The road was rough and rocky, laced with sharp dips and steep inclines, enough to rattle your teeth in most vehicles. Not so in the Lexus GX 470. The up-market version of the redesigned Toyota 4Runner, the new-for-2003 GX was able to strut its stuff through the desert mayhem with poise and stamina, and a compliant suspension that soaked up all that nastiness. While the Lexus was doing all the work, the people inside were busy marveling at how well it performed and how well it smoothed out the trail. Actually, it seemed rather incongruous and even bizarre to be crunching this high-end status symbol through the washes. Statistically, few drivers will ever experience the GX or any other sport utility vehicle in this environment or anywhere more challenging than a dirt driveway or parking-lot speed bump. Too bad. Despite its luxury style and trappings, the GX is a rugged vehicle equipped to take the abuse while still delivering the kind of highway ride and handling demanded by upscale SUV drivers. What it is: The GX 470 is a new midsize sport utility vehicle for Lexus. Though based on the chassis of the 4Runner, the GX has a completely different body, interior, engine, suspension, drive system and features. Just slightly smaller than the Lexus SUV flagship, the LX 470, the GX fills yet another niche in the broad lineup of sport utilities for Toyota and its luxury division. With an optional third row of seats, GX boasts eight-passenger capability. Engine and transmission: The most striking difference between 4Runner and GX 470 is the ultra-smooth 4.7-liter V-8 that powers the Lexus, delivering 235 horsepower along with a stump-pulling 320 pound-feet of torque. This refined, 32-valve engine pulls the 4,675-pound GX as if it were a lightweight, while still being docile in traffic and unobtrusive on the highway. Even under hard acceleration or climbing a steep grade, the engine is remarkably quiet. Gas mileage is in the hopper. Handling, drivability: Here is a shining example of how electronics has changed our world and provide the GX with remarkable capability and flexibility. The full-time four-wheel-drive adjusts for wheel spin and steering input automatically. Climbing a steep hill with loose stones, sand and slick bedrock surfaces, the Lexus adjusted easily, crawling uphill with minimal fuss. The suspension rises and lowers, making it adaptable for off-roading and can be made softer for comfort or stiffer for handling. There also is an Adaptive Variable Suspension system that continuously changes each shock absorber according to road conditions, speed, steering and braking input and general vehicle movement, while preventing front dive in braking or rear squat in acceleration. There also is Downhill Assist Control, which allows the GX to creep down the steepest incline without braking; Hill-start Assist Control, which keeps the truck from rolling back when starting on steep grades; Vehicle Skid Control, which uses throttle and brake inputs to help avoid skids; Active TRAC traction control, which provides the extra traction of locking differentials; Brake Assist, which boosts brake pressure during panic stops; and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, which applies the brakes evenly to each wheel. On the road, the GX drives and handles as a Lexus should, civilized and nicely behaved. The sport setting for the suspension is best for pavement, allowing the truck to handle sharply and predictably. Variable-gear rack-and-pinion steering, in which the rack gearing gets wide toward the ends, provides quick response and easy maneuverability. Styling: Attractive and understated, the GX 470 avoids the chrome-plated excesses of most of the latest luxury SUVs. Interior: Lexus always does a nice interior, and the GX is no exception. A very luxurious feel, with soft leather and walnut accents, including a wood-rimmed steering wheel and loads of high-end features. It comes standard with climate control, six-disc CD audio system and a full-range of power and convenience gizmos. The optional third-row seat has enough space for three people, as long as they're not too big. The seat splits in the middle and folds up and out of the way on either side for cargo loading, although the folded seat halves still intrude on cargo space. The test truck included a rear video system with DVD player, and a superb Mark Levinson audio system. The optional GPS navigation system includes Lexus Link emergency communication system. The video display combines navigation, audio and climate controls, a setup that I always find troublesome. There's too much fiddling and switching required for such things as audio or climate display. Pricing: The GX 470 is a luxury vehicle with loads of features and priced accordingly. Base price is a significant $44,925. The test truck included the navigation and audio upgrade, $2,700; DVD system, $1,560; third-row seating with air-conditioning, $2,030; trailer hitch, $430; cargo mats, $92; and shipping $575. The total is $52,312. Bottom line: GX 470 is another tour de force from Lexus, the best-selling luxury brand in the United States. It combines excellent road manners, full luxury and performance features and real off-road capability. Expensive, but loaded with value. Lexus GX 470 Vehicle type: Eight-passenger, four-door sport utility vehicle, four-wheel drive. Base price: $44,925. Price as tested: $52,312. Engine: 4.7-liter V-8, 235 horsepower at 4,800 rpm, 320 pound-feet of torque at 3,400 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 109.8 inches. Curb weight: 4,675 pounds. EPA mileage: 15 city, 18 highway. Highs: On- and off-road performance. Advanced features. Overall refinement. Lows: Mediocre gas mileage. Video-display issues. Expensive options.
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