We are wafting, and I choose that term carefully, in perfect comfort down a gravel road. Washboard’s teeth clattering jackhammering soaked up somewhere well below us in the Lexux GX460’s plush suspension. There are many that would fault the GX460’s body-on-frame construction and solid rear axle suspension as ride-killing off-road pretence in a vehicle generally never sees terrain more challenging than Missy’s run to drop off the step-kids at school before heading to her Zumba Dance Fittness class. That’s missing the point of this unique mid-sized luxury SUV, the GX460 is a near perfect high-end hiking boot; as rugged and capable as it is comfortable.
The four of us, an SUV-load of hikers, are on our way to hike Cathedral Provincial Park, outside Keremeos, BC. Access isn’t high-adventure, but a dirt road drive to the parking lot where we are shuttled by Mercedes UNIMOG to our base camp. The UNIMOG is as off-road as they come, a combination military and agricultural vehicle with the refinement of 1950’s automotive technology and the disposition of an angry grizzly. There is no around for a UNIMOG, only over or through.
Yet, I am absolutely certain we (with special park variances and permissions) could happily arrive at the base camp in the GX460. The Lexus’s off-road underpinnings come with serious credentials.
The Lexus GX460 is based directly on the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, that darling of third world NGO’s, military, dictators and insurgents alike, sold near everywhere where roads are dirt track notions and river crossings – except North America. Here the closest Toyota relatives are the 4Runner and FJ Cruiser, with whom the Lexus shares platform components and running gear.
So, the GX460 is an all-wheel-drive and the big Lexus uses that to it’s advantage on-road and off. The four-wheel drive system operates all the time, distributing the engine’s power 40/60, front/rear on the straights. Then, to enhance stability and tracking, a centre differential changes that power distribution to 30/70 in the turns. If the rear wheels spin, power is split 50/50 front to rear, useful off-road as well, where the GX will haul itself up and over obstacles. If things ever get truly gnarly, there is low-range gearing, activated by a central console switch, for crawling steep grades. This of course comes with a constellation of abbreviations; VSC (Vehicle Stability Control), A-TRAC (Active Traction Control), HAC (Hill-start Assist Control)… all the buttons and lights will have you reading the comprehensively think manual.
The star of the show is the Toyota/Lexus Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which varies the amount of roll stiffness generated by the stabilizer bars. Off-road the bars can be disengaged completely to allow maximum suspension articulation for challenging terrain, on pavement the bars’ effective stiffness is increased to reduce body roll.
The KDSS work’s well for a truck that lolls though the corners even at moderate speeds. Through the canyon turns of the Hope-Princeton the Lexus flows, with the system intervening in the body roll, enough to have passenger’s requesting we slow off a bit. You’ll not mistake it for anything sporting, but the GX460 never reveals it’s “truck” underpinnings in luxurious ride quality or big sedan handling, which is a mean engineering feat on the part of Lexus. The only real surprise is the truck’s nose dive under hard braking as you bring the mammoth down from speed.
Easing the GX460 up to speed is a 4.6-litre V8 turning out 301 horsepower and 329 lb-ft of torque, increases of 38 hp and six lb-ft. It’s more powerful and efficient that the outgoing 4.7 L V8, with ratings of 14.1/9.8 L/100 km (city/highway), versus the old engine’s 15.3/11.4 L/100 km figures. Those economy figures may seem high, but our other option was to take two less capable compact cars whose combined fuel consumption creels into the range of the Lexus. That makes an SUV a consideration for those who carpool their way to adventure often.
Also new is a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission that replaces last year’s five-speed. While 329 lb-ft of torque sounds like tank-like power, the GX’s 2,326 kg (5,305 lb) curb weight crushes performance to merely “decent” and has you calculating your passes. The throttle has a suitably gentle tip-in for off-road situations, where you need to finesse the throttle at low speeds.
GX is a seven-seater by the seatbelt count, but the third-row is really is just shy of having you reported for child abuse of pre-teens. For the four up front though, seating is opulent. All four people who matter get heated and cooled seats and automatic climate control. It’s near as nice to be a passenger in the Lexus as it is to be manning the commanding view behind the leather and wood-trimmed steering wheel in the spacious cabin. Even for four full sized adults, the issue of calling shot-gun is one of front-seat prestige, not comfort.
Yes, spacious, and normally I’d never advocate a gargantuan SUV, but we’re four adults off on a hiking trip and that’s where a vehicle like this truly makes sense. Up front, we are comfortable as well worn and broken in hiking boots ensconced in supple leather, climate controlled, laughing and chatting in the quiet cabin – consider it car pool paradise. Though, I’m concerned about the practicality of a cream-leather interior versus muddy, dusty environments. In the rear we’ve four days of gear, clothes, boots and food for tent-rough nights stacked stowed away – it’s camping as heavy as it gets shy of a tent-trailer.
The high rear-bumper/interior floor makes loading a slight workout, but swing the tailgate into place and everything stays where it’s stowed. Put the light and frequently accessed road trip items on top in the cargo area, and you can just pop the rear glass open and fish around in the 1,832 litres of cargo space.
The GX 460 is offered in two models: Premium and Ultra Premium. The Premium model’s is $68,500 and its standard feature list includes auto-levelling Xenon headlights with automatic high-beam feature; front and rear clearance sonar and back-up monitor; 17-speaker stereo; hard drive-based navigation system and 10 airbags (driver and passenger front, seat-mounted side airbags in the first and second row seats, driver and front passenger knee airbags and head curtain airbags for all three rows of seats). That should be ample options to differentiate your arrival to those dirtbag climbers in the ratty ’98 Toyota 4Runner.
But to go truly aspirational you’ll grab the $77,500 Ultra Premium model. Adding active safety technologies like pre-collision system with driver monitor camera, lane departure alert and dynamic radar cruise control. There’s also a dual-screen rear-seat DVD entertainment system, heated steering wheel, heated second row seats and an auto-levelling rear air suspension, a four-camera around-view and multi-terrain monitor allowing the driver to see their surroundings on all sides. Topping it off is an off-road package with off-road guidance; Crawl Control and Multi-Terrain Select. If it weren’t for that last bit, I’d say Lexus Driver, thy name is poser.
For the every day driver, the Lexus GX460 is complete and utter off-road and luxury overkill, a set of high-end hikers used for walking city park and sea wall trails. If you’re truly wanting to go the back of beyond, if you’re not going to wince at scratching your $77,500 luxury off-roader on the way to your skiing, climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, or back country base camp, then you’re hard pressed to find a more supple and luxurious high-end hiking boot that still has a full-metal off-road shank at it’s core, and some crampons strapped on for good measure.