Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Allow me, if you will, to perform my best impersonation of Miss Cleo and peer into the future. There you are, comfortably relaxed in front of the computer. Things are going well. Things are calm. Sparky, your golden retriever, sleeps softly at your feet. The house is quiet and a light snow falls from dulled skies. And so, as you lazily click about the Internet and sip green tea, you mold and knead the following question in your brain: On which luxury SUV should I spend my $50,000?
Now, this is not a question that very many people get to ask themselves. Well, maybe they can ask, but not many have a bank account to answer with. Fortunately for you, I am here to aid in your automotive quest. And unlike a psychic friend, I come free.
Foremost, there is not a bad decision to make here. The Acura MDX, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Land Rover Discovery, Lincoln Aviator, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg these are all fine vehicles. However, certain SUVs do things better than others, which therefore brings us to the GX 470.
The GX 470, all new for 2003, is the third Lexus SUV, and it plays shortstop between the entry-level RX 300 and premium LX 470. As with most Lexus products, the GX shares its platform with a Toyota product. In this case, the cousin happens to be the redesigned 2003 Toyota 4Runner.
That Lexus chose the 4Runner to base its GX on is your first clue about this vehicle's intended mission. This is a traditional body-on-frame truck design, not unibody like the X5, Cayenne or Touareg. By using a body-on-frame design, Lexus hopes to emphasize rugged durability and "sweeping" off-road performance. And though the GX does not lack in size or heft, you could certainly get away with calling it a "baby LX 470."
In terms of size, the GX and LX aren't far apart, with slight advantages going toward the LX for length and height (it's about 4 inches longer and 2.5 inches wider). But even though the GX is dimensionally smaller on the outside, in most cases, it offers more interior room. It has more headroom for front- and second-row passengers, as well as considerably more legroom in the second row. Being wider and longer overall, the LX counters with more third-row legroom and more shoulder room for all passengers.
The LX also boasts a standard third-row seat, whereas the GX has an optional third row (on the 4Runner, a third row isn't even offered). The third row is split 50/50 and each piece can have its seat back lowered flat. From this position, owners can also lift up the pieces and tether them to the sides of the truck, or they can remove them completely. As there are only 24.9 inches of legroom in the third row, owners will likely want to reserve this space for children only.
With the optional third-row seat in use, there's 13.2 cubic feet of luggage space available. Yank it out and there will be 49.7 cubic feet of space. For comparison, the MDX has 49.6 cubic feet behind the second row, while the anorexic X5 is full at just 23.8 cubic feet. Two or three adults will be fine in the 60/40-split second row, which has seat backs that can be reclined for added comfort.
The second row can also be tumbled forward to maximize cargo space. So done, the GX will hold 77.5 cubic feet, which is a respectable, though not stellar, number for a midsize SUV. On the downside, the tailgate opens toward the curb, reducing the ease of loading when parked on the street. The tailgate's glass is also fixed, meaning that owners will always have to open the tailgate in order add or remove cargo.
Up front, it's all Lexus. Standard features include leather seating, genuine bird's eye maple wood trim, power heated front seats, automatic climate control, a moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, one-touch up-down side windows and a power tilt and telescope steering wheel with integrated audio and cruise control buttons. The standard audio system has an in-dash six-disc CD changer and 11 speakers.
If you want to hear the intricate details of U2's "Bloody Sunday," you can upgrade to the 240-watt, 14-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio system. As with other Lexus vehicles, this system is specially tailored to suit the GX's audio characteristics. Our in-house audio expert ranked the Mark Levinson system in the LS 430 as the best audio system for 2002; this one should also be quite impressive.
Other optional items of note are a DVD-based navigation system (it comes bundled with the Mark Levinson audio), a DVD entertainment system for rear passengers and Lexus Link, an emergency and convenience communications system. If you order the navigation system, the audio system's CD changer is relocated to the glovebox.
Everything is standard when it comes to safety equipment. Each GX 470 comes with antilock disc brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) and BrakeAssist. EBD optimizes brake pressure at the wheels, especially during cornering, while BrakeAssist helps boost braking power in panic stops. Also included is a stability control system (Lexus' VSC) that helps to prevent dangerous skids or spins. Should there be an incident, the GX counters with multistage front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and head-protecting side curtain airbags for first- and second-row passengers. Rounding things out is a front passenger occupancy sensor, three-point ALR/ELR belts and pre-tensioners and load limiters for the front seatbelts.
All of that is very good, but you'll never need any of it if you just let the thing sit on your driveway. For power, the GX relies on the same 4.7-liter V8 that's in the LX. Armed with dual overhead cams and 32 valves, it's very smooth in operation and makes 235 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 320 pound-feet of torque at 3,400 rpm. The GX probably suffers from horsepower envy: The Aviator puts out 302 hp and the 3.5-liter V6 in the MDX has 260 hp. At least its torque output is healthy, and during our brief introductory drive, the GX never felt slow. In most situations, we suspect that owners will be satisfied with this midsize SUV's acceleration. If you want to tow, the GX 470 can lug up to 5,000 pounds.
The V8's power is routed through a new five-speed automatic transmission. This transmission is also shared with the LX 470, and it has special programming to reduce "hunting" when driving up or down hills. From the transmission, power is applied to all four wheels on a continual basis through a redesigned transfer case. The transfer case has a Torsen limited-slip center differential that can alter the bias of the available engine power between three different settings depending on which wheels have the most traction. In either four-wheel high or four-wheel low, the driver can lock the center differential by pressing a button on the dash. Doing so maximizes traction in difficult terrain. Working along with the center diff is A-TRAC, Toyota's traction control system that applies braking to a slipping wheel to actively divert torque to the opposite wheel on the same axle.
Also included as standard is the addition of a Downhill Assist Control (DAC) system and a Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) system. The DAC system integrates the brakes, electronic throttle control and active wheel speed sensors to maintain a slow and steady descent on tricky downhill sections. The HAC system uses control of the brakes to keep the vehicle from sliding backward on an ascent between the time you let off the brakes and apply the throttle.
By now you should be getting the idea that the GX 470 is rigged for hard-core duty. The front independent suspension is composed of double wishbones and coilover shocks. The rear suspension is a four-link type incorporating a solid axle with a Panhard rod. Also in the rear, the traditional coil springs have been replaced with air-filled reinforced rubber springs. Lexus says the rear air suspension provides better ride quality, as well as helps to maintain a proper ride height when towing heavy loads. Via a button on the dash, the air suspension also allows drivers to raise the rear of the GX 470 up to 1.6 inches for a better departure angle and lower it 1.2 inches for easier trailer hookup.
To round out the suspension, the GX is fitted with an Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) feature. Also found on the LX 470 and ES 300, AVS is meant to improve the vehicle's handling dynamics and ride quality. Four modes, ranging from Comfort to Sport, can be set by the driver. In each mode, the system automatically adjusts the damping force of the shocks according to road conditions, driving style and vehicle load to maintain the desired ride quality and handling.
During our drive, we found the GX to be a competent handling vehicle. Setting the AVS to its different modes makes noticeable differences in the way the SUV responds to driver inputs and rough surfaces. And while Lexus didn't provide very challenging terrain to stress test all of the GX's wheelin' hardware, we expect that it will overcome just about anything the expected buyer could dish out. Not surprisingly, this is a quality that has always impressed us about the LX 470.
Which brings us back to the question: What should you buy? Er, well, the crystal ball is a bit murky, I'm afraid. Compared to the LX, the GX is the better deal. It costs less, yet it offers virtually the same hardware. Against the MDX, X5, Aviator or Touareg, it's too close to call. I'll say this, though: if you think you'll be hitting the trails in your midsize luxury SUV, the GX will fit quite nicely into your future.
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