I’d just stepped out of a very dusty GX460 in my own Pig Pen-esque cloud of dust when a voice boomed out, “Is that a custom grille and wheels? I have one and it doesn’t look like that.”
“Umm, no. It’s just a standard ‘Luxury’ spec GX. It does have a new grille for 2020.”
“Oh, that must be it.”
Then the booming voice walked away, and hopped in to his not brand-new RX350.
He was a Lexus person. I am not a Lexus person, and the GX is more suited to me than to Lexus people.
For 2020 the GX gets some cosmetic changes, all safety assists are now standard (to go with ten airbags…suspension not included), there are two USB ports in back, and you can get two new options: Multiple cameras and “multi-terrain monitor” or an Off-Road package with those cameras plus an automatic transmission fluid cooler, fuel tank skid plate, crawl control and multi-terrain select. Alas, those two options are offered only on the top trim “Luxury” level, not the $13,000 less expensive model perhaps more appropriate for “off-roading.”
I’ve been wracking my brain and believe the GX unique: A mid-size, three-row SUV with a frame and a V-8 engine. It even has a full-size spare on an aluminum wheel and a belt-driven cooling fan. Lexus people say it’s due for an update but Lexus people haven’t dragged a welded steel A-arm over a piece of granite and laughed it off. The Lexus people I know haven’t taken their GX anywhere a 1990’s Caprice wagon couldn’t go.
So I drove the $73,000 GX through it’s natural California habitat–a mall parking lot vacant save a few protesters, and hit the highway to more-natural habitat where many of the roads aren’t paved and lizards wear the same hue as the sand dunes.
Loading identified a minor weakness of second-row captain’s chairs—they fold almost flat but the gaps rule out use as a kid’s bunk or a fully-flat floor to load with impunity. Eventually I decided the chairs worked best up with flat items like jumper cables and sandals underneath, heavy items like water containers and recovery kit between, and bags, clothes, etc., belted in the seats.
Forum fans can debate the door versus hatch argument because either works. My preference is the GX door because the window is faster and the wiper smarter. Although the cargo deck floor is above bumper/door aperture level it’s not an issue like tailgate utes with the same bump. Tie-downs were strong enough for 95 pounds of water and firewood, rear AC vents were all pointed at coolers, and plastic panels meant it’d be easy to clean afterwards…a cardboard sheet protected the plush cargo mat.
Inside the GX is a near ideal blend of comfort and utility. This Luxury grade tester was awash in heated and cooled red leather upholstery with a black headliner and aluminum and Sapele wood trim echoing a chalk-pinstripe suit…we called it the pimp wagon. Things you touch often—shifter, wheel, seats, armrests and door panels—are all leather, while below knee level panels are easy-to-clean plastic. Yeah, there’s no carpet-delete vinyl floor option like pickups but I’m sure you could find rubber mats capable of holding ten pounds of sand or mud. You’ll also be pleased to know it’s quite well sealed against dust intrusion.
Were discussion limited to propulsion the average observer wouldn’t agree the GX and 4Runner share bones, save economy-minded powertrain tuning that requires a deliberate accelerator shove to downshift just enough to maintain grade speed—this despite the gas pedal being touchy for smooth launches and maneuvering. It isn’t the nominally better power-to-weight ratio of the GX that shows most (31 hp and 51 lb-ft more than 4Runner, at lower revs, a few hundred pounds heavier), it’s having an extra gear and the refinement of the 4.6L V-8 mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission: Smoother, quieter, better sound and darn near the same mileage. The trip computer was optimistic but it still cracked 20 mpg running 70-80 mph.
The cabin is quiet enough for regular conversation at those speeds, wind noise from large mirrors and upright windshield only beginning to seep in. Add a 30-mph headwind and you know this truck is not designed for high-speed cruising like so many wagons. Broad exterior styling also allows a generous moonroof vista without covering the entire roof in heavy glass, and the grille opening is enough to embarrass HD pickups.
And it’s quite comfortable too. Power seats and wheel offer a good range of adjustment and while not necessary the ventilated seats allow delaying AC use, handy when relative humidity is a single-digit number.
Highway cruising is near effortless. The variable gear rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted and has good directional stability, though a 4Runner curiously needs four feet less for a U-turn. I found the brake pedal springy and hard to modulate, garnering derogatory passenger comments on smoothness not acceptable to a former chauffeur. Fortunately the gated shifter is slick and effective.
Every GX comes with KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System) that is optional on some 4Runners. These essentially adjust roll stiffness based on speed and conditions, limiting body roll considerably, which messes with my head a bit: A big, heavy box like this should have some body roll as you approach the edge, and the tires are still the limiting factor, so I made them squeal in protest more than expected until my internal gyro recalibrated to the lack of body roll.
The Luxury grade also adds automatic height control and adaptive variable suspension. With comfort, default and sport to choose from the differences are small, nothing like the pillow or brick range of others’ systems, and apart from winding pavement ribbons I just left it in comfort. Maybe with standard 18-inch wheels…
Once off the pavement and working below 30 mph KDSS relaxes, and losing all that lateral stiffness minimizes head toss and lets suspension travel more, better maintaining tire contact patch. I often used low-range not for power but easier brake-free driving, and the suspension height couldn’t be lifted in high-range (and appears to drop if you exceed 20 or so mph). All manual shifting is done with the lever in S, and oddly whenever you flip to S it automatically shows 4th gear, whether you’re doing 8 mph or 80.
With it’s elongated snout the GX doesn’t even approach a 4Runner’s approach angle, though we never scraped it (I was very cautious given the “bumper spoilers” of the Sport Design pack) and GX angles were obviously better than the Escalade ESV’s dirt-crusted airdam we found on a graded camp road. Worth noting, the GX approach and departure angles are identical so there’s little chance you’ll climb an obstacle and drag the hitch on the way off it.
For these moguls, rocks and washboard I never swapped multi-terrain from its default setting and we comfortably kept up with the caravan. We weren’t going as fast as the Raptor club coming the other way—who apparently don’t subscribe to slow-to-pass, keep the dust down and dim the driving lights trail etiquette–and there was no one else around. After crossing the dry lake and the requisite Traveler’s Monument rock drop I rounded a blind bend into a mild climb in sand. As soon as I saw it I matted the throttle and it plowed through, but pushing a traction control switch on one side and diff lock on the other would have left no hands to steer, let alone waltz through a multi-terrain menu. I’d been suckered into complacency and went back to low-range.
I could say Lexus gives the driver many choices but some are overruled. There are at least 40 buttons or knobs within reach, though I wonder if they simply ran out of space over the years because of layout: Most drive and suspension controls abut the shifter, but diff lock and ECT-2 are at the right knee, stability control off the left knee between headlight washers and steering wheel heat, and the camera view button upper left was obscured by the wheel and more than once I hit the odo reset first. Not helpful in dead reckoning nav.
There’s also the automation aspect. I’m sure Toyota has a building of engineers just for HVAC but I still have a hard time thinking the best way to cool a 130-degree cabin is by immediately recirculating it rather than cooling 90-degree air outside, and if I wanted the system to switch to recirc automatically I’d have set it in “auto” mode. With the wipers not in “auto” windshield washers didn’t automatically engage the wipers, something even my 42-year-old VW and 30-year-old truck do. I never did look up what “off” above the air suspension switch did, nor verify it can be lifted only in low range…extra clearance would have been useful for scooping less sand into skidplates.
The 20 mpg on pavement dropped almost by half off the pavement, at 10 mph average by trip computer. My initial prediction of 200 miles off-highway range (20 usable from the 23-gallon tank at 10 mpg), which was met with surprise from my trail buddy (his diesel full-size and 35-gallon tank didn’t require refueling), came out accurate. It was more than adequate for this adventure, but further afield you might bring some cans.
So is a GX better than a 4Runner? This depends entirely on your priorities, as they’re both rugged mules underneath. The GX is notably more comfortable, refined and smoother, it has a longer warranty, likely superior dealer experience, it can tow 1500 pounds more and in my experience fuel economy is a wash between them. Using a TRD Off-Road Premium 4Runner for comparison, the 4Runner has a locking rear differential, crawl control and multi-terrain standard, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto the GX does not (it makes do with Lexus Enform Remote that works with smartphone or Apple watch) and carries roughly 150 pounds more cargo than the GX’s already-generous 1400 pounds. And that 4Runner, with moonroof and KDSS costs $8,000 less than a base GX with nav.
Personally I find the GX’s powertrain and refinement worth the extra money, but I wouldn’t get the Luxury trim and would strive to avoid the Sport Design pack. The sweet spot for me is a GX Premium at $57,000: I’ll swap the 18-inch wheels for some 17s from a Toyota driver and visit the wrecking yard for some skidplates…I don’t need anything else in the off-road pack.
And get your accessories at Toyota: Door edge guards for the GX are $140, for the 4Runner $79.
(Editor’s note: the Texas Auto Writers Association liked this rig as well giving the 2020 Lexus GX 460 an award recently.)