In 1923, famed British climber George Mallory was asked by a reporter why he wanted to climb the yet-to-be-conquered Mt. Everest. His answer went on to live in the pantheon of exploring quotations: "Because it's there."
One could be forgiven for thinking this was Lexus' reasoning in producing its 2010 GX 460 sport utility vehicle.
See, the GX is a body-on-frame SUV. That's an old-school way of producing a vehicle; the body of the vehicle is a separate component that is mounted to the chassis, which is the frame, drivetrain and suspension. This method lends itself to superior off-road and towing capabilities and not much else. Unibody construction, where the chassis and the body are a single entity, is lighter and offers better handling. It's also how nearly every vehicle on the road is produced today, including the other SUVs in the GX's class.
So why would Toyota's luxury division, whose vehicles are known for their refinement and technology, build an SUV using a construction method popular when Mallory was stocking up on wool socks?
Because the GX is basically a tarted-up version of Toyota's 4Runner, itself a body-on-frame SUV. Redesign the exterior, swaddle the interior in gobs of leather and drop in a modified version of the V-8 from Toyota's Tundra pickup, and quicker than you can say "Wharton MBA case study" Lexus has itself a midsize, seven-passenger family/boat hauler that fits nicely in its lineup between the crossover RX and king-kahuna LX.
Like a starlet who goes to great lengths to hide her rural, corn-fed upbringing, the GX 460, with a base price of about $52,000, almost never reveals its humble roots.
The interior is decidedly upscale with a fresh, clean dashboard featuring large, well-marked controls. Lexus mixes faux metal finishes with wood inserts and real leather trim to create a welcoming, comfortable environment. The front seats are a particular delight, in all their heated, cooled and thickly-bolstered glory. Middle-row seats are pleasant, but full-size adults relegated to the power-folding third row had better sign up for some yoga classes. . Even getting back there is a challenge, so that row is best left to the pint-size Justin Bieber fans in your caravan.
With the third-row seats up, there is very little cargo room left behind them (11.6 cubic feet). Think one row of grocery bags or a pair of carry-on suitcases. To make matters worse, the rear door (it's a wide one) on the GX is hinged such that it swings toward the curb when you're parked on the street. Minor, but annoying when you're loading cargo and forced to run around the door. Fortunately, if you're in a tight space, the rear glass pops open independently.
On the outside, the only thing the Lexus shares with its Toyota cousin is its shape. The GX 460's exterior features softer angles and more curves than the 4Runner, giving it a tasteful, sumptuous look while still maintaining airs of utility. There's enough chrome to look classy, but nothing gratuitous that says you were on a gift registry at Pep Boys (looking at you Mercedes GL). The tall and narrow body does give the vehicle a higher center of gravity. This, paired with a suspension that falls on the soft side to placate the delicate sensibilities of the traditional Lexus consumer, means the vehicle is predisposed to some body roll around tight corners.
This will likely only be noticeable to drivers not used to the feel of a luxury SUV and is relevant only in light of a memorable hiccup in the GX's history.
In April, Consumer Reports issued a rare "don't buy" warning on the GX over concerns that the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) took too long to intervene when the SUV was engaged in a skid. Toyota quickly recalled all GX 460s to reprogram the software and has since resumed selling the vehicle.
Despite the body roll in the post-recall model I tested, at no point did the GX feel unstable, unsafe or cause me to alter my driving tendencies in any way. The (standard) VSC toed the fine line between oppressive nanny and indolent supervisor and did its job admirably both on road and off. This was despite repeated attempts to push the software to its limits in circumstances similar to Consumer Reports' test.
Trust me, I tried.
If a driver is pushing this or any vehicle beyond the limits of common sense, no amount of electronics or software is going to override karma and gravity. (But if either of the two do get the better of you, the GX has 10 standard airbags, including driver and passenger knee airbags and roll-sensing side curtain airbags for all three rows of passengers.)