
We're not saying it's a good thing not to plan, or not to have a backup plan for your backup plan. But the GX 460's optional Crawl Control program does eliminate the need to think in some situations. It is to off-roading what the Lexus Advanced Parking Guidance system is to parallel parking.
Just look at that hill coming up. It's steep. It's dirt. There are ruts in it. If we lose traction in the middle of it, we just might have to push the Lexus Enform system's Safety Connect button and call for help because there's a drop-off on either side.
So we shift the GX 460 into its low range, engage crawl control, remove feet from brake and gas, and wait. Sure enough, the GX begins to climb at a steady rate, as Crawl Control modulates the SUV's ABS, traction control (A-TRAC) and electronic throttle. We can hear the clatter of solenoids and hydraulic actuators under the hood. All we have to do is steer and adjust the speed via a toggle switch. It works just as magically going back down — Crawl Control is hill descent control that has evolved into adaptive off-road cruise control.
Mind you, the 2010 Lexus GX 460 is friendly even without this fancy aid. The 2.566 reduction ratio in 4-Lo makes it easy to pick your way down trails without overheating the brakes. And the chassis engineers were able to dial in plenty of wheel articulation without resorting to a stomach-turning ride. Steering and throttle are slow to react, as they should be on a real off-roader, but every one of our measured inputs elicits a precise response.
Still, you're not going to scale boulders in a stock GX 460. It only has 8.1 inches of ground clearance to the 4Runner's 9.6. We're dragging the front bumper against the rocks only 5 minutes into our adventure — the consequence of a shallow 28-degree approach angle (versus 33 degrees on the 4Runner Trail). The GX has a height-adjustable suspension, but those air springs are only in the rear. Four-wheel air suspension, like you'll find on the Land Rover LR4, would really help.
Wait, Do I Actually Like Trucks?
Even this moderate level of off-road ability has its price. And by price, we mean that the 2010 Lexus GX 460 feels like a truck even when you're not off-road. It is probably the quietest and most refined truck-based SUV you've ever driven. But it is still a truck.
Such honesty is refreshing. But it also means you can't step out to pass in the GX 460 without a care. Low-end engine torque is not huge, and with more than 5,200 pounds of Lexus trying to punch a hole in the smog layer, the engine is regularly stretching past 4,000 rpm. The V8's pleasant demeanor and smooth shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission make the best of it, but this isn't the most relaxing way to travel.
Our instrumented testing results obscure this issue a bit. The Lexus hits 60 mph in a respectable 7.9 seconds from a standstill (or 7.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and goes through the quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 86.6 mph. For perspective, the heavier (5,700-plus pounds) but more powerful (375 hp) LR4 turned in a 7.5-second 0-60 time and a 15.6-second quarter-mile at 90 mph. More damning for the GX, though, is the realization that it's not any quicker than a V6 4Runner in these tests.
Stopping the 2010 GX 460 takes patience, too. The soft, long-travel brake pedal is calibrated for off-road use where live-wire responses might send you tumbling off a cliff. It takes time, space (127 feet from 60 mph) and effort to bring this much vehicle to a stop, and you'll feel all that weight shifting forward as you do. You also need to hold the pedal down firmly at traffic lights or you'll end up creeping into the crosswalk.
In these litigious times, it's little wonder that Lexus doesn't allow you to disable the GX 460's stability control (in 4-Hi). So there's not much to learn from our tests on the skid pad (0.71g) and in the slalom (57.1 mph). Really, though, with P265/60R18 109H Bridgestone Dueler H/T all-season tires, we're probably not missing much.
Nice Enough for $65K?
Lexus designers haven't quite resolved the competing interests in the GX 460's cabin. The upright dash and seating position attest to the SUV's truck origins. But then you look back at all those rear seats, made necessary by the fact that the GX is the cheapest Lexus model with a third row.
For some of you, then, the 2010 Lexus GX 460 is just the Lexus-brand mommy-and-daddy-mobile. Such emphasis on practicality detracts from the luxury angle. The second-row seats, for example, are flat and hard, as if all they're meant to be is an anchoring place for car seats. When you actually sit on them, they're noticeably less plush than the old GX 470's middle bench. This is what happens when you build seats to tumble forward for maximum cargo capacity.
Similarly, the leather upholstery, Auburn Bubinga wood trim and surrounding vinyls are of solid quality, but the opulence factor is low. It's apparent that cost and durability weighed heavily on design selections, and this isn't what you want to be thinking in a vehicle that costs $20 grand more than the nicest 4Runner.
See You at Costco
Although we pick at the finer points, the 2010 Lexus GX 460 isn't very different from its predecessor. It has a better ride quality and tidier handling than the GX 470, and a more powerful and fuel-efficient drivetrain besides. But it's still a middle-size SUV that tries to balance off-highway and towing capabilities against family considerations. And this isn't an easy balance to strike.
Of course, the likely buyer for the GX hasn't changed, either. The Lexus GX 460 is an image vehicle. You drive it because it's a real truck and looks like a real truck, but isn't too big or over-the-top. It's screwed together right, and even if you don't check the gap tolerances, the L badge tells you it's all OK.
There's room for children and their pets, but you could turn onto the nearest dirt trail anytime, hole up at some remote cabin and maybe never look at your BlackBerry. And that's what keeps you going as you turn into the Costco parking lot.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
Am I the only one who feels like the Lexus GX 460 is analogous to $2,400 Ferragamo soccer cleats? What's wrong with the $100 Adidas Copa Mundials? In my mind, this old-school, truck-based off-roader dressed up like a luxury SUV is a rolling contradiction. Of course, it's not that this kind of incongruity is without precedent, since every Range Rover has the same mix of pretense and true ability.
Neither a Range Rover nor this Lexus will likely endure anything more challenging than a slightly slushy ski resort parking lot. So why carry around all the heavy, fuel-sucking off-road hardware? And who would dare risk damaging a vehicle that costs more than the average American annual income by actually driving it in a way for which it was built? It is for these reasons that car-based crossovers make more sense for potential snow bunnies.
That said, we're pleased vehicles such as the GX 460 still exist. There are scores of dedicated and specialized engineers who put a lot of thought and testing into superior off-road hardware (and now software) and the GX has a laundry list of such devices.
If you've never done any genuine off-roading, there are enough thrills to make you hold your breath even while crawling at low speed over/through/beside seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Such adventures draw in nearly as much cotton on the puck-o-meter as high-speed white-knuckled racetrack driving. We get it, and that's why Toyota builds the FJ Cruiser and the 4Runner, both of which share the fundamental architecture of the GX 460.
So that's where this Lexus GX gets stuck for me. If you actually want, need or use an off-road vehicle, why not buy one without the Lexus' creamy, heated/ventilated leather, Marc Levinson stereo, "take-em-off or tear-em-off" running boards, inadequate approach/departure angles and corresponding $50,000-60,000 price tag?
I guess the answer is that people with multimillion-dollar condos in Aspen would be embarrassed to arrive in a Toyota wearing Adidas.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.