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The Lexus GX 470 is an authentic, mid-size SUV, with serious off-road capability based on traditional truck engineering: body-on-frame construction, a rugged four-wheel-drive system, and a live rear axle. But it's also a Lexus: roomy and quiet inside, with a luxurious cabin swathed in leather and bird's-eye maple. Its 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 and smoothly responsive five-speed automatic transmission provide ample power and performance, whether towing, trail-bashing, or carving corners on a coastal highway. The switchgear is a study in ergonomic excellence, and all controls are right where you expect them to be.
Because it's a Lexus, rugged doesn't mean outdated. On the contrary, the GX 470's standard full-time four-wheel drive features electronic traction control (A-TRAC) and a locking Torsen (torque-sensing) center differential, automatically dispatching torque to the tires with the best grip. Downhill Assist Control helps the GX 470 safely negotiate slippery inclines. Vehicle Stability Control helps steady the GX 470 on slippery turns.
Last year Lexus refined the GX 470 with a new front-passenger airbag system, improved graphics for the optional navigation system, and a new Sport package that combines dynamic body-roll control with a unique appearance inside and out. For 2006, digital Lexus Link communication becomes available, while minor interior updates enhance both function and appearance.
Power is provided by Lexus's excellent 4.7-liter V8 and five-speed automatic transmission. And as we've come to expect from Lexus, plenty of advanced technology is standard is well: anti-lock brakes, traction control, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Torsen limited-slip center differential, and Adaptive Variable Suspension with adjustable height control. The GX 470 rides on 265/65SR17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels.
Options are few: third-row seat with rear air conditioning ($2,030); navigation system with Mark Levinson stereo ($3,050); rear-seat entertainment system with two headphones ($1,560); tow hitch receiver ($50); rear spoiler ($551). Bluetooth is also available allowing the driver to wirelessly link compatible cellular telephones to the GX for hands-free communication.
Lexus Link ($900), which comes with a one-year subscription, combines GPS satellite and cellular phone technology to connect the driver to experienced Lexus advisers, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Roadside assistance, stolen vehicle tracking, and remote door unlocking are among the services provided. The system automatically dispatches emergency services if you press a panic button or if the airbags are deployed and you fail to respond to the operator's call.
The Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750) uses electronically controlled hydraulic cylinders to vary the degree of roll resistance provided by the front and rear stabilizer bars. This package includes a dark graphite finish for the wheels and roof rack, and black bird's-eye maple wood and dark graphite metallic trim inside.
Safety features come standard, including advanced front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats (for torso protection in a side impact), and side-curtain airbags (for head protection in a side impact or rollover). Three-point seatbelts are provided for each seating position, and the front belts are equipped with pretensioners and force limiters to help minimize seatbelt-related injuries. Always wear your seatbelts as they're the most important safety feature on the vehicle. A tire pressure monitoring system also comes standard.
The 2006 Lexus GX 470 is a big, brawny vehicle. It doesn't look excessively long on the outside, but it does look tall, especially from the rear, in part because of the vertically oriented tail lamps and other design cues. For the rear it almost looks tippy, which is unfortunate because it's anything but.
The GX 470 shares its basic five-door body shell with the Toyota 4Runner. Unique rear quarters give the Lexus a different visual personality, however. It looks cleaner and more contemporary, a bit more tall-station-wagon compared to the carefully calculated rugged-truck look of the 4Runner. Unique grilles and bumpers distinguish the two vehicles and give them their respective Lexus and Toyota identities, but a more careful examination reveals that they are more alike than different.
Adding visual richness to the Lexus are its peaky hood and grille combination, along with its nicely integrated body-colored bumpers, fender flares and side moldings. Massive headlamps and high-mounted, complex tail lamps adorn its corners.
The interior of the Lexus GX 470 is trimmed in rich leather and bird's-eye maple. It's roomy and comfortable with large, comfortable seats and lots of elbow room. The quality of materials is excellent. Tall side windows afford a good view out, making for an airy cabin.
One of the beauties of driving any Lexus is that everything is where it's supposed to be, and everything is clearly labeled. All of the gauges and instruments are large and easy to read, with simple graphics shared by other Lexus products. Switchgear and other controls are large, straightforward, elegantly designed and easy to operate.
The available Lexus navigation system works well, particularly after it was upgraded for 2005 with improved graphics. An available rear backup camera displays a view of what's directly behind the vehicle on the navigation system's seven-inch LCD screen when reverse is engaged. That can help the driver avoid backing over obstacles, such as a tricycle left in the driveway. It helps greatly when parking in tight spaces. We recommend opting for it.
The optional Mark Levinson® audio system turns the GX 470 into a concert hall on wheels. And the optional DVD rear-seat entertainment system turns it into a mobile theater for up to six passengers. The DVD system uses a high-resolution, thin film transistor LCD screen that lowers from the headliner; it can even display your video on the dashboard navigation screen when the vehicle is in Park.
The GX is a space-efficient vehicle. The second row is roomy and comfortable and easy to get in and out. A family of four with a big dog will feel right at home. The second-row bench folds down and is split 60/40 for versatility.
Order the optional third row and the GX 470 can seat eight. Well, sort of. The third row is suitable for children, but it's pretty hopeless for adults. At least the available rear air conditioning brings improved heating and cooling comfort to third-row kiddies and dogs.
Split 50/50, the third-row seats can be folded up out of the way or removed and stored. What starts as a 13 cubic-foot cargo bay can be expanded in steps up to more than 77 cubic feet by folding or removing the lightweight rear seats and then folding the second row as well. That's not a lot of cargo space in the world of SUVs, however. By comparison, a Mercedes-Benz M-Class offers 81 cubic feet, while the BMW X5, worst in the class, still has 54 cubic feet. Also, the GX 470's cargo door opens from the left side; perfect in Japan, but awkward in the U.S., forcing you to walk around it when unloading curbside at the airport.
The Lexus GX 470 is a smooth, comfortable SUV for everyday driving with some of the best off-road capability on the market. Its array of onboard electronics is unrivalled in this segment at this price, and all systems work in concert to make this machine come alive, whatever the driving conditions.
The 4.7-liter V8 delivers world-class smoothness and quietness. At highway cruising speeds it's barely audible. And as heavy as it is, the GX 470 is no slouch in the performance department, capable of full-throttle sprints from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.1 seconds, with a nice V8 intake roar to go with the rush. Toyota's sophisticated electronic VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) improves efficiency and response at all engine speeds. VVT-i also helps the GX 470 run cleaner, earning the government's stringent ULEV-II (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) rating.
Power ratings are down slightly for '06, to 263 horsepower and 323 pound-feet of torque, but that's only because the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has instituted new test procedures that tend to deliver more conservative numbers. The engine itself, and its performance, have not changed. The 2006 GX 470 is every bit as powerful as the 2005 model.
The GX 470 delivers strong torque for towing. If you're towing anything up to its limit of 5000 pounds, this truck will handle it with ease. The bad news is that, even if you try hard, you'll probably never achieve 20 miles per gallon. EPA estimates are 15/19 mpg, City/Highway. And while the GX 470 will run on unleaded regular, Lexus recommends 91 octane (or higher) premium fuel for optimum performance.
The five-speed automatic transmission offers quicker response and better gearing than a traditional four-speed automatic. Like the engine, the transmission is very smooth.
The GX 470 handles impressively well for a body-on-frame truck with a live rear axle. Like most SUVs, it feels heavy and ponderous with its big tires. A variable-ratio rack-and-pinion makes the steering quick and light in parking situations, but smoother and heavier on the highway, so the truck never feels over-assisted and never feels darty. As a result, the GX 470 feels very solid at high speeds.
The adaptive variable suspension, which comes standard, continuously changes the shock absorber damping at each wheel individually in response to road surface conditions, speed, and steering and braking inputs from the driver. Four driver-selectable settings are available to tailor the system to driver preferences or situations. You might want to use the softest setting for a bumpy boulevard, for example, then switch to a firm setting for driving down a winding rural road. The system automatically increases shock absorber stiffness in transitional maneuvers. It also reduces dive under hard braking and squat under hard acceleration. Air springs in the rear can raise rear ride height in rugged terrain or lower the rear end when loading cargo. Overall, the ride is remarkably refined for a truck with a live rear axle. Road vibration and pavement undulations get through, but they are damped. We found the Comfort setting produced a cushy feel, though it's no magic carpet ride as you can still feel the suspension reacting to bumps. Switching all the way to the Sport setting makes the bumps feel more pronounced, making for a less comfortable ride, but more responsive cornering.
The optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) provides more sway stiffness when needed for crisp handling response, without an increase in spring rate over bumpy roads. In other words, you get better handling without sacrificing ride quality. The system disengages the stabilizer bars for rugged, off-highway conditions, allowing more suspension travel and articulation to help the GX 470 step over obstacles. Lexus claims the system has been proven in World Rally Championship competition, which is another way of saying it's the real deal
The Lexus GX 470 is a good choice for buyers who want luxury, capability, quality and reliability. It's smooth and powerful on the road and can go nearly anywhere off the pavement. It offers high levels of quality and ergonomic excellence and carries Lexus's reputation for durability and reliability. It's roomy and comfortable and can accommodate up to eight people when equipped with the optional third-row seat.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw is based in the Detroit area.