Lexus Can't Keep Up in the Critical Luxury SUV Category
Lexus was arguably the first automaker to make the luxury SUV essential to suburban households. Its RX debuted in 1998 at $43,120—equivalent to about $64,540 today—and has sold more than 1.7 million units since then, the most of any luxury SUV in the United States.
Since then, nearly every other luxury brand has introduced variations on the theme, giving us such things as the sporty BMW X6 and Range Rover Evoque, the gilded Bentley Bentayga, and the powerful Porsche Cayenne.
Glory Days Gone
I don't hate Lexus, even though I have criticized the brand a lot lately; in fact, it made a strong appearance at the recent Detroit Auto Show. But when you’re test-driving 100 cars a year, the misses tend to distinguish themselves among the many standouts.
If you want the fastest, most powerful, most fuel efficient, or most luxurious mid-sized SUV that costs less than $70,000, look elsewhere. Try the Audi Q7, the Land Rover LR4, the Porsche Cayenne, the BMW X5 or the excellent Volvo XC90. Each costs less than or close to the Lexus GX 460 Luxury edition I drove around New York and through upstate New York. But they all have better efficiency, quality, and handling than the GX.
It’s not that the GX is a bad car. It’s big and reliable and not too ugly. It just feels irrelevant.
If you love the oversized oblong Lexus grille and want to hide among fellow suburbanites in a high-riding off-road-capable rig, the GX is perfect. It shares many of the same mechanicals and bodywork as the $84,775 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado—and for much less money. The unfortunate styling at the front is GX-unique.
Its 4.6-liter V8 engine with 301 horsepower and 329 pound-feet of torque won’t win the category, nor will its 7.8 second sprint time and 110-mile-per-hour top speed, but it is at least enough power to tow 24-foot boat or a four-horse trailer, should you want it.
The trade-off to a bigger engine is fuel efficiency. GX's efficiency may have been competitive 20 years ago, but it's not now: Some 15 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on the highway fall far behind the ratings of BMW’s X5 sDrive35i ($55,500; 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway) and Audi’s Q7 ($49,000; 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway). Both are also midsize SUVs.
On the bright side, this car will perform well on a real adventure.
Behind the wheel, it feels as if you're sitting on a diving platform: GX is more than six feet tall, six feet wide, and 16 feet long, with enough ground clearance to make it over the odd boulder or ravine. Its full-time, four-wheel-drive system uses a locking limited-slip center differential to prevent too much power from focusing on one wheel, thereby ensuring maximum traction. “Crawl control,” for when the car automatically regulates the accelerator and brakes on steep terrain (all you have to do is move the steering wheel) is optional. I didn’t drive this off-road, and I’m guessing you won’t, either; still, it’s fair to note the opportunity. At 5,198 pounds, the GX weighs roughly 1,000 pounds more than a Ford F-150 Platinum pickup truck.
But the wheels don't match the brick-like heft of the car. Though passengers have to step onto slim foot rails in order to get inside, only 18-inch alloy rims are available. (Most SUVs these days offers wheels that are closer to 20 inches; those are not even optional on the GX.) Looking at the GX is like watching a man with tiny hands—you don’t really notice the size until someone points them out, and then they’re all you can see.
Driving the GX is a bit odd, too: Where most modern luxury SUVs on the market today use a unibody chassis, the GX uses an older so-called body-on-frame arrangement. This means that GX feels more like a truck to drive than a car. It is smooth and very quiet in a straight line, but it feels wobbly and abrupt when accelerated at higher speeds and when rounding corners. Coupled with steering and brakes that feel as if someone stuck a sponge somewhere under the hood—dampening all input from the drivers’ seat—you get the sense you’re sitting on the GX rather than in it, whether you’re behind the wheel or in one of its leather-trimmed, mid-cabin pilot seats.
The Bottom Line
Some pleasant upgrades are available in the interior of the car; if you spring the GX, I advise you to buy them, as I generally do in this column. Mark Levinson Surround Sound, a pre-collision system, dynamic cruise control, lane-departure alert, and intelligent high-beam headlamps pushed the price of the GX I drove to $68,295. They’re worthy nods to luxury that help gloss over the fact that the storage space behind the third-row seat is minimal and the infotainment system (dual-screen rear entertainment is optional; voice command and Bluetooth come standard) uses old Lexus technology rather than the systems found in some of its newer sedans.
But they don’t change the character of the beast, which needs some real evolution.
After a week of driving, I emerged with one firm conclusion: The comparatively dismal GX proved just how competitive the luxury SUV segment is today. If an automaker isn’t offering the latest technology and engineering with each iteration of a product, everything about it feels very left behind.