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Published: 01/16/2003 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
High above the cracked driveways, dingy parking lots and narrow streets where vehicles that provide basic transportation bed down at the end of the day, you'll find winding (and often, private) mountain drives and poetically named suburban cul-de-sacs. And it is here that members of the leisure class of vehicles, like the Lexus GX 470, make their homes.
"Leisure class" could imply an uncomfortable socioeconomic judgment, something to feel guilty about as you make eye contact with people waiting at a bus stop. Or it could be a choice: Even with protective lotions for the skin, aspirin and red wine for the heart and daily exercise, human life remains irritatingly finite. So if you have extra money to spend and have found a vehicle that temporarily eases the pressure of dealing with colleagues at work, squabbling kids in the backseat and the residual trauma of being raised by unhappy parents, why wouldn't you go for it? Toyota's 4Runner is a nice midsize SUV, and in Limited trim, it looks better inside than any Explorer. But even then at best, it's still merely like a really good soft drink at the peak of freshness. Meanwhile, the Lexus version, the GX 470, is the evening relaxer, scotch and soda on the rocks a placid vehicle sure to make you placid.
As we noted in our First Drive, the GX also provides most of the size, capability and refinement of the coveted LX 470 flagship at a starting MSRP of more than $18 grand less and over $8 grand less than the LX 470's less exclusive twin, the Toyota Land Cruiser. Obviously, $45,500 isn't a casual sum for most people, but unlike the company's entry-level sport-ute, the RX 300/330, the GX really doesn't need options to give it an ultimate luxury feel. Leather hides, rich bird's eye maple inlays and airbags for the entire family all come standard.
However, as is often the case, we were supplied with a fully optioned test vehicle. This GX included a $2,700 Mark Levinson sound and navigation package; a DVD-based rear entertainment system with a flip-down screen affixed to the headliner; a third-row seat; and a rear air conditioner to appease the additional rear passengers. Our Dorado Gold Pearl tester also came with a year-long subscription to Lexus Link, a telematics system similar to GM's OnStar that uses GPS technology to provide emergency services and if you're willing to pay extra, driving directions and concierge support. With all these options, the total MSRP amounted to nearly $54,000, dissolving the price difference between the GX and the Land Cruiser. If you're looking for value in a luxury sport-ute purchase, you'll need to pass on a couple of these extras.
Plant a foot on either of the GX's sturdy running boards (which are illuminated at night, by the way), take hold of one of the equally sturdy grab handles and sink into a captain's chair as soft as a much-slept-upon bed. Glance about the cabin as you're buckling up, and you're provided with immediate confirmation of your purchase of a luxury vehicle bright, clear electroluminescent gauges; supple leather with elegant stitch work; generous wood inlays; and high-quality vinyl and plastic on most other surfaces. (Our test vehicle was preproduction, however, and did include some lower-grade plastic uncharacteristic of the Lexus brand. This should be corrected in full-production vehicles that arrive at dealerships.) Overall, it's a handsome ensemble that has benefited from attention to the details the front chairs offer individual armrests that ratchet to the proper height, and the wood grip on the gear selector feels just right during the few seconds it spends in your hand.
Soft as they are, the front chairs could stand to offer more in the way of firm support for longer drives. Moreover, the seat bottoms are a bit short, such that longer-legged occupants may not get optimal thigh support. These are also characteristics we've noted about the LX 470. While a telescoping steering wheel and 10-way power seat are provided for the driver, the front passenger seat has only a four-way range an arrangement that may lead to terse exchanges when the latter occupant is not able to raise his chair to the same lofty heights. Additionally, we were puzzled by the lack of articulation for the head restraints. Sunroof lovers are sure to like these seats, though, as the GX's sunroof spans the width of the front seating area.
Forward visibility from the cockpit is excellent, and large, well-shaped side mirrors ensure that freeway lane changes can be made with ease. The rearward view isn't as good; while the side mirrors do tilt down in reverse gear, the GX 470's high stance leaves plenty of guesswork regarding objects directly behind the vehicle. Add a couple of third-row passengers and parking-lot visibility is pretty much wiped out. This is a common issue among midsize and large SUVs, and many automakers have addressed it by offering audible rear parking sensors or, in some cases, a tailgate-mounted camera that projects its images onto a navigation system screen. The GX 470 offers neither, and there are no plans to change that, according to Lexus. Parking sensors can be purchased on the aftermarket, but at this price, they should be part of the original deal. Interestingly, the smaller, less expensive 2004 RX 330 will offer an optional camera setup.
Also of note are the GX 470's headlights: They throw enough light onto the road, but they're not HIDs, the current standard for lighting in this price range and a feature already offered on the RX 300.
As our test vehicle was equipped with the navigation system, a number of the climate and audio functions are linked with the touchscreen display. While we would prefer separate controls (as they reduce the time spent peering at the screen rather than the road ahead), we didn't find anything particularly difficult about this arrangement. Moreover, the DVD-based nav system proved unusually astute and easier to use than most. An editor searching for an alternate route between Camarillo and Santa Clarita, Calif., was surprised to find the system directing her on an unfamiliar series of back roads through orange groves the total route cut about 15 miles off her usual interstate drive. As is the case in most other Lexus vehicles, the Mark Levinson sound system is a class leader in the audio category; check out our stereo evaluation.
Balancing the potential complexity of touchscreen use are secondary controls that require very little of the driver's attention. All of the windows offer one-touch operation (up or down) from any of the doors. And mounted on the steering column, you'll find a conventional three-stalk arrangement for the lights, wipers and cruise control.
Anyone who climbs into the vehicle's second row will find ample shoulder, hip- and legroom, as well as a decent amount of back support. Unfortunately, lack of thigh support is even more of an issue back here for adult-size passengers, as a short seat bottom and limited toe room under the front chairs mandate a splayed-leg seating position for anyone close to six feet in height. Among the backseat's positive attributes are height-adjustable seatbelts for the outboard positions. Additionally, the fold-down center armrest and padded door panel cut-outs reside on the same plane guaranteeing proper elbow support. Auxiliary climate controls for the optional rear air conditioner are on the back of the center console, and this is also where the DVDs for the rear entertainment system are loaded.
Accessing our test vehicle's third-row seat was generally an easy proposition. Either section of the 60/40 second-row bench can fold, slide forward and flip up, allowing the rearmost passengers to step into the vehicle. As it happened, the "60" partition was stuck and would not slide and fold, so we were only able to load from the passenger side of the GX. Unfortunately, those editors who did make it into the very back were disappointed with the accommodations.
The biggest problem is legroom there's almost none of it and the small seat is mounted only a few inches above the floor. There are seatbelts for three, but when we stuffed two average-size editors back here for a 20-minute round-trip for lunch, they complained the whole time. If you're not familiar with the current third-row seat wars, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. So a couple of adults don't fit well in a seat designed for children? Big deal. However, midsize sport-utes like the Ford Explorer (or Lincoln Aviator) and Volvo XC90 have proven that it is possible to design a third-row seat that can be used comfortably by older children and adults for short periods. A quick fix for the GX would be to equip the second-row seats with multiple fore and aft adjustment points (a thoughtful feature provided in the five-passenger RX 300/330), so that owners could divide up the available legroom when necessary.
As it is, the GX 470's seat is for children only, and small ones at that. Lexus has only provided child-seat anchors in the second row, though, so you'll have to rely on the seatbelts to secure preschoolers' booster seats in the third row. If your family requires seating for six or seven on a regular basis and your kids are already well into elementary school, you'll definitely want to bring everyone along to the dealership to confirm that this will be a livable situation.
There's not a huge amount of storage space inside the cabin, but the average-size door bins, attractive center console and handsome rear map pockets should be adequate for most owners. Same goes for the cupholders, which aren't overwhelming in size or number (four in the front, two in each of the rear rows), but are generally within reach.
Although not gargantuan by SUV standards, this Lexus certainly offers enough cargo capacity to haul a week's worth of groceries and the occasional article of furniture. Its single-piece rear swing gate should appeal to those of shorter stature who have difficulty closing overhead liftgates, though the gate could prove cumbersome for curbside loading (the rear glass does not power down as on the 4Runner).
If you do opt for the third row, you'll note that the 50/50 partitions can be folded and secured vertically along the sideboards (as in the Land Cruiser and LX 470). Alternatively, you can simply remove them they weigh less than minivan seats and have carrying handles. Obviously, it would be easier if the seats simply folded into the floor as in the Acura MDX, but the solid rear axle and generous ground clearance dictated by the GX's taste for off-roading don't allow for that. Stripped of its third-row seats, the sport-ute offers 49.7 cubic feet of capacity, and with the second-row seats folded, it has 77.5 cubes slightly less than Lincoln's Aviator. For long family trips, you can also make use of the standard roof rack, which includes two adjustable crossbars.
Once you've got everyone and their belongings assembled for an adventure, you can twist the key in the ignition to awaken the GX 470's 4.7-liter V8. The sole V8 of Toyota's truck lineup, this engine provides the midsize GX with sufficient if not earthshaking vigor. It's rated at 235 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 320 pound-feet at 3,400 rpm. This isn't an impressive horsepower figure for this price bracket, compared with the Aviator's 302-hp V8 or even the MDX's 260-hp V6, and the GX offers no high-rpm rush. The Lexus reached 60 mph in eight seconds flat during our instrumented testing not a bad time for a 4,700-pound vehicle, but we expect the Aviator and 260-hp MDX to surpass it (we timed the 240-hp '02 MDX at 7.9 seconds).
Still, the GX's V8 offers unmatched refinement and above-average fuel economy for a truck-based SUV (15 mpg city/18 mpg highway). And it has enough low-end thrust for a fair amount of towing. A dealer-installed hitch receiver (mounted below the bumper) available in early 2003 will improve its tow rating to 6,500 pounds; with the factory hitch, the Lexus is only rated for 5,000 pounds. Of course, there are a number of domestic competitors that easily outdo the GX in this regard (for starters, the Aviator with its 7,100-pound maximum), yet this is but one consideration among many for a luxury SUV purchase.
The five-speed automatic transmission is perfectly matched to the engine's demeanor; and during our testing, it shifted smoothly regardless of throttle input with just a tad of hesitation on downshifts. Its software is more sophisticated than that of most trannies, and as such, it holds the appropriate gear when the GX is traveling uphill and subtly activates engine braking on descents.
A full-time four-wheel-drive system is standard on every GX 470 and, in keeping with the vehicle's off-road orientation, it offers both high- and low-range gearing. If you're like most SUV owners, you'll be driving this one in temperate conditions and won't need to touch anything on the dash. Left to its own devices, the center differential splits power 40/60 between the front and rear wheels and adjusts the distribution accordingly to compensate for changes in steering input (when going around curves, for example) and wheel slip. In more extreme conditions like icy roads or off-road trails, drivers can opt to lock the center differential (fixing the front/rear power split at 50/50) and/or switch to the low-range gearing.
An Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) supplements the vehicle's double wishbone front/solid axle rear suspension setup. In any of four driver-selectable modes ranging from Comfort to Sport, AVS automatically adjusts the damping of the shock absorbers in response to road conditions, driving style and vehicle load. So what does this amount to on public roads? Well, the emphasis is always on providing a plush, Lexus-smooth ride. However, we found that it was preferable to veer toward maximum "Comfort" when driving with a full load of passengers and toward "Sport" for better control of body lean when driving with a measure of gusto on two-lane roads. For daily commutes, we usually picked out one of the in-between settings.
In keeping with traditional Lexus dynamics, the steering is light yet progressive the wheel firms up just enough at higher speeds for confident highway travel. Braking is provided by a large four-wheel disc setup (13.3-inch rotors in front, 12.3 in the rear) supplemented by ABS, BrakeAssist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Stopping action is refined and confident for a vehicle of 4,700 pounds; our test GX posted a braking distance of 130 feet from 60 mph. Seventeen-inch wheels and 265/65R17 tires (Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts, in this case) are standard. Also included is stability control (VSC), which applies corrective measures using the brakes and throttle should the car's path conflict with the driver's steering input. Lexus has not provided a defeat button for VSC in the GX 470, a fact that will be of little concern for most drivers. If you tend to drive aggressively, though, be forewarned.
Overall, the GX is a docile, easy-to-handle vehicle on pavement: If it were our choice, we might go with a 4Runner equipped with Toyota's X-REAS shock absorbers for its tighter handling around corners, but if comfort is your thing, you'll want the Lexus.
If you venture off-road, as we did, you'll also become acquainted with several other bits of technology a four-wheel traction control system (A-TRAC) that brakes individual wheels to combat slippage, thereby allowing side-to-side transfers of engine torque; a downhill assist system (DAC), which uses the brakes and electronic throttle control to help drivers maintain a slow, controlled pace down particularly fearsome hillsides; and Hill-start Assist Control (HAC), which prevents the GX 470 from sliding backward in the tenuous interim period between letting off the brakes and applying the throttle on steep ascents. Beyond that, an adjustable rear air suspension provides 1.6 inches of extra clearance in the "high" setting, as well as a better departure angle. (There is a "normal" mode for regular driving, while a "low" setting allows the GX to kneel 1.2 inches for easier cargo loading.)
Our off-roading trip allowed us to make use of all these systems, as we gave the GX 470 the task of descending a steep, rutted, rocky slope and then climbing back to the top. It all worked perfectly, which allowed a novice off-roader to concentrate on finding the best path for the tires amidst all the ruts and rocks. And although the sport-ute's 8.3 inches of ground clearance aren't a lot for a truck-based vehicle, generous suspension travel prevented it from bottoming out. However, the more expert off-roaders on our staff have found the GX's undefeatable traction and stability control systems to be a source of irritation as their constant battle against wheel slippage prohibits sliding through turns. So to the handful of readers planning to hit the trails every weekend, keep that in mind.
What's left to discuss? Safety features to protect you and your loved ones? Well, the Lexus has you mostly covered there. Along with the federally mandated stuff, you get side-impact airbags for front occupants and side curtain airbags for the first and second rows. The third-row seat is of course optional, and side curtain bags that span all three rows are hard to come by the Volvo XC90 is the only SUV we know of that has full-length coverage. The GX 470 has not yet been crash tested.
It was hard for us to find fault with the GX. Among luxury midsize SUVs, this newcomer's strengths are many while its shortcomings are few. Certainly, it will cost you plenty to buy and, like all truck-based SUVs, it will cost you plenty at the gas station money that might be difficult to justify if you don't need all of its capability. But for those of you who have spent the last couple years scouring the classifieds for used LX 470s and Land Cruisers with low miles, here's your vehicle.
System Score: 9.0
Components: For the past few years, we've been raving about the Mark Levinson sound systems found in the Lexus family of vehicles. And we're not the only ones. These sound systems are generally regarded, throughout the automotive press, as the finest OEM stereos found on the market today, even besting the Bose systems found in Mercedes and other high-end vehicles. In short, if you prize in-car entertainment, you won't find a better value than a Lexus/Mark Levinson setup.
That being said, we had the recent opportunity to evaluate a new vehicle in the Lexus lineup the 2003 Lexus GX 470. (We should explain at the outset that the vehicle we road tested was a preproduction model, and that the stereo we evaluated had a few glitches. But more on that below.)
The speaker array in the GX 470 is most impressive. It begins with a three-way configuration of drivers in the front doors, which includes a 6-by-9 full-range driver at the bottom, a 3.5-inch midrange in the middle and a one-inch titanium dome tweeter up top. In addition to this, the top of the dashboard boasts a 3.5-inch driver which operates in the midtweet frequency range. (This driver fires upward into windshield glass, reflecting outward into the cabin and is responsible for much of the system's impressive stereo imaging.) Other drivers include a pair of 6.5-inch coax speakers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 3.5-inch midtweets in the rear gate. Lastly, the system offers a 6.5-inch subwoofer mounted in a 7-liter enclosure in the passenger-side rear-quarter panel.
Electronics are equally impressive, with most of the functions operated through an easy-to-use touchscreen display. This is augmented by steering wheel controls that manage volume, seek-scan and mode. The system also boasts a cassette player and a six-disc CD changer in the glovebox (vehicles without the Navigation System/Mark Levinson Audio Package have an in-dash changer). Finally, the entire system is powered by a bounteous amplifier that measures out at 240 watts of RMS power, all channels driven. In other words, folks, Mark Levinson rates its power very conservatively, using the standard for home equipment, not the bogus peak-power rating often used by other automakers.
Performance: So, how does it sound? We weren't disappointed. In fact, we've yet to be disappointed with any of the Lexus/Mark Levinson systems they're that good. Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered that the subwoofer in this system, due to the preproduction status of the vehicle, was inoperable and yet the vehicle still got a nine out of 10 in our listening test. We can't wait to hear the system at full force. Highs were silky smooth, mids detailed and intricate and lows, even with the absence of the subwoofer, filled the cabin with neck-snapping bass. All in all, it doesn't get much better than this.
Best Feature: Superb soundstage and stereo imaging.
Worst Feature: CD changer in glovebox instead of in-dash: a bit of a reach.
Conclusion: This system has it all great sound, ease of use and attractiveness. The touchscreen display takes a little getting used to, but after a while it's a snap. If you're looking for an SUV with a great sound system, the only one that rivals this vehicle is the Range Rover. Scott Memmer
System Score: 9.0
Components: The system is composed of a DVD player with a wireless remote, an LCD display and two pairs of wireless headphones.
Performance: There isn't much to say about this video system, other than it is excellent. The DVD image is crisp and vibrant, and everything works flawlessly. The wireless remote for the DVD player has about as many functions on it as a home machine. Audio can be routed through the optional Mark Levinson sound system, or the headphones.
Best Feature: Flawless operation.
Worst Feature: N/A
Conclusion: The video system matches the excellence found throughout the cabin. Scott Memmer
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Several years ago I drove a Toyota Land Cruiser for the first time and immediately crowned it the king of all SUVs. It was the first SUV I'd ever driven that could completely coddle me (and my family) during long freeway jaunts while also climbing over rocks with near Jeep Wrangler confidence. The year was 1998, and since then the SUV market has become bloated with vehicles that easily combine on-road comfort with off-road capability. And if you're willing to pay, you can get something like a 2003 Range Rover or Hummer H2 that will meet or beat Toyota's Land Cruiser (and Lexus' LX 470) in the areas of luxury and dirt slinging.
The GX 470 is a perfect example of this latest breed of SUV. It's built on a truck platform, but it rides and handles like a luxury sedan. It's also loaded with enough off-road technology (variable ride height, Hill Descent and Hill-start Assist Control, a two-speed transfer case) that even serious wilderness runs won't leave the GX spinning its tires or cracking a differential. The SUV's only weakness is the same one that plagued the Toyota Land Cruiser back in 1998: power. The GX needs more of it, especially when you consider the weight of all that luxury and technology. I'd also like to see more subdued lower cladding, and I was troubled by the way our test car kept raising its hindquarters after a full load of passengers exited the vehicle (likely a preproduction vehicle glitch).
Still, this is one coddling-yet-capable SUV, and it costs less than the LX 470 (or the Range Rover or the H2) while offering comparable interior volume. Do we have a new king?
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I try to stay away from making comments about styling given its subjective nature, but the oddly proportioned rear end of the GX just makes me cringe. Although Lexus has never been known for its dynamic design flair, it has at least stuck to shapes that were inoffensive and rarely off-putting. You could play racquetball on the GX's horrendously vertical rump. It's not a "deal breaker," so to speak, but it's hard to look at without some measure of revulsion.
The fact that the billboard backside is the only aspect of the GX 470 I found fault with is testament to its overall excellence otherwise. The engine is silky smooth with plenty of power, the adjustable suspension delivers noticeable differences in ride quality and the interior looks like it belongs in a $45,000 luxury sport-ute. I was able to load a nearly 4-by-6-foot framed picture in back without much trouble, and it can seat seven in reasonable comfort. Would I buy it? No. Would I recommend it to anybody who found little fault with its looks? Absolutely.
"Just picked up a GX to replace my wife's LX, which she found slightly too big and too high (to get into easily), but in all other respects she loved it and she loves the GX, too. I think it is less of a vehicle than the LX in more than just size. Can't stand the rear door on the GX, nor the CD player in the glove compartment (and no single CD player on the dash, due to the Navigation system, which I think is a waste of money and space). But, it rides great like all Lexus products, and it is nicely appointed (we have had five since I bought the first LS 400 in our area in 1989)." dschmidt4, "Lexus GX 470" (Town Hall), #302, Jan. 8, 2003
"As info for potential GX owners, we have about 500 miles on ours so far and are averaging about 17 mpg combined. Since the engine is not fully broken in we are pretty happy with this number. Also, we find the ride quiet and comfortable. It's not the same as an LS but for being a true truck-based SUV instead of a car-based SUV, it's pretty remarkable. We have owned trucks and we drove some of the other truck-based SUVs and didn't find any that could hold a candle to the comfort and smoothness of this one. (Talk about getting your cake and eating it too!) I'm finding it really hard to believe that with these mud/snow tires that the road noise level is so muffled and the ride can be this good. Only Lexus can do that!" sleepless2, "Lexus GX 470" (Town Hall), #277, Dec. 30, 2002
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