Lexus upgrades 2014 GX 460

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The substantially restyled and improved GX 460—base now reduced to $50,000—is still a hulk, but in luxury, quality, towing ability, features and options it’s pretty much the state of the art in the “obsolete” body-on-frame SUV format. Lexus

When this 2014 Lexus GX 460 arrived, my lip curled. Yes, it’s a Lexus, but it’s a massive, old-fashioned body-on-frame SUV—the very machine that I once dismissed as a wallowing sow. But that was four years ago; today I have to say kudos to Lexus for a job well done.

The “job” was updating the GX, now—as a 2014 model—in its second generation. Handling-wise, it has nearly caught up with its even-larger sibling, the surprisingly agile LX 570, but still lags behind its crossover cousin, the smaller, car-based RX 350. (In sales too: Lexus moves four times as many RXs as GXs.)

However, unlike the RX, the GX has serious off-road chops. The permanent 4×4 system sends 60 percent of the power to the back wheels and the rest to the fronts, and an electronic center differential can adjust the split to compensate for rear-wheel spin, and also lock up for positive drive at both ends.

There’s a two-speed electronic transfer case too, with normal and low gear ranges, plus the expected alphabet soup of computerized helpers:

A-TRAC, Active Traction Control, can brake a slipping wheel and direct torque to the wheels with grip; VSC, DAC, HAC, Crawl Control and so on is available to help on steep slopes and rough terrain; and there’s even a steering-angle indicator to show the driver where the front wheels are pointing, which isn’t always obvious in snow or mud.

Both rows of back seats in the GX 460 fold flat to create a hangar-size cargo bay. At left, you can just see the heating and cooling controls for the rear compartment and, in the seatback, one of the available pair of DVD screens. Lexus

The GX also has something called KDSS, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which pumps hydraulic fluid from side to side to reduce body lean while the stabilizer bars push down to keep all four wheels where we want them—planted on the ground, for traction and control.

(The top-end, $61,000-base RX 460 Luxury also has AVS, Adaptive Variable Suspension, with electronic dampers that let the driver select Normal, Sport or Comfort ride modes.)

No, I’ve never been rock-crawling or mud-slinging in a GX 460, but many of these features help it cope with treacherous conditions on pavement too. Very few of them, however, are new to this second-gen GX, nor is there much different under the hood. The 4.6-liter V-8 still makes 301 horsepower and 329 torques; the transmission is the same smooth autobox with just six speeds plus sport mode and manual shift-ability.

The improvements in the GX’s behavior evidently come from a thoughtful re-tuning of steering, brakes, shifting and ride, and how they all sing in harmony. It’s still no Range Rover or Jeep Grand Cherokee—at least on pavement—but driving the GX is no longer cruel and unusual punishment, either. And thanks to its long-legged, active suspension that swallows bumps whole, the GX is the top frost-heave and pothole negotiator of this entire terrible winter.

All that said, with a few size-XL passengers on board, an GX 460 still weighs nearly three tons. Fuel efficiency barely reaches the high teens, and acceleration is leisurely.

By definition, the Lexus RX 460 is a truck, but its cabin gleams with the kind of good taste and high-quality materials and workmanship found in luxury sedans. Only some of the control placement is a bit haphazard. Lexus

Inside, it’s a Lexus: high-quality materials assembled well, with plenty of standard and optional features. Safety-wise, these range from front, back and side cameras to a collision warning and braking system that can figure out where the driver is looking. If you’re used to the elegant computer mouse-type systems controller in Lexus cars, the GX’s touchscreen and buttons seem a bit of a mish-mash, but the same Enform infotainment apps are available.

Two or three adults can ride very comfortably in the second row, and a couple of kids will feel pampered in their own third-row semi-bucket seats. Both sets of rear seats fold flat, manually or electrically. At the back there’s a large and ungainly door, not a liftgate; there’s no power option, but it’s well balanced and easy to open and close. The window can be opened by itself, and swung upward.

You might be surprised to learn that the Lexus GX 460 and the Toyota 4Runner share the same chassis, because the Lexus seems to cast a much larger shadow. And while $35,000 is a steep price to pay for the Toyota, 55 thou for this grownup Tonka Toy feels like good value, relatively speaking. It’s a genuine workhorse, but one that can dress up for the opera.

—Silvio Calabi