Lexus hopes GX 470 will capture more of the SUV market

Times Staff Writer

Lexus is filling showrooms this month with its 2003 GX 470 sport utility vehicle and, despite a fairly bland exterior, this scaled-down version of the Land Cruiser-based LX470 may be a winner.

By doing such a nice job on the GX 470 -- and offering the same engine and four-wheel-drive system and almost as much towing power, cabin room and ground clearance as the more expensive LX -- Lexus might seem to be putting its flagship SUV in jeopardy.

But with the reputed profits from these big sport brutes in the $8,000 to $10,000 range, it probably won't hurt much if the cultish LX 470, which sells about 9,000 units a year, suffers a hit while the GX 470 brings Lexus thousands of new buyers who might have gone elsewhere.

So if you always wanted an LX 470 but couldn't afford the $63,700 entry fee, the $45,500 GX 470 might be for you. Of course, the average selling price with a few necessary options will put the GX closer to $50,000, but they also move the LX closer to $70,000.

Lexus says it hopes to sell 20,000 GX 470s a year to customers who own sedans, small SUVs and minivans and those who might consider the V-8-powered Mercedes-Benz ML500 and BMW X-5 4.4i crossover SUVs.

Denny Clements, Lexus division general manager, boasts that the GX is based on a heftier truck platform and has eight-passenger capacity to the German crossover SUVs' five passengers, costs less, weighs less and gets better gas mileage.

But the Lexus has less horsepower -- just 235 ponies from its 4.7-liter V-8 versus 288 in the Mercedes and 290 in the Bimmer.

Torque is about the same in all three, and with 325 pound-feet of power from its engine, the Lexus will tow 5,000 pounds -- the same as the Benz but 1,000 less than the BMW. (Lexus plans to introduce a tow package option this year that will boost the GX's capacity to 6,500 pounds.)

Clements said the horsepower "won't be an issue" because the vehicle's torque will make up the difference at the lower speeds most people drive.

Fuel economy for the GX 470 is 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway in perfect conditions. That's a mile or two per gallon better than the competitors but nothing to brag about. Lexus said the GX would get an LEV, or low-emission-vehicle, rating from the California Air Resources Board.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and these eyes see both the Bimmer and the Benz as better-looking than the Lexus, which has that Toyota truck boxiness.

The GX is a true SUV, though -- a truck body on truck frame -- but because it's a Lexus, it doesn't ride much like a truck, which is a good thing. The steel frame gives it the ruggedness and durability a true off-road vehicle needs and the unibody-built X-5 and ML can't match.

That raises another question -- how many Lexus SUV buyers really go off-roading? Lexus said its surveys show that 20% to 30% of all luxury SUV owners do so, but company executives acknowledge that much of it is on the gravel path to the cabin at the lake, not jumping boulders and ravines in the Mojave Desert.

But when shifted into low range, the four-wheel-drive GX 470 is quite capable of jumping ravines as long as you don't care about scratching the expensive paint.

The GX is based off the redesigned '03 Toyota 4Runner, fitting between the LX and Lexus' entry SUV -- the crossover RX 300 -- and gives Toyota's luxury brand three SUVs of its own. Add the five Toyota-brand SUVs, and that gives Japan's largest car company almost as many brutes, and certainly as many size and trim variations, as Ford or GM.

That's important for Toyota, and dangerous for the domestics, because SUV sales is the only category still growing in the industry as vehicle sales overall sink back to more realistic levels after the annual pace of 17 million units set just a few years ago.

But let's leave the vagaries of the market and get down to the hardware.

Lexus provides plenty of it on the GX. From the optional third-row seats, adjustable suspension, heated leather seats, traction control, hill descent control and maple trim to the standard six-disc CD changer, this is a luxury SUV. It comes equipped as such.

Many of the doodads have as their principal purpose making you feel $50,000 worth of pampered. But there's a lot of engineering and technology that goes into ensuring that the smooth ride, silky handling and surging performance you expect from a Lexus are there in this nearly 4,700-pound package.

Lexus introduced the GX to the press this fall in the thin air of Park City, Utah. And on the road and on an off-road course carved out of the cross-country ski track used in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the preproduction models we drove did everything you'd expect from a Lexus luxury SUV.

The four-level suspension control was particularly impressive, varying the ride from soft and cushy to sports car firm at the touch of a button. The body roll that makes some SUVs uncomfortable when traversing mountain roads at speeds higher than a crawl was there in the softest settings but disappeared with firmer settings.

The engine has sufficient power to let you lead the pack as you pull away from a traffic signal and to pull the hefty GX up steep hills with little effort.

There was more wind noise that I'd expect from a Lexus, especially at freeway speeds, but chief engineer Kunihiro Hoshi promised that by the time the production models hit the showrooms, the window glass would be thicker to block the wind from those oversize side-view mirrors.

Things Lexus won't change are a CD changer that takes up room in the glove box instead of being slotted nicely into the dash -- the optional navigation system takes up the dash space. And the cumbersome third-row seat storage system that requires owners to fold the seats down, then flip them up and fasten them to the sides of the cargo area. This is because the GX's steel frame doesn't leave enough room for rear seats that fold flat into the floor as they do on unibody vehicles such as the Lincoln Navigator and the Honda Pilot.

Final words: If you've got $50,000 to spend on an SUV and need capability more than breathtaking acceleration or sexy good looks, this is it.

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John O'Dell writes about the auto industry for Highway 1 and the Business section. E-mail: johnodell@latimes.com.

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