Lexus GX 470 SUV provides room to grow at a lower price

Chicago Tribune

When you stop to refuel after a few hours on the road and must break a $100 bill, you begin to wonder whether it would have been cheaper to fly.

My adventure took place in a new-for-2003 Lexus GX 470 sport utility vehicle, an addition to Toyota's luxury division. The GX was added to provide a $45,000 model, so owners of the $35,000 Lexus RX 300 had a vehicle to move up to without having to climb all the way to the $63,000 Lexus LX 470.

The GX 470 is built on a 109.8-inch wheelbase and is 188.2 inches long overall. By comparison, the wheelbase on the RX 300 is 6 inches shorter, and the vehicle is 8 inches shorter overall.

RX 300 owners move up when they want more comfort and more room. The RX 300 provides two rows of seats, while the GX 470 has three. The added seats cost $2,030, though for that price Lexus throws in rear-seat air conditioning. The LX 470 also offers three rows of seats, but $2,030 is a lot cheaper than $63,000, don't you think?

To get to the third row, you pull a lever and the seat flips open.

If you need more cargo capacity than seats, each side of the split-bench third row flips sideways and hooks to the cabin wall. No need to remove them. If more room is needed, the second-row seat backs fold as well.

Rather than a flip-open hatch lid, the GX 470 comes with a swing-open rear door. The advantage is that the door opens wide for loading luggage, gear or clubs while in your driveway. The disadvantage is that if someone has parked close behind you at the mall, loading may not be so easy.

The GX 470 is built on a Toyota 4Runner sport utility platform, which means it is truck-based and, as expected, delivers truck-like ride and handling. It comes with a system called Adaptive Variable Suspension Damping designed to smooth out the ride by continuously adjusting shock rates at each wheel based on road surface, vehicle speed, steering and braking inputs. All well and good, but the seat-of-the-pants sensation is that you are riding in a truck and not in a sedan.

The RX 300 (which becomes the RX 330 when the redesigned model with a bigger 3.3-liter, 230-horsepower V-6 replaces the 3-liter, 220-horsepower V-6 this month is based on the Camry platform. It delivers a much smoother ride and improved handling, not to mention better mileage (18 mpg city/24 mpg highway), though it does so without a V-8 engine.

The GX 470 is powered by the same 4.7-liter, 235-horsepower, 32-valve V-8 that is in the larger LX 470. It is teamed with a 5-speed automatic. It has adequate power, and pulling out to pass was a quick and easy task.

However, the fuel economy is only 15 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway, so always carry a $100 bill. And if the car ahead of you has a Sierra Club sticker on its bumper, don't expect a friendly wave from the driver when you pass.

The GX 470 sits high to provide the clearance needed for off-roading. On the road, the height makes it easy to see ahead when the weather is clear -- and it's even nicer when it is storming and you need to allow for quicker reaction times.

The height has two disadvantages, though. The GX 470 has a tendency to lean in the turns, and entering or exiting the cabin can be a challenge for the short of stature. The GX 470 comes with an illuminated running board, which is excellent at night, but the board is rather teeny and meant more for toes than feet.

If Lexus doesn't blink at charging $2,030 for a couple of seats, why doesn't it offer a power retractable running board like the Lincoln Navigator's to help you get in and out? Or at least it could widen the running board.

The all-wheel-drive system is full-time, so you don't have to twist dials or levers to engage it. AWD helps to put you at ease when having to maneuver in a storm. Of course, there are a number of sophisticated technology systems used in the GX 470 to ensure safe, stable, driver-in-control motoring in fair or foul weather, such as:

* Anti-lock brakes with traction control and brake assist that automatically use more force to engage ABS when the driver is not applying enough pedal pressure.

* Vehicle skid control to help control loss of lateral traction when cornering on slippery surfaces by using throttle control or brake intervention.

* Downhill assist control to limit and hold vehicle speed when negotiating steep declines off-road.

* Hill-start assist control to keep the vehicle stationary when starting on a steep incline or slippery surface.

If you need routing assistance, the GX 470 offers an optional navigation system that's packaged with a Mark Levinson audio system for $2,700. Of course, for $2,700 you could employ a guide -- Mark Levinson, perhaps.

I didn't have time to master the system, however, because the ride was only from Illinois to Minnesota and back. Truth be told, however, if the trip was from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty, I probably wouldn't have been able to make it function. If the clock on your VCR has been blinking 12:00 for the last couple of years, use road maps and forgo the navigation system.

The GX 470 has a base sticker price of $44,925. If you need three rows of seats and the electronic road map, $50,000 is within sight.

Standard equipment includes heated outside mirrors that tilt when you put the vehicle in reverse, which may be handy to see the curb but takes the focus off people or things behind you when backing up; water-repellent front door glass, excellent when driving through a storm; and rain-sensing wipers.

Also, power and heated driver/passenger seats; automatic climate control with driver/passenger settings; power door locks; power windows with retained power to open or close later; manual swing-out rear side windows; 12-volt accessory outlet and 115-volt power outlet in the cargo hold for such items as small appliances; power tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; remote fuel door release (hidden, make that buried, under the steering wheel); first aid and tool kits; AM/FM radio with six-disc CD changer and rear-seat audio system; and front-seat side-impact air bags and first- and second-row side air-bag curtains.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2003 Lexus GX 470

Wheelbase: 109.8 inches

Length: 188.2 inches

Engine: 4.7-liter, 235-horsepower, 32-valve V-8

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 15 mpg city/18 mpg highway

Base price: $44,925

Price as tested: $49,747. Includes $2,700 for navigation system and Mark Levinson audio package; $2,030 for third-row seats with rear-seat air conditioning; and $92 for a cargo net. Add $575 for freight.

Pluses: New entry is a step up from the $35,000 RX 300/330. Full-time AWD. Excellent cabin room and more than adequate cargo capacity. Fairly easy access to optional third-row seats that fold along the cabin walls when loading.

Minuses: A $45,000 move-up from the RX 300/330. Truck-like ride, handling and mileage. Step-in height. Baffling navigation system.

-- Jim Mateja

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