By on February 18, 2005

The Lexus GX470 and The Union Bank of California. Which has the lower .cd?The Lexus GX470 is a poster child for SUV haters: huge exterior, cramped interior, hippo handling and mileage figures so low they make an M1 tank look frugal. For those who care about such things, the fact that the GX470 qualifies as an Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle doesn't alter its planet-killing profile. For those who couldn't care less, the GX470 offers at least one good reason to piss off your PC neighbors (providing that's not enough reason in and of itself): off road prowess.

The GX470 is a fantastically capable four-by-four. It sports all the structural strength and traction control doo-dads you need to trammel the road less traveled. Hill Assist Control stops the SUV from sliding backwards on steep inclines. Downhill Assist Control modulates engine and wheel braking to avoid nose-diving in the opposite direction. And if that's not enough to help you boldly go where TV ads have gone before, the GX470 also has full-time all-wheel-drive, a limited slip diff, rear air suspension and enough ground clearance to mount a MINI. I couldn't find a single hill, rut or rock that could ruffle the 470's mechanical feathers.

Hill Ascent Control makes tilting the camera obsoleteObviously, no one other than an itinerant Arab or an investment banker-turned-rancher actually NEEDS a leather-lined motorized mountain goat. The vast majority of 470 owners are destined to encounter nothing more challenging than the occasional snow swept drive. Still, the line between off-road cred and off-road chic is a muddy one, and the GX470 straddles it with pride.

The GX470 also makes a case for itself as a luxury car on stilts– although not one that leads to acquittal. While the Japanese SUV offers the usual range of luxury car gizmology– voice activated sat nav, Bluetooth, rear seat DVD, etc.– you have to re-heat your Amex for the good bits and there's no gee-whiz killer app that makes you glad to be living the Lexus lifestyle. An Acura MDX provides a more decadent techno-feast.

Downhill Assist Control would have saved Jack and Jill a lot of troubleLuckily, the Lexus SUV scores major brownie points in the cabin materials department. As a rule, I hate wooden steering wheels; they're cold in winter and slimy in summer. The GX470's maple and leather helm is the exception that proves the rule. The rest of the 470's interior is equally sumptuous– in a Hollywood plastic surgeon's waiting room kinda way. From a tactility POV, there's no mistaking the GX470 for a down market SUV.

It's a different story if you're on the outside looking in. Unlike its re-bodied Lexus cousins, the 470 is a barely-disguised Toyota. The ineffective subterfuge immediately identifies the GX owner as an irredeemable badge snob. (NB: It's OK to be a badge snob as long as you don't look like one.) What's worse, 4Runner owners– who own the same vehicle minus the fripperies– will constantly remind generation GX that bragging rights and dealership coddling come at a price. A fully loaded 4Runner costs a full $10k less than a base GX. To add insult to financial injury, the 4Runner's butch bumper makes it the more macho, and thus attractive, of the two SUV's.

Beautiful materials perfectly assembled in an old school SUVThe 470's deficiencies are more than skin deep. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with its engine or engineering. The SUV's 4.7-liter V8 is a magnificent powerplant, smooth when you want it, hard-charging when you need it. The 470 is also perfectly screwed together, ridiculously quiet at cruising speeds and absurdly easy to steer and brake. No, the problem that keeps the GX470 from being a "true" Lexus is its ride quality, or lack thereof.

The GX470 has a body-on-frame chassis and live rear axle. This mechanically robust set-up is ideal for SUV drivers determined to tackle the rough stuff. In terms of upmarket 'soft roaders', it's positively barbaric. And no wonder. Even with its adaptive variable suspension in full comfort mode, the GX470 makes you feel every lump, bump and jump. A buckboard with wooden wheels would be worse, but only just. The continuous jostling serves as a constant reminder that you're piloting something of considerable bulk, for no appreciable reason.

Abandon all circulation ye who enter hereYes, there is that. The GX470 weighs 4871lbs. That's far too much heft to be hauling around for such cramped accommodations. Three adults would find the 'mid-sized' SUV's middle seats far too intimate for long journeys, while the Geneva Convention prohibits anyone over the age of 16 from inhabiting the 470's rear row. If space is the ultimate luxury, the Lexus GX470 is the ante-penultimate luxury SUV.

I suspect that the Lexus GX470 is a lame duck, due to be ditched for a hybrid-compatible crossover. Very few consumers will lament the GX470's passing. The ones that do will say Lexus has gone soft (of all things) and motor into the wilderness in their Range Rover or Cayenne. The ones that don't will be far better served by the GX470's smaller, lighter, more fuel and space efficient replacement.

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