By Danny Harrison
The 2015 Lexus GX 460 our family recently reviewed was delivered just in time for us to put it to a few days’ worth of ’round town testing before subjecting it to perhaps the ultimate test of any SUV: Family vacation at the beach.
The verdict? While the beautiful and stylish mid-sizer is a delightful daily driver, it is a hands-down champ on the interstate.
When Lexus’ concierge service dropped the GX off at my office, I was reasonably impressed with its handsome aesthetics, but when the driver opened the door to show me the cream leather with tan and silver interior, I hoped the vehicle performed as good as it looked. Sporting a nearly-$63,000 price tag at this trim level (starts at $49,485), buyers will surely want more than just eye candy.
Indeed, this mid-sized ute drives great around town, but so did the Toyota RAV4 we reviewed in March, which was about half the price. However, there are several graces found in the GX that I had never enjoyed before, such as ventilated seats, 3-D navigation, hands-down the best factory sound system I’ve ever met, and lots of other bells and whistles you won’t find outside of luxury class. Plus, you’re getting a whole lot more vehicle with a 4.6-liter (thus the “460”), 301-horsepower V-8 engine, and four-wheel drive with advanced towing capabilities.
Let’s start with the ventilated seats.
Imagine you are, like I am, a journalist who has to get in and out of his vehicle a lot in a short amount of time, depending on what kind of story you are covering. You drive, let’s say, down to Senoia to get photos of the new “The Walking Dead” set, and it’s a muggy, hot afternoon just after a brief thunderstorm. Your shirt is sticking to your back because you’ve been sweating, and you’ve got a sit-down meeting with a school principal in half an hour. This scenario, or perhaps ones like this, surely formed the basis for inventing ventilated seats.
Alternatively, the ventilated seats could be a nice feature after hitting a bucket of balls down at Whitewater Creek Country Club with your buddies, and yes, we did that, too.
Back inside the GX, you simply fire up the A/C, dial up the seat ventilation controls, and, within seconds, you feel relief coming in the form of air on your back. It’s not the freezing-cold air coming from the dash, but rather it is a pleasantly cool breeze that will within a few minutes dry out your shirt. Granted, if you do this too many times, you’re probably going to get the tell-tale sweat salt ring on your shirt, but just once or twice and you’ll get away with it. Any more than that and you probably stink, too, so get a grip, man, and change shirts already.
The front passenger seat also offers ventilation, and both front seats can be heated.
Next: The optional, 3-D navigation system.
I’m used to cruising around with my Samsung mobile phone GPS navigation system, so you can imagine what a step up it was for me to tap into this 3-D system, which utilizes the seven-inch LCD monitor in the dash. You can have the main navigation screen take up the whole width, or you can set it for split-screen, where you’ve got the superb navigation happening on one side, which is still big enough to see without squinting, and the audio display, weather, fuel usage information, or whatever else on the other side.
At one point along our journey down to Ameila Island, Florida, we were on the hands-free phone system with my mother, which, of course, meant that the sound system was automatically silenced during the call. We simultaneously had the navigation system still running, and we were startled at one point when a second woman’s voice came over the 17-speaker sound system. It was the navigation voice gently telling us we were nearing our exit from the Interstate. It was literally like we were on a conference call with Mom, but having an assistant quietly remind me of something at the same time. Nicely done, GX.
And now let’s talk about the sound system.
As much time as you spend in a vehicle, it should have a good sound system. Even if you’re listening to something as flat as old Peter Masters sermons (Metropolitan Tabernacle, London… look him up), a good sound system can bring more life to the experience. With a vehicle as large as the GX, I expected there to be plenty of speakers and plenty of space to bounce sound.
The GX exceeded my expectations. The copy I drove had the optional Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound System, featuring 7.1-channel architecture, 17 speakers, and 330 watts. The brochure says, “The result is an audio experience that resembles a concert hall, immersing the cabin in multidimensional sound that was once reserved for six-figure home-audio systems.”
I can’t verify that last bit, but you’ll have a hard time finding a better factory sound system. My go-to soundcheck CD is “All the Best of Scotland” for reasons my wife Joni fails to understand, and the GX handled the bagpipes very well, but I was pretty much blown away one evening sans kids and cargo when I popped in an old Enya disk and queued it to “The Longship.” At 28 seconds, when the drums come in, the GX literally trembled, but it didn’t rattle. It was akin to being in the middle of Spivey Hall during a pipe organ concert by the late Richard Morris (d. Sept. 12, 2013).
I remember Morris saying at one of his concerts that Spivey Hall was literally built to be a pipe organ. Notice he did not say the hall was meant to house a pipe organ, but rather to actually be the organ in terms of the acoustics of the walls, ceiling, and even the seating. When he let rip at the console, you could hear and even feel what he meant about us all being inside that pipe organ.
The GX with the Mark Levinson system is something like that. I wouldn’t for anything pay extra money to “pump up the volume” on most of what you hear on the radio these days, but grown-up sound systems like this one make the most of the richest music. I wish I had thought to get something by Morris on CD for the week we had the GX.
And now, on to the road trip.
Joni and I took our three kids down to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island for a weekend, and, hand over heart, I had as much energy when we crossed the Florida line after 9 p.m. as I did when we set out from the house around 2 p.m. (Yes, that’s normally only a four- or five-hour span, but go back and read the sixth and seventh words of this paragraph.)
Generally, driving anything that late in the day is going to be tiring, but the GX is so comfortable and so customizable to your liking that it is literally fun to drive, even on I-16, which must be one of the least pleasant stretches of highway in the Southeast. Much of the charm comes from the ultra-smooth ride and the relatively quiet cabin. You hear or feel the road nearly as much as you would expect in a large vehicle like that.
We accidentally discovered a cool feature, too. Half-way down I-16, we propped up my mobile phone toward the back of our armrest so the kids on Row Two could watch a cartoon, and the Bluetooth system synched with the GX. So then wirelessly the kids were watching this little, four-inch screen and hearing the full, 17-speaker surround from the show courtesy of the already beloved sound system.
We loved the extra roominess of the GX, too. When we tested the RAV4, we could barely manage to put our kids with their two booster seats and one full-sized car seat in the middle row. You want to keep the back seats stowed for extra cargo space. The GX 460 has an extra six inches of hip room, so all three seats fit nicely with space to spare, and again, we were able to keep the back row stowed in order to preserve cargo capacity.
A final observation I’ll share here is that the GX is super fun on the beach.
Down on Amelia Island, out-of-towners (or non-Nassau County residents, actually) must purchase a daily or seasonal permit in order to drive on the beach, and your vehicle must be four-wheel-drive. The GX is not only an all-the-time four-wheel-drive vehicle, but it also has a cool switch that shifts it into “Low 4″ on the fly. So as we crossed the threshold from asphalt to powdery-soft sand, I just pressed the button down and forward, and the GX responded by mastering the Atlantic shoreline.
I had always wanted to drive on the beach, and the GX did not disappoint. More than a few people watched us lumber out, and it seemed that they may have thought we’d get ‘er stuck. Nah. She may look like a sophisticated lady, but she was born for the beach.
Another important note is how easily the GX cleaned up after two days of beach-going. We didn’t take it easy on that unsuspecting SUV, but it responded with the grace you would expect from a Lexus.