2003 Lexus GX 470
Exceptional manners, techno-solutions, and quirky styling are not only stereotypical Japanese traits, they're abundant in the '03 Lexus GX 470. Adding to the existing lineup, Lexus this year introduces a third SUV to the family. Although the truck's body-on-frame platform is shared with the fourth-generation '03 Toyota 4Runner, the look and much of the equipment, particularly suspension pieces and interior trimmings, are unique to the Lexus SUV.

The GX 470 reveals its Lexus family roots with its backswept headlamps and horizontal grille elements. In fact, it even looks like a giant LS 430 sedan converted into a wagon, if there were such a thing. The elegant Japanese space-pod look isn't for everybody, and certainly there are other more compelling or aggressive visages to choose from. But many people have grown to appreciate the Lexus image, and the company plans to sell at least 20,000 GX 470s in the coming year.

A thoroughly modern, efficient, and clean-burning 4.7-liter 235-horsepower V-8 hustles the GX 470 to 60 mph in eight seconds flat, while returning the best fuel economy in this test. An electronic five-speed automatic transmission is mated with a two-speed transfer case that's uncharacteristically not electronic, but lever-actuated. A torque-sensing Torsen center differential continuously moderates power distribution to front and rear axles. Under most conditions, the split is 40:60, but this ratio changes to 29:71 as steering input is detected, and if the rear wheels slip in relation to the fronts, the ratio again changes to 53:47 front to rear. When the transfer case is in low range, the driver can lock the ratio at 50:50 and disable vehicle skid control for true full-time four-wheel drive. Combine all this capability with impressive approach, departure, and breakover angles, and the result is a luxury SUV that can follow the Land Rover into every off-road situation we could find--plus offer the smoothest ride of the three.

Peering deeper into the driveline shows an arsenal of electronic off-road management systems that'll have you thinking somebody spilled a bowl of acronym soup: ABS, TRAC, DAC, HAC, VSC, EBD, and AVS. In a nutshell, computer software and various sensors throughout the vehicle monitor on- and off-road progress, and the hardware, initially intended just for the anti-lock braking system, is put to use in new ways. Each system talks to the others to ensure you go where you want to go through TRACtion control, Downhill Assist Control, Hill-start Assist Control, Vehicle Skid Control, emergency Brake Assist, and Electronic Brake force Distribution. We don't even need to muddy the soup with the optional rear-seat remote-controlled DVD player with a TFT (thin film transistor) display, or separate DVD-based navigation system, or the 240-watt, 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with in-dash CD cassette. All this Car Wars technology is meant to solve the dilemmas inherent in driving a dedicated off-roader in an urban environment, or vice versa--and it works.