There are many SUVs, some are more SUV than others, but in my view, the best SUV is the Lexus GX. Now, in 2023, for only the 3rd time in 20 years, Lexus is about to give the world a new best SUV, and while for most of the GX’s lifetime it’s gone largely unnoticed, I have to wonder if that will continue. But first, allow me to convince you what I, the entire Autopian staff (probably) [Editor’s Note: Not quite, but go on. -DT]), and many others have discovered: The GX is the best.
I want to be clear that the GX is NOT the best car, nor is it necessarily the best car for you, but I stand by my statement that it’s the best SUV.
[Update: See the new 2024 Lexus GX here!]
[Editor’s Note: Patrick Rich is a true overlanding expert, having spent far too much time driving Land Cruisers and even more time researching info about nerdy four-wheel drive technology. -DT].
The GX Is A Land Cruiser, But Its Lineage Is Complicated
Introduced in 2002 for the U.S. market, the Lexus GX470 that we got was actually on its 3rd generation, or maybe its second? It gets complicated. As is the case with most Lexus, the GX was actually a Toyota first. The ES is a fancy Camry, the NX is a fancy RAV4, the LX is a fancy Land Cruiser, etc. The GX, chassis codes J120 and J150, is the overseas Land Cruiser Prado with a fancy badge and unfortunate grill. This is the modern Prado, by the way:
Yes, the GX is a Land Cruiser, but not THE Land Cruiser. So what is it and how did we get here? The history of the Land Cruiser is a little funky but the short version is this: Most people know the 40 series, the classic Land Cruiser that always gets confused for a Jeep; it was sold in the US from 1960 to 1984 (and in Brazil to 2001!). This thing:
From here the line splits into two branches: The hard-working 70 series and what I call the “J wagon” family vehicles. The heavy duty 70 series is still in production for certain markets. Check it out:
The J wagons evolved along their own path from 1967 to today — J55, J60, J80, J100, J200 and finally the J300, shown below:
To further complicate things, the 70 series split into two groups, light-duty and heavy-duty. Starting in 1990, the wagon-bodied light-duty 70 series was renamed Prado (Meadow in Spanish) as a way to further differentiate the SUV portfolio with narrower bodies and smaller engines meant to be a little more economical and practical in cities. The Prado line is where the GX fits in.
Enter the GX
In 2002, a 3rd generation Land Cruiser Prado (J120) was introduced globally. At the same time, a stablemate was created for the growing Lexus brand trying to meet the needs of SUV enamored North American consumers who also demanded higher levels of refinement than a 4Runner. Unlike the N chassis 4runners, the GX was straight up Prado with very little effort to try and hide it, much like the 100 series LX and Land Cruiser of the time.
To make it a Lexus, the diesel 4 cylinder was dropped in favor of the 4.7L V8 from the Tundra and Land Cruiser. This is a truck version of the company’s legendary 1UZ-FE used in the LS400 among others. This Lexus tuned 2UZ-FE delivered the refinement and power the brand demanded. Underneath, self-leveling height adjustable air springs replaced coils in the rear (optional) and adjustable shocks could vary the firmness between four settings. The transformation continued inside in the usual way – fake wood trim, leather everywhere, nicer stereo, etc. Here’s a 2008 interior like mine:
Here’s the modern GX cabin, if you’re curious:
The GX470 proved popular among the country club set and quickly established itself as a boulevard cruising, white glove midsize SUV Lexus wanted.
The GX Can Do It All
So what makes it great? Simply put, the GX does it all. It’s not the best at any one thing, but it’s good at just about everything.
Take power as an example. Beginning at 235 hp in the early GX470’s then moving to 263 and up to the current 301 hp in the GX460 (see engine below), these figures were never class leading. but they were enough. The power is linear, the torque is ever-present, and — properly cared for — these engines will outlast even the Fast and Furious franchise.
The million mile Tundra was powered by a 2UZ-FE. It’s the same story with the transmissions; the Aisin five and six speeds available on the GX are nothing to write home about, but they do their job and don’t complain. It’s more than enough even if it’s not earth shattering.
The GX can tow 6,500 pounds. This isn’t the best, but it is above average, and it makes a difference. It’s the difference between towing this 6,300 lb boat and not. With the 109.8 inch wheelbase, permanent AWD low range, and load leveling suspension, maneuvering the boat around the dock and storage is a breeze.
While its height and blockiness give the impression that it’s a big lumbering Land Crusher, at 192 inches long by 74 inches wide the larger GX460 is smaller than a Toyota Highlander in both length and width by several inches. In actual fact, a three row GX470 is the same length as a BMW 330i. It’s only 2 inches wider, and it’s more nimble than you might think.
These tidy dimensions give the GX surprising nimbleness. GM makes a lot of noise about how the Hummer EV’s 4-wheel steering gives it an astonishing turning circle of only 37.1 feet. While that is great for something the size of a food truck, the GX470 will do the task in 37.4 feet, with just two turning wheels, mind you. That diameter happens to be exactly the same turning circle as a rear-wheel drive BMW 330i for reference, while the AWD xDrive 330i has a 2 feet larger turning circle.
On the Topic of AWD, the GX comes exclusively with what Toyota calls Full-time 4WD. This is accomplished with a two-speed full-time passive AWD transfer case with a Torsen center differential and a 40:60 rear bias and locking function. I’ve written way too many words about what this means elsewhere, but it’s enough to say that this is a VERY good system for both on and off-road uses and it does nothing but add to the GX’s versatility. This is the same layout that established Audi Quattro as synonymous with AWD traction.
On-road the adjustable dampers (automatic on the GX460) and coil/air combo give you a surprisingly good ride for something so trucky underneath, and with the KDSS system body roll and head toss are at a minimum. This is a great machine for covering miles.
Off-road, the GX reveals its Land Cruiser heritage. With a low range, a V8, a rear five-link solid axle, a locking center differential, ATRAC and optional KDSS, the GX will hustle around the dirt and rocks better than you might think. The tall body with generous glass area also makes spotting your line much easier than other designs. Yeah, it looks goofy, but I’ll take it for the commanding visibility it offers. It’s little wonder that these have become highly sought after to convert into overlanding rigs.
Even Toyota has finally taken notice and started marketing to the overlanding audience as this GXOR concept above proves. Think 4Runner and you get the idea. In fact, so many aftermarket parts that bolt up to a 4runner or Tacoma or FJ Cruiser will bolt right up to a GX. The GX, unlike some “rugged” luxury crossovers today, is not a car based platform wearing cargo pants, it’s a legit off-road machine that happens to be dressed up for dinner.
The GX is an optional seven seater. No one would describe the seats as roomy, but it’s not that big of a car either. My family of four has found the 3rd row incredibly valuable in converting from a spacious wagon to a short-haul people mover with little effort. This class of seven seaters is popular for families for this very reason and not because people will be using those seats all the time. Maybe you are on bike shuttle duty today? Maybe your kids and their friends are going swimming, or maybe you are taking your folks with you to dinner. The GX handles these scenarios perfectly. The tall body makes room for a third row feasible, its payload rating as a truck makes the load easy to shoulder, and with self leveling air springs on the rear axle, you don’t even notice the added load. Don’t need a 3rd row? The GX is a large five seater with more than enough cargo volume for even heavy packers.
To be clear, this isn’t the car for a big family. I grew up in a family of 7 and my shuttled life was a string of Chevy Suburbans. I can’t even imagine trying to make a car this size work for a large family full time. If you need a full-time third row, the GX isn’t your beau. What you get with a GX is, you guessed it, versatility. Picking up on the theme?
Now the GX isn’t good at everything, and in some things, it’s quite bad. At 15 MPG city and 19 MPG highway, it’s a pretty poor choice for economy and I average 14 in town and 19 on the highway in mine equipped with all terrain tires. Handling isn’t really its thing either, despite a good AWD system, adaptive suspension and a 48/52 weight distribution. It’s heavy and tall and you feel it, though you might be surprised how competent it is in the twisties.
It also looks like a really poor value. 60 grand for a fancy 4Runner?! First, is it really that shocking in 2023 to spend 60 grand on a car? When you can spend 50 grand on a Corolla and 90 grand on a Wrangler, 60 grand seems pretty reasonable to me for a seven seat luxury off-road wagon. It’s actually looking like a pretty decent deal these days for people looking at Defenders, Grand Cherokees, and even loaded up Wranglers and 4Runners. When you start to look at used models, pricing gets even better.
Remember when I said that the GX found love with the country club set? What a blessing for the overlander that they did. Can you think of a demographic that will be more likely to:
- Not use it off-road
- Service it regularly at the dealership
- Trade up when it’s no longer the current fashion
When you buy a used 4runner you can assume someone probably rallied it pretty hard, but the GX? Not unless you are the 3rd or 4th owner. It’s not hard to find well cared for, low mile GX for far less than the equivalent 4Runner. For some reasons the “Toyota tax” is a lot smaller in the Lexus family.
This is my 2008 GX470. When compared to similar year and mile used 4Runners, we ended up spending several thousand dollars less on this one owner SoCal car. It was perfect underneath with no rust and no signs of abuse and detailed service records. I bought it with 120k miles and aside from the usual maintenance (brakes, oil, etc) and a few odd repairs (T-case seal, Torn CV, timing belt/water pump service) it has been basically trouble free to 191,000 miles. It doesn’t leak, it doesn’t consume oil, it drives tight and it works hard on and off-road. Land Cruisers are generally considered one of the safest bets you can make for reliability and the GX earns that rep as well. Yes, the GX470 has a timing belt that needs replacing every 90,000 miles but the newer GX460 is a timing chain, eliminating that issue. On the whole, you would be hard pressed to find a more reliable and maintenance free SUV.
Anyway, by now it should be obvious why the GX has relatively recently become such a huge player in the overlanding space, even if it gets overshadowed by the real Land Cruiser and its Lexus LX sibling. To summarize why this is the best SUV:
- Small and nimble
- Big enough for 5 and all their stuff or 7 in a pinch
- Good power
- Great sightlines
- Better than average utility
- As good as any stock SUV off-road
- Probably one of the most reliable things you can buy
To people who know me, it should probably come as no surprise to learn that I’m the guy who carries around a multi-tool on my belt most days. Yeah, it throws off a certain vibe but I don’t care, because my multi-tool and I are often johnny-on-the-spot when people need something. That’s the GX in a nutshell – It’s got a vibe, and it’s not necessarily a good one and it’s not the perfect tool for any one job, but it’s the one that will always come through when you need it.
The GX470 is actually my wife’s daily driver. When VW offered to buy back her cheating Sportwagen TDI 6MT for basically what we bought it for, we couldn’t resist; this meant my wife needed a new car. She’d owned VWs her whole life and was opposed to driving anything but European cars. We looked at European brands, but in the end, we chose the GX470 because of the value it represented and how much more solid and well-built it felt compared to the others. Now after several years of ownership, I doubt I could pry her away from it. If you own a GX, chances are you absolutely love it.
Now, just before the launch of a new GX [finally] we get to ask the question all over again: Will this GX also be the best SUV? The new GX, which shares its TNGA-F platform with other new Toyota trucks, (Tundra, Land Cruiser, LX, Tacoma, Sequoia, and eventually 4Runner) stands a very good chance at keepings that title. The TNGA-F platform is stronger, lighter, better on fuel and even tougher off-road. And based on the spy spots it looks like Lexus may have finally picked up on the appeal of the GX and given it a chance to come out of the shadows.
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