First Drive: 2010 Lexus GX 460

November 23, 2009
2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

Stepping into the brand-new 2010 Lexus GX 460 for the first time, it's hard not to feel a bit nostalgic.

Why? Among mid-size utes, the Lexus GX 460 is the last one standing; it's the only vehicle this size that sticks with the body-on-frame construction long preferred those who do heavy towing, and by some off-roaders.

Luxurious mid-size sport-utility vehicles like it used to be much more common, even trendy. Going back through the past decade, there were vehicles like the Infiniti QX4, Acura SLX, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lincoln Aviator, and GMC Envoy Denali. Nearly all of them offered dressed-up, reasonably roomy interiors, along with some measure of off-road prowess and towing ability, qualities that in truth were seldom used by buyers. In recent years, automakers (and shoppers) have come to recognize that, instead favoring modern car-based crossover vehicles and focusing on larger truck-based luxury utes like the Infiniti QX56, Cadillac Escalade, or Lincoln Navigator.

Slotting below the Land Cruiser-based LX 570 in the Lexus lineup, the 2010 Lexus GX 460 is all-new this year, itself based on the Toyota 4Runner. While the 4Runner offers four-cylinder and V-6 engines, the GX offers a V-8, power-folding third-row seats, plus a host of luxury and technology options and much-improved refinement—while allowing impressive off-road and towing ability. The GX reemerges more polished and refined than ever and doesn't give away any secrets about its construction in the way it drives, which we'll get to shortly, and while you might guess that it's a truck-based ute by the way it looks, Lexus hasn't skimped one bit on the styling, design details, or materials.

Styling: L-Finesse On steroids

Throughout the GX, designers have blended the gentle, organic, and aerodynamic styling of the Lexus L-Finesse designs of recent years with a "machined steel bar" theme, giving it a more sculpted, solid look that separates it from the cars and crossovers. In back especially the design is clean and uncluttered, thanks to the narrow vertical taillamps and a new wiper design that's hidden under the roof spoiler. Alongside, the GX looks the most 'trucky,' with carved-out fenders and the very tall, imposing beltline. Lexus likes to think of the interior as "tough premium," with the GX combining the expected chunky trim and bulkier door handles with soft, luxurious materials.

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

Performance: Buff, brawny, and unexpectedly composed

A new 301-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 replaces the 4.7-liter used through 2009 in the GX 470—thus the nomenclature change to 460—and the GX now gets six speeds for its automatic transmission, up from five. With this big, torquey V-8 engine and pleasant throttle calibration—plus surprisingly good on-the-road handling composure—the GX 460 is easy to drive smoothly yet moves quite quickly when you need it to. The new powertrain is up to Lexus standards of smoothness and refinement, although they've tuned it so that you hear engine a fair amount inside when accelerating. Lexus says it can get to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, and the transmission kicks down quickly—even a couple of gears if needed—quickly, without jolts. Fuel economy ratings are significantly improved, at 15 mpg city, 20 highway, up from 14/18 before, and TheCarConnection.com confirmed an average of nearly 19 mpg in mostly highway driving, including a brief foray onto a horse-ranch two-track.

The GX's rather low running boards are a strong hint that this ute isn't fit for the most serious rock crawling, but it's definitely more than another off-road poseur. The full-time four-wheel drive system includes a Torsen center differential and distributes power 60 percent to the rear wheels in normal driving, with more sent to the rear wheels during acceleration. There's also a low range, plus a center diff lock that might be of use for sand, mud, or snow, while a host of electronic controls help you maintain control and moderate speed while getting off-roading. Among the most noteworthy is the available Crawl Control, which micromanages momentum over the toughest terrain at crawl speeds between 1.0 and 3.7 mph, selectable in five increments.

All the more impressive is the standard Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which hydraulically links the front and rear stabilizer bars. It has two quite different affects: Off-road it allows wheel articulation while helping press down on the opposing wheel to maintain contact, while on-road it aids ride quality and minimizes body roll. However, on curvy roads, KDSS has a knack of leading you to believe you have more grip left than you actually do. It's a rather odd feeling, especially on corners that aren't properly banked, to find the tires suddenly becoming vocal when you haven't yet felt a bit of body roll. That said, the portly, 5,305-pound GX feels surprisingly comfortable on a twisty road at a moderate pace, and the KDSS suspension system reduces some of the head-toss you get on the road with other SUVs. The steering is fairly good for a vehicle like this, with no road feel, overboosted at parking-lot speeds with an artificial weighting off center, but you'll find yourself making plenty of small adjustments in highway crosswinds.

Premium grade models also get an Adaptive Variable Suspension that allows Sport, Normal, and Comfort modes, but in either case ride quality is very good, with none of the highway bounciness we remember from all but the longest off-road-worthy utes in the past. But we found brakes to be one of the least appealing part of the driving experience—they felt spongy and difficult to modulate, with seemingly several inches of travel before engagement of the pads.

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

Interior: Great for passengers, compromised for cargo

With a nice, high perch and great front seats, the 2010 GX again reminds us why so many drivers were won over by SUVs in the past decade. Seating in the GX 460 is superb in front, with good headroom and legroom and a general feeling of spaciousness. The second row of seating in the GX 460 is split and slides fore and aft a foot or more so that third-row occupants can get in and out more easily, and so that second- and third-row passengers can compromise for the best allocation of legroom. The back row is also split, with an all-new design that should be more convenient for occasional third-row users; the sections are electrically operated and can be brought up or down in a half-minute or so by holding down a button just inside the side-opening rear hatch.

The upside of the new third row in the 2010 GX 460, aside from the handy power deployment, is that it's actually doable for adults for short stints—if you're willing to accept a seating position that places your knees up near your chest. But there's also a big downside to the new design: While the third row in the old GX could be removed, it can't be taken out in the new one, and even worse, the arrangement gobbles up six inches or so of cargo floor all the time—and creates a situation where the cargo floor begins -above- the bottom of the tailgate. It's just an odd packaging decision and makes the GX feel more like a vehicle that was retrofitted with the power third-row arrangement on a budget, from an existing vehicle, than an all-new one. And it yields a very high cargo floor, with less usable space than you'd think.

Overall, we're pleased with the look and feel of the interior appointments. The GX has more unique interior pieces than ever before. The controls felt better designed and less cluttered than those in Lexus cars (like the LS, which we had just driven), and we loved the redesigned steering-wheel controls and nice, legible gauge layout and cleanly laid-out center-stack for audio, climate, and nav functions. The only odd thing is the sliding panel that partially covers audio controls.

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

2010 Lexus GX 460

Safety tech, info tech, and lots of dazzle

All the traditional luxury features are standard on the 2010 GX 460, and standard safety features include active front head restraints, rear-seat side airbags three-row side curtain bags, and knee bags for both front-seat occupants. Lexus says that the airbag count of ten—the most in this class. Visibility is rather lousy if you just turn your head back, but a back-up camera is now standard and a wide-view front and side monitor system that helps a lot more is optional, requiring the navigation system. Advanced safety and tech features really are a focus for the options list, with an available Pre-Collision System, which primes the braking system for emergency braking and employs a driver monitor system, packaged together with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Lane Departure Alert. The latter detects lane markings and sounds a buzzer to warn the driver. Safety Connect—a GPS-based roadside assistance system—is included with all GX models, while you can also opt up to a 330-watt Mark Levinson surround sound system, a rear seat entertainment system, and Intuitive Park Assist. Included now with the nav system is the Enform suite of information services.

As appealing as this package is, Lexus agrees that this segment has declined significantly and only hopes to sell a fraction of what they did say five years ago. We couldn't help but wonder if Lexus would have been better off bringing out their own version of Toyota's Highlander, or a companion model of the RX 350 with more rugged cues and slightly more 'buff' capabilities. And it's hard to imagine who really looks at a GX nowadays, so we asked. Apparently the GX skews heavily toward affluent older married men.

There are a lot of reasons left to consider the GX 460, but cargo space or versatility really isn't one of them. If you buy a ute like this with the idea that you'll have plenty of space for weekend antiquing, you're bound to be disappointed. Compared to the Toyota Highlander, which is roughly the same size on the outside and nearly identical in overall length and wheelbase, the GX has less than half the cargo space, whether you look at the figures with the second or third rows down or both up.

We'd highly recommend the 2010 Lexus GX 460 over the 2010 Jeep Commander or Grand Cherokee, which don't feel as roomy for passengers, and it would be a close call versus gasoline versions of the Mercedes-Benz ML-Class or GL-Class. Of course, as rivals from VW, BMW, and Audi, those are both offered with a more fuel-efficient diesel engine.

The take: The odd one out, and somehow more appealing for it

Towing, off-roading, carrying third-row passengers, or the very assertive statement it makes—they're all still valid reasons to consider the GX, and it's worlds ahead of the truck-based lux utes of the not-so-recent past. Although the demand for this type of vehicle might be on the decline, Lexus has made it better, safer, more comfortable and technologically advanced than ever before. Really, it's not bad to be the last one standing. Especially when the product is this good.

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High Gear Media accepted travel expenses in order to be among the first to drive the new GX 460.

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