Posted: August 27, 2013

Executive wheels: A stud and a dud

A Lexus love-hate story

Jeff Rundles

2013 LEXUS GX 460 PREMIUM

Lexus is the luxury division of Toyota that forever changed the U.S. luxury car market. With Lexus' introduction in 1989, the then-existing luxury car market – represented by Americans Cadillac and Lincoln and Europeans Mercedes and BMW – took enormous sales hits. After that, everything changed: scheduled maintenance became standard and, especially from the Europeans, the innovation arms race was on.

Personally, I have never been a Lexus man. I have always thought that Lexus lacked a particular distinctiveness found in both BMW and Mercedes. Lexus is simply a fancy Toyota – not a bad thing, just blander on the luxury end than the Europeans.

Having said all that, I found these two Lexus (Lexi?) SUV models to be diametrically opposed: one, the RX350 F Sport, is a superior vehicle that may just be the very finest small SUV/crossover in the luxury market, while the GX460 Premium seems dated and uncompetitive in the full-sized luxury SUV market.

Let’s deal with the downside first. The GX 460 is the second generation of the GX model, introduced in 2002 as the GX 470. Oddly enough, they went to a very similar engine, beginning with the 4.7-liter V8, originally rated at 235 hp, and went to today with the 4.6-liter V7 featuring 301 hp (rated at 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway). I have driven several large luxury SUVs that I loved (the Infiniti QX 56, for instance), and I don’t really even mind the relatively low gas mileage rating: you buy a large SUV for a reason, and it isn’t fuel efficiency. But the GX is just big in an oafish sort of way.

It rides like a soft truck, with very loose handling (no feel). The GX feels as though it is wandering, and it took bumps in the road hard. It was like driving a bean bag. On the highway, it lumbers like it is running out of breath. It maneuvers clumsily, and it takes quite a bit of effort – and getting used to – to accelerate for entering the highway or passing. It is, quite simply, under-powered and mushy. A huge disappointment.

The base price on this beast is $58,240 (there are two trims and the base 460 carries a base price of $53,795 with, presumably, less luxury). They added on a Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package for $3,930, $500 for Intuitive parking assist (which beeps all the time), and another $1,170 for the wide view front and side monitor/pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert and intelligent high-beam headlamps. Add in destination charges and the bottom line is $66,715.

A lot of money for mush.

RATING: 1 WHEEL (OUT OF FOUR)

2013 LEXUS RX 350 F SPORT

When they took away the GX they brought me the Lexus RX 350 Sport and I have to admit my expectations were low given the GX experience. I was wrong again. The RX impressed me right from the start, from the moment I first saw it, to the first time I hopped in, and more and more every day as I drove it around town and on the highway.

This is a vehicle I could easily see myself owning. A perfect size, a roomy interior in both the front and passenger area (two rows of seating; a driver and four passengers), handsome and then some, and a great luxury feel. It has all the goods inside, looks wonderful, and about my only complaint is that the computer-mouse-like toggle that controls the sound system and climate is a little clumsy. I got used to it, though.  

The RX (the F Sport, which has, they say a “Tuned Suspension”) is equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 featuring 270 hp but, unlike the GX, this engine felt like it had more power than advertised. Coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission, this just may be the smoothest and most responsive SUV I have ever driven. It took the bumps with ease, had plenty of power when needed, and cruised – quietly – everywhere I went.

What probably impressed me the most was the handling – and after the GX this came as a complete surprise. The RX is no sports car, of course, but it has great driver’s feel, corners without leaning and weaves in traffic in both the city and the highway with ease. It does all this without sacrificing anything – the vehicle is comfortable, of course, but it’s a pleasure to drive, like you’re actively involved in the process rather than just riding in mushy luxury.

The RX has all the bells and whistles: power everything, leather, Xenon automatic headlamps, AWD, 10-way power seats, a great moonroof, heated and cooled seats, etc. I especially like the power liftgate in the rear: easy to use, opening to plenty of space, and not much of a stretch to reach to close button.

The base price for the F Sport RX is $47,000, which includes just about everything you’d want in a vehicle of this caliber. The test-drive model added $500 for blind spot monitoring (which I love), $1,200 for heads up display (which I detest, but it’s easy to disable), $995 for a Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound upgraded audio system and $2,775 for the voice-activated navigation system, which included a bunch of apps on the satellite radio for weather, stocks, sports and fuel prices. I could do without the $500 added-on Intuitive Parking Assist in that, if it was really intuitive, would know that I hate all that beeping.

Add in $895 in destination charges and the bottom line is $53,885. That’s a highly competitive price for a luxury vehicle in this class, and it’s the first time I have ever said that I prefer the Lexus to the Mercedes/BMW competition. They’ve done a nice job here.

RATING: 4 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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