Executive wheels: Lexus redeems itself


I recently reviewed the new Lexus NX (for “Nimble Crossover”), and I was not impressed. Basically it is a Toyota RAV4 on technological steroids, with enough added gadgets to offer distractions galore. What I said was that today’s definition of luxury – in Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Infiniti – seems to be defined by technological wizardry. I haven’t driven many Lexus vehicles of late and I was worried that the entire line had succumbed to the lure of the whiz-bang at the expense of what should define a vehicle: driving.

So when I heard that the Lexus GX (for “Grand Crossover”) was heading my way, I was prepared for another disappointment. But – hold the phone (Bluetooth, of course) – I was impressed with this 2015 GX460 from the moment I touched it and continued to be more impressed the longer I drove it. As they say in Nashville, I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

It‘s not that the GX doesn’t have all the luxury stuff and gadgets that you will find in the new NX; it’s all there. The difference is that the GX was first introduced in 2002, went into its current 2nd generation in 2009 and the Lexus designers just haven’t gotten around yet to tricking it out in a way that doesn’t as much add to functionality as it adds to glitz: the newer designs incorporate the same stuff, they just do it in a way that lays the glitz on heavy. I personally am not impressed and I think it adds to driving distraction. The GX is loaded for sure, but it is done in such a way that the distractions are minimized and the driving is emphasized.

And boy. do I like the driving. Just before this rather large SUV came to me I was in Phoenix visiting friends, and they drive two rather large SUVs – one a Cadillac and the other a Lincoln. I go back and forth on the size issue in vehicles, and right now I am in a BIG phase, meaning that I am drawn to larger vehicles. So after tooling around Phoenix in large vehicles, I was ready to imagine one for myself. This GX isn’t the largest SUV in the Lexus line – that would be the LX – but it is a BIG vehicle nonetheless. And, I should add, a BIG vehicle that is really the “nimble” one in the Lexus SUV offerings, for even though it is large it handled very well, and, as I wrote in my notes during the test drive, “drives like a dream.”

It’s not easy to park, especially downtown where the spaces are made for Smart cars. And the gas mileage is suspect – with a 4.6-liter V8 with 301 hp, this baby is rated at 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway. But after driving the dog of the NX and wondering if I could merge into highway traffic, it was great to have a vehicle that not only would merge into high-speed traffic, but leave the others in the dust. Where the NX featured 194 hp with horses that I described as being better fit for the glue factory, the 301 hp in this GX seemed like it featured thoroughbreds vying for a photo-finish in the Kentucky Derby. It’s fast, it’s smooth, and, well, just a pleasure. I felt safe and sound, I felt totally in control, and I just went out for a drive like every day I had it because I just wanted to be behind the wheel.

Here’s the good stuff: The Lexus GX460 is a luxury vehicle and had all the luxury things. Keyless entry and start, all the high-tech hookups, a wonderful integrated Bluetooth phone, voice commands, hook-ups to all of the apps on a smart phone, an excellent covered platform where a smartphone can rest in the console right next to the USB and power outlets. A medium-sized sunroof – not too big, not too small – uncommonly great heated seats that came on in a flash (there’s also cooled seats, but I didn’t get to use them), huge side mirrors, unbelievable room in the front and in the second row of seating, automatic folding 3rd row seats. And here’s my favorite: when you approach the vehicle at night, courtesy lights come on under the mirrors and lights come on under the carriage so you can see where you are stepping. Very nice.

Of course, there’s full-time all-wheel-drive, something called Adaptive Variable Suspension (I don’t know what it is, but the vehicle rides beautifully), and a rear suspension with an automatic load leveling feature. And a heated mahogany wood steering wheel, a mahogany gear shift know, blind spot monitoring (which I love), rear cross-traffic alert (which I love more), leather seating, and a stolen vehicle location system. Oh, and the rear door isn’t a lift-gate like most SUVs, but rather opens from the side like a car door; it’s a much better way to do this, especially on a large vehicle where the liftgate goes up way high.

But it’s not all hearts and flowers. The new front end on these Lexus SUVs is more pointy, which I suppose they do for aerodynamics, but it isn’t as attractive or as bold as the older boxy design. The outside mirrors fold in, which is nice, but you have to remember to fold them before you turn the car off, so it’s hard to check the mirror while you’re getting out. The auto-folding third row of seats is nice, but there’s very little leg room back there and almost no storage behind them if you happen to have kids on a shopping trip. Also, the climate controls are a bit clumsy, and you can’t change the fan speed without going to the touch screen.

Overall though, I love this vehicle. If you’re in the market for a luxury SUV and you don’t check out this GX460, you’ve missed the boat. The GX comes in several trims, and the lower end on (with the same engine) carries a base price of just over $49,000, and presumably it has fewer frills. This Luxury trim carries a base price of $60,715, according to the sticker, and they added on about another $5,000 to upgrade the sound system to a Mark Levinson Audio with 17 speakers that is like being in a concert hall, a pre-collision system, lane departure alert, intelligent high-beams, and, of course, destination and handling. The bottom line is $65,980.

That’s a lot of money, no doubt, and perhaps you could get all of this in a Toyota or a GMC or whatever for less money. But you won’t find anything in this luxury and size class that is this satisfying. I’m not a big Lexus fan, but with this GX460, the line has redeemed itself.