Driving a Lexus LX 470 around West L.A. is a lot like wearing a Band-Aid across your nose on Rodeo Drive. By all reasonable accounts, you shouldn't fit in, yet you do.
Now into its second year of production, the frequency of LX 470 sightings made it difficult for us to feel special, despite our test unit's near $60,000 price tag. Thankfully, the LX offers far more than snob appeal to its driver and seven potential passengers. Sitting in the front seat, looking out over a sea of cars (and into the windows of other SUVs) it becomes obvious why so many well-to-doers buy the Lexus. From the suppleness of its leather to the harmony of its Nakamichi sound system to the authority of its door "thunk," the LX 470 exudes the kind of sovereign splendor normally reserved for European royalty (or Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman).
That's good, because its $56,700 base price is a princely sum indeed, even in the luxury-SUV class. For this amount you don't get a trip computer, navigation system or even a compass. You do, however, get the most solidly built and capable off-road device this side of a Hummer. Actually, through the narrow pathways and tight confines that make up the majority of off-road locales, the LX is more functional than a Hummer.
Lexus outfitted its king-sized SUV with a 4.7-liter V8 last year to replace its aging LX450 model. This new engine makes 230 horsepower and 320 foot-pounds of torque, with 80 percent of that pulling power available at a highly useable 1,100 rpm. This V8 will haul the Lexus up to 60 mph in just over 10 seconds while averaging approximately 15 mpg and qualifying it a low-emission vehicle with the California Air Resources board.
After spending several hundred miles with the LX, many of which included steep passes in the Central California Mountains, we can report that the engine offers freight train-like acceleration. A brief stoplight encounter with a Ford Windstar in West L.A. confirmed this when the portly minivan, which proved quite torquey itself in our recent minivan comparison, managed to edge out the Lexus by a thin margin. This 4.7-liter V8 is also one of the smoothest engines (of any size or configuration) we've ever experienced, maintaining its stately composure from idle to redline. Though neck-snapping acceleration is not within the Lexus' repertoire, its rated towing capacity of 6500 pounds is further proof that it can haul the family jewels.
Rather than berating the fact that this is yet another SUV destined to climb more curbs than cliffs, we'll simply state that in terms of off-road ability, the Lexus' suspension rules. It's basically the same system used on the less-expensive Toyota Land Cruiser, with a few notable exceptions. Both vehicles share the same torsion bar-based independent front suspension and four-link, coil-spring rear suspension. Stabilizer bars at each end reduce body roll for improved confidence both on and off the road.
Where the Lexus leapfrogs its Toyota sibling is in the area of high-tech goodies, like Adjustable Height Control (AHC) and Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS). When the AHC button is set to "high" the Lexus raises for increased ground clearance during low-speed, off-road maneuvers. The "normal" mode is used for regular on-road driving and is the default mode for the suspension whenever vehicle speed exceeds 18.6 mph. The "low" mode can be used for easier entry and egress when the vehicle is stopped. An indicator on the dash tells the driver which setting the Lexus is using at any given time.
AVS adds further to the LX 470's pedigree by giving the SUV an active suspension that can react to changing road conditions in as little as 2.5 milliseconds. By controlling the shock valving at each wheel individually, AVS selects from a range of 64 settings depending on input from the road surface, steering-wheel activity, braking and acceleration. This gives the Lexus an amazingly stable feel on everything from freeway exit ramps to dry riverbeds. As with AHC, a center console switch for AVS allows the driver to select a range of settings that suit his personal preferences.
It's important to note that the combination of carlike on-road driving and billy-goat, off-road climbing is what truly separates the Lexus LX 470 (and the Toyota Land Cruiser) from other high-end SUVs. Sure, every manufacturer wants to pay lip service to the idea of an easy-to-drive full-sized SUV, but the Lexus delivers on that claim, rather than using 10-year-old truck technology with some extra seats and a fancy grille emblem. The window sticker may be daunting, but you really do get what you pay for in terms of overall driveability.
You also get what you pay for in terms of interior design, materials and functionality. Starting with the ultra-cool electro-luminescent gauges and ending with the walnut wood trim that looks as if it were pilfered from an ancient British castle, the LX 470 offers the most majestic passenger compartment this side of a Jaguar sedan. All the standard luxuries, like heated seats with memory, auto-dimming day/night mirror, a dust and pollen filter, one-touch power windows, automatic tilt-away steering column (for easier entry/egress), and separate rear-passenger climate controls, are standard on the Lexus. Some unexpected surprises included a well-stocked first-aid kit, nine cupholders, a lowered headrest in the center of the second row for increased rear visibility, and three accessory power outlets.
The luxury aspects of this interior are exceeded only by the pure, unbridled functionality it offers with its multitude of seating arrangements. A third-row seat is standard in the LX 470, but it can be folded up easily for those who have more cargo than people to haul. If cargo space is still an issue, the second seat bottom flips up and the seat back folds flat, transforming the Lexus into a truck with a roof. It's difficult to imagine anyone hauling lumber in their $60,000 SUV, but just like its off-road ability, the LX 470 is ready and waiting to serve all your utility needs instead of just sitting in the driveway impressing the neighbors.
If aristocratic toting is what you have in mind for your SUV, then the Lexus can handle that, too. At highway speeds the cabin is, well, Lexus-like docile with only the slightest hint of wind noise. For a full-sized SUV with all the aerodynamic subtlety of a brick wall, that's impressive. The Michelin LTX P275/70 R16 tires remain quiet over a wide range of street surfaces, and switching the AVS dial into the full "comfort" mode dampens out all but the most extreme road irregularities. Second-row legroom is adequate without being tremendous; third-row seating is best left to young or highly limber people.
As expected, the Nakamichi sound system in our test model gave us an unprecedented audio experience with deep bass, clean highs and spot-on separation. The optional six-disc in-dash CD player/cassette combo means high-end music or AM/PM-purchased books on tape can be listened to during road trips. Big dials and buttons make for easy adjustments, but the "CD ready" indicator light (that tells you when you can load another CD) is too small and almost invisible from the driver's perspective.
Our list of complaints (actually, they barely rise to the level of nitpicks) is short. We wish the sun visors were taller to cover more of that big windshield when folded down. As mentioned before, we think a GPS system should be standard on any luxury vehicle costing more than 50 grand. And the lack of even a compass is a bit annoying (especially on an SUV that can actually go far off the beaten path and potentially get lost). On our test unit, both rear windows squeaked occasionally when going up and down, and a slight, but constant, high-pitched vibration could be felt if we left our hand on the shifter when driving.
The extra toys that come standard on the LX 470 make it appealing when compared to a Land Cruiser. However, for our money, we'd probably save the $10,000 and go with the Toyota. With the exception of active handling, it still offers everything we love about the Lexus for about the same price as those other premium sport-utility vehicles. You may not be able to wow the neighbors with adjustable suspension, but if they give you a hard time about buying a Toyota for the price of a comparable Cadillac or Lincoln, tell them you'll meet them on the Rubicon Trail. Or just offer them a ride in the Land Cruiser. Either way, it will be obvious that when it comes to the SUV that genuinely does it all, Toyota wins and the Lexus LX 470 rules. All hail the king!