When the sport/utility market grew beyond Jeeps, Blazers, and Broncos, Lexus was still a sparkling dollar sign in Toyota executives' eyes. But then Lexus reworked a Land Cruiser into an LX 450 and introduced the RX 300, which quickly became one of their top sellers. Now comes the third Lexus SUV, more akin to the new 4Runner than the Sequoia or LX 470.

Built from the ground up to see service in less than ideal circumstances, the GX 470 foundation is a fully boxed frame with nine welded crossmembers, yielding frame stiffness more like that of a unibody. We did manage to get one perched on three wheels and had no difficulty opening or closing a door or tailgate. In keeping with contemporary concerns, the forward crossmember is mounted low so that, in the event of a collision, it hits a car at a strong point and not a window. A GX is marginally taller than an LX, but not as wide nor long, and almost a half ton lighter.

It's unlikely the GX will be mistaken for anything but a Lexus, with the projector headlamps, faint emerald-tint lamp covers, tapered grille, pronounced fender flares, and illuminated runningboards. The integration of said boards, flares, and mud guards is much improved, and aerodynamics generate little wind noise. In reality, you could close your eyes and use the scent of leather and sound of silence to determine it's a Lexus.

The standard GX is a five-passenger unit, with generous front buckets and comfortable accommodations for three across the 60/40 rear seat. Cargo space is close to 50 cubic feet, but this can be dropped to 13 by ordering the third-row, three-person, 50/50 seat (which includes rear climate). The last row can be folded against the side windows or easily removed for maximizing space, and it has ample room for kids or adults who shop in the kids' department. The rear door swings open to the street side, so there's no tailgate to climb over or hatch to scrape on the garage roof or interfere with an effective rear wiper.

Any luxury car owner will find appointments familiar, with leather seats and trim and bird's-eye maple woodwork so beautifully polished that the console section can reflect significant sun glare. General admission includes two-person memory system, 10-way driver and four-way passenger power heated seats, dual-zone climate control, powered and defrosted quarter windows, automatic dimming mirrors with heat and tilt outside, power tilt/telescoping wheel with exit function, redundant audio controls, seven-function trip computer that offers altimeter and barometer displays, foglamps, rolling code security system, and 11-speaker six-disc in-dash sound system.

Were that not enough for your resident sybarite, the GX may also be equipped with Lexus' DVD-based navigation system (the CD changer moves to the glovebox), rain-sensing windshield wipers, roof rack, towing package (currently rated at 5000 lb but expected to go to 6500 soon), and a wood-and-leather wheel and shifter you won't want to let go of.

An optional flip-down LCD screen provides rear-seat entertainment, including video games, DVD, and wireless headphones. The optional Mark Levinson sound system includes a center-channel and subwoofer driver among 14 speakers, digital signal processing, and 240 watts of amplification. It's possible to have the rear seaters watching a DVD and listening on wireless headphones, while the front seats watch a DVD on the nav screen with audio through the Levinson system--so much for roughing it, though only while the vehicle is parked.

One of the few things on the GX not new is the engine, the proven 4.7-liter four-cam V-8. Up 5 horsepower from last year to 235, this engine's forte is torque, with 250 lb-ft available at 1100 rpm and all 320 on call by 3400 rpm. One-touch starting is now employed for convenience, and it won't crank if you don't hear it running and try again.

The gearbox, on the other hand, is new and now has five speeds, so first gear is much shorter, there's less space between any two gears except fourth and fifth, and the overdrive is taller. The shifter now uses a zig-zag gate, so there are no buttons to push to lock out overdrive or get out of reverse, and no repeated slapping it sideways or back-and-forth like manumatics. Just put the shifter in the slot you want and there you are. Lexus estimates a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds, and since the GX is lighter than the LX or Sequoia four-speeds previously tested, this seems realistic. For winter conditions, there is a "2nd Gear Start" button on the dash behind the key, but if you put the shifter in second, that's where it starts out from.

All GX 470s are full-time four-wheel drive, the on-pavement aspect controlled by a TorSen center differential. Baseline bias is 40/60 (f/r), but it can vary as much as 29/71-53/47. The center differential is lockable via console switch, and this necessarily defeats the skid-control system, but enthusiasts won't find themselves using this trick because the skid control is relatively unobtrusive--it's still there, but a damp crosswalk corner won't invoke it.

More severe off-highway work is handled by a 2.57:1 low-range, with all manner of electronic "assists." A-TRAC active traction control works at all four wheels, doing what you'd expect. The Hill-start assist control works like Subaru's hill-holder: Taking your foot off the gas on an angle won't send the car slipping down the hill against its converter. Downhill assist applies brakes automatically in low range to keep the GX at 2-4 mph, as long as you keep your feet off the pedals. Touching the brake pedal will send you faster because the system is rightly programmed to go off when any pedal is pressed. The all-vented disc brakes tie into the same systems and have electronic brake distribution and brake assist, so you only need to plant your foot hard. This activity is accompanied by the buzz-and-click common to such systems.

Like the LX, the GX is at the top of the heap for isolation and ride comfort in a frame-based SUV. Road noise is easily hushed by talk radio, yet huge potholes are absorbed without an appointment at the alignment shop. Double wishbones in front use coil-overs, while the rear suspension is by air springs and a four-link arrangement; rear ride height can be raised for improving departure angle four degrees (simultaneously lowering approach angle by one degree because front ride height doesn't change) and dragging the hitch less. The air suspension also handles automatic-leveling chores.

For a big SUV, the rack-and-pinion steering gives good feedback and response, and the pitch of the teeth on the rack changes to provide faster reaction the more the wheel is turned. Handling characteristics are controlled by Lexus' Adaptive Variable Suspension, which manages each shock independently with four modes between "Comfort" and "Sport," and 17-inch alloy wheels with an identical spare.

Lexus anticipates a base price near $45,000, with a fully loaded GX around $55-$60K. This segment of the SUV market isn't as saturated as others, and while we don't consider the BMW X5 4.4i a GX-competitor except on price, we also don't expect Lexus to have any trouble selling 20,000 a year. TT

2003 Lexus LX 470
Not about to be outdone by a new sibling, the flagship LX 470 cruises into 2003 with some significant upgrades, two of which are currently unavailable on any other Lexus: variable gear ratio steering and the Lexus Night View system.

Night View uses near-infrared projectors in the front bumper, a camera, and head-up display to provide extra visibility at a range three to four times farther than low-beam headlights yet not as far as high beams. The variable gear ratio steering operates normally at speed but requires far less wheel turning for sharp low-speed maneuvering.

Other upgrades to the LX include another 5 horsepower and another gear in the automatic transmission for improved launch, 18x8.0-inch alloy wheels with 60-series tires that improve on-road performance and crispness at the expense of off-highway and pothole comfort, and new standards such as rain-sensing wipers, voice-activated navigation, side airbags and curtains, and tire-pressure monitors.--GRW

2003 Lexus GX 470
GENERAL
Location of final assemblyTahara, Japan
Body style4-door SUV
EPA size classSpecial purpose
Drivetrain layoutFront engine/4WD
AirbagsFront/side/curtain
POWERTRAIN
Engine type4.7L V-8 cast-iron block, alum head
Bore x stroke, in3.70x3.31
Displacement, cu in/L285/4.7
Compression ratio9.6:1
Valve gearDOHC, 4 valves/cyl VVT
Fuel inductionSFI
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm235 @ 4800
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm320 @ 3400
Transmission typeA750F 5-speed auto
1st3.52:1
2nd2.04:1
3rd1.40:1
4th1.00:1
5th0.72:1
Reverse3.20:1
Axle ratio3.73:1
Final-drive ratio2.69:1
Transfer-case modelVF4BM
Low-range ratio2.57:1
Crawl ratio(1st x axle x low range) 33.7:1
Recommended fuelUnleaded premium
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy)15/18
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in109.8
Length, in188.2
Width, in74.0
Height, in73.0
Track, f/r, in62.2/62.2
Headroom, f/m/r, in41.0/40.4/36.1
Legroom, f/m/r, in41.8/36.8/24.9
Shoulder room, f/m/r, in57.5/57.4/56.8
Cargo-area volume, cu ft112.3
3rd row, seat up13.2
3rd row, seat folded/removed39.8/49.7
Back-row seat down77.5
Ground clearance, in8.3
Approach/departure angle (normal/high)31°/25°
Base curb weight, lb4675
Weight distribution, %, f/r53/47
Payload capacity, lb1425
GVWR, lb6100
GCWR, lb11,500
Towing capacity, lb6500 (est)
Fuel capacity, gal23.0
CHASSIS
Suspension, f/rInd, A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; solid axle, air/link, panhard rod, anti-roll bar
Steering typeRack and pinion
Ratio15.7:1
Turns, lock to lock3.04
Turning circle, ft37.4
Brakes, f/r13.3-in vented disc, ABS/12.3-in vented disc, ABS
Wheels17x7.5 alloy
Tires265/65HR17
PERFORMANCE
Acceleration (sec)
0-302.52
0-404.02
0-505.76
0-607.98
0-7010.77
0-8014.25
0-9019.11
Standing quarter mile (sec @ mph)16.05 @ 84.80
Braking, 60-0, ft131
Speed through 600-ft slalom, mph57.10
PRICE
Base price$44,952
Price as tested$49,615
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