Part of a car's conception is the moment engineers hand over their bright idea to the marketing people, who promptly organise market research complete with round tables, crackers and refreshments.
This is when the average guy tells the marketing people that what he wants in his next car is more room, more sports car handling and more kit.
So what you get is something like a BMW X5, which truly does handle well, is pretty big and has a lot of stuff inside, but is, in my view, completely pointless. A BMW 5 Series saloon is better than an X5 at everything, except at just one tiny little thing; climbing kerbs. Which is probably as far off-road as an X5 ever goes.
So why go through the trouble? Why fit it with a fancy four-wheel drive system and add weight and cost? Why fettle with the chassis until it's as stiff as something out of the M division? But for what it is, the X5 (or a Merc ML, Audi Q7) is undoubtedly a good car.
Anyway, Toyota must have been conducting its own market research, and we'll bet the results in Japan turned out completely different to the German ones.
If it ain't broke…
The new Lexus GX460 — based heavily on the 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado — is everything a trendy rival SUV isn't, but also is. Sorry to be so obtuse; what I mean to say is that the round table discussions in Japan were attended mostly by people who want an off-roader that can do off-roadish things. But they also want comfort, space, kit and all the stuff that the rest of us do, although Lexus stopped just short of offering a sporty drive as well.
So why am I still a little undecided about whether this is the best SUV on the planet? You see, the new Prado isn't a unibody construction like the German SUVs. It's an old fashioned body-on-frame vehicle. This isn't good if you want your SUV to handle like a sports car. So, what do we make of a tarted up Prado in the company of posh Bimmers, Mercs and Audis (as well as some worthy Americans including the upcoming 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee)?
On-road, off-road, any road you got
First of all, while it may share the frame and most body panels, the Lexus GX460 is not just a dressed up Prado. Second, Lexus makes no qualms about its choice of chassis, since it actually counts on its customers going off-road. Lastly, Lexus doesn't care that the GX460 wouldn't handle even remotely like a sports car — it's not a sports car.
The brand expects its customers will place value on the car's interior, quietness, reliability and desert prowess. It certainly doesn't hope to sell on looks; the GX460 differentiates from the Prado outside with new front and rear lights, its own grille and some badges, which aren't enough to make it stand out in its crowded segment. In fact, critics are already saying that it's just another Toyota kitchen appliance on wheels.
Personally, I like the understated looks and while it will never ooze class like a Range Rover valet-parked in front of a hotel, it doesn't actually offend.
The big improvements were reserved for the cabin, which features an all-new dash, steering wheel and materials, including Lexus's dreamlike leather that covers most of the bits you see. Even the rare patches of plastic are dimpled and grooved to realistically mimic the look of animal hide.
Being a Lexus, most buyers of the GX460 will naturally be impressed by its unrivalled ride quality. The sublime forward progress is made possible by an adaptive and variable suspension system as well as air suspension in the rear and double wishbones up ahead. Further enhancing the faultless ride quality is the isolated body — which we all thought would be a downer — since it reduces the noise creeping in.
Then there is the new powertrain. Toyotas get a 4.0-litre V6, but the GX460 gets a 4.6-litre V8 delivering 292bhp. Now this may only be about 20 more than in the Prado, but consider the six-speed automatic transmission and 438Nm of torque stomping in from 3,500rpm.
The engine is willing from a standing start through to highway speeds, all the while keeping economy at a reasonable 12-litres per 100km (if you can steady your right foot). Unfortunately, the transmission — which Lexus makes a lot of noise about — is a bit too eager to drop two gears instead of just one, making the whole car lunge forward after kickdown with the danger of unsettling your hairdo.
Granted, this is down to the car's soft nature, tall ride and high centre of gravity as much as it is down to the gearbox, which, to be fair, is silky with its cog swaps otherwise. Still, never in a million years would you ever hang onto the tail of a furiously driven X5, Q7 or whatever other school-run SUV you can imagine.
At the prospect of the first corner, the GX460 will run and hide. It would probably prefer to just steer clean off the road and take the desert rather than face some sweeping esses. If you're accustomed to sterner, more Teutonic ways of taking bends, then you will require a detox period of a few days after you climb into the GX460.
First of all, no trail braking whatsoever; always brake at the point you perceive is way too early (there are two-and-a-half tonnes of steel, leather, wood and glass to stop after all). And don't ever think about yanking on the steering wheel. Your movements should be like a surgeon's in the GX460 — calculated, smooth and assured. Master its idiosyncrasies and you're left with a very comfortable SUV. You can even plan on having four or five children, since the GX460 can handle all that and a dog (although moms will have a problem swinging open the bulky rear tailgate, despite it not carrying a spare — which is hidden underneath).
Yes, the GX460 will also happily traverse off-road obstacles, be they rocks or dunes, thanks to crawl control, a steering angle indicator, multi-terrain select and the multi-terrain monitor.
I had a brief excursion into the sands of Al Maha desert resort, where the biggest impediments to the GX460's progress were its front and rear bumpers. Lose those, and you'll easily keep going until you reach Cairo.
Apart from all that, the GX460 is loaded with additional kit such as adaptive cruise control, a wide-view front and side monitor system, Lexus park assist (too complex to use, but nice to brag about), a cooler box and a 17-speaker sound system which delivers a concert experience whether you're into Puccini or Nickelback.
Lexus isn't trying to hide the fact that its newest model is a body-on-frame vehicle, while all the rivals of the GX460 are monocoque constructions. In fact, the company boasts about it, claiming better off-road performance as an upside.
It's true, of course, as the GX460 is a proper off-roader, while at the same time providing superior on-road performance. That is, as long as you aren't in a hurry to get anywhere and the road is mostly straight. Regardless, body-on-frame is here to stay, proving that as a utility (and don't forget that you can't write SUV without utility) tool, there's no better way to do it.
With the GX460, Lexus immediately climbs to the top of the capable SUV list, leaving behind it the much more expensive rivals who only have space and sportiness going for them. OK, and looks.
Who would've thought that a centuries-old manufacturing solution would be enough to catapult a 21st century Lexus to the head of the cutting-edge SUV table.
And, hey, you can always look at it this way; at least it doesn't have leaf springs.
Specs & rating
- Model: GX460
- Engine: 4.6-litre V8
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic
- Max power: 292bhp @ 5,500rpm
- Max torque: 438Nm @ 3,500rpm
- Top speed: NA
- 0-100kph: NA
- Price: Dh230,000 (base)
- Plus: Luxurious ride, superb off-road capabilities, serious Range Rover rival
- Minus: Not a great handler