Is The 2020 Lexus GX 460 SUV A Worthwhile Luxury Upgrade Over The Toyota 4Runner 4x4?
The pace of change can be glacially slow for some SUV builders, and nowhere is this more true than at Toyota, which currently offers a pair of mid-size off-road 4x4s that haven't changed much in over a decade.
Lexus GX 460 vs Toyota 4Runner 4x4
Both the 2020 Lexus GX 460 and 2020 Toyota 4Runner have been given a few cosmetic updates in the ensuing years (with the current Lexus model representing its most comprehensive visual refresh), but for the most part they're still riding on the same bones as they did when the current generation of each was introduced all the way back in 2009. The recipe is a familiar one: a full frame chassis, low-range four-wheel drive, and a decent amount of interior space wrapped in an upright, truck-like package.
Although the two vehicles share more than a few mechanical details (as they are both linked to Toyota's J150 frame), each is aimed at a very different customer. The 4Runner, at its base, is an affordable way to get off-road, while the GX 460 courts luxury customers with its higher sticker price and ostensibly deeper feature set.
That being said, after spending time with the Lexus it's clear that this well-aged truck has a lot more in common with its Toyota counterpart than it does with the rest of the premium hauler set, which has pretty much moved on from the body-on-frame school of SUV design. With that in mind we were curious as to how much of an upgrade it truly presents to 4Runner fans seeking a plusher ride that can still get from the trailhead to the trail exit without breaking a sweat.
Why did Lexus choose to stand apart from rivals like BMW and Audi by delivering a traditional truck in a market that's more apt to go for a sport-utility that's based on a sedan platform? In a word, cost. The GX 460 is sold in other markets around the world as the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, and being able to leverage the economies of scale that go with a mass-produced SUV like the Prado makes it relatively cheap for Lexus to fill a mid-size hole in their showroom.
On the flip-side, this global synergy is a major boost to off-road fans, because everything the Prado can do once the asphalt ends is echoed by its Lexus cousin. Equipped with full-time four-wheel drive, a locking Torsen center differential, an adjustable ride height air suspension, and Toyota's trick KDSS 'dynamic' two-piece sway bar system (that uses hydraulics to improve articulation by allowing independent wheel movement, without sacrificing on-road stability), there's a lot of gear underneath the GX's extroverted metal-and-chrome skin. Throw in a little extra cash and you can benefit from the crawl control and terrain select systems that come with the optional Off-Road package, too.
If any of this sounds familiar to 4Runner fans, that's because it's almost dittoed on higher trim levels of the Toyota. The TRD Off-Road edition of the SUV is almost a carbon copy of the GX when it comes to trail-specific equipment (with the TRD Pro tagging in more hardcore FOX shocks but losing KDSS in the process), although it substitutes a part-time four-wheel drive system and deletes the ride height control.
With comparable widths and wheelbases, it's no surprise that both the GX 460 and the 4Runner are equally formidable when it comes to dispatching off-road obstacles. As long as you avoid side-steps, the 4Runner enjoys a 1.5 inch advantage in ground clearance (with the Lexus featuring lower rocker skirts), and it's also got less obtrusive front and rear overhangs, although only just. For extreme situations the Toyota is going to pull through with less damage (read: scraping), but the Lexus is right there alongside it, if somewhat worse for the wear.
Differences Under The Hood
There are two main areas where the 4Runner and the GX 460 diverge. The first is in the engine bay, where the Toyota's 4.0L V6 (270hp, 278 lb-ft of torque) is out-performed on paper by the Lexus' 4.6L V8 (301hp, 329 lb-ft torque).
On paper it looks like a mismatch, but in the real world the differences between the two drivetrains are more qualitative than quantitative. Despite the power gap, the V8 Lexus is only half a second quicker to 60-mph than the Toyota's V6, largely due to the luxury bulk embedded in the GX.
More impactful is the unusual tuning of the eight-cylinder's throttle response, which doles out its torque with a lazy reluctance that takes a while to build to a boil. Matched with its six-speed automatic transmission's similarly slow-and-steady approach, the GX 460's driving experience is among the softest on the market, a fact emphasized by body roll in the corners and a complete disconnect from the road below when its adaptive dampers are set to their most indulgent.
In contrast the V6 in the 4Runner is thrashy, its noisiness amplified by the five-speed automatic's strong desire for an additional forward cog during highway cruising. Handling is comparable to that of the Lexus without the attenuation of a luxury-oriented suspension system, with the 4Runner trading insulation for a more straightforward drive.
The second sticking point between the two vehicles is found in their respective interiors. As expected, the Toyota entry is the more austere of the pair, and as long as you stick with an affordable trim level you won't be overly disappointed with its interior materials and features, no matter how far they've lagged behind the rest of the SUV segment.
The Lexus is somewhat of a different story. Yes, there's more leather and wood within its confines than what you'll find in the 4Runner, but the GX has suffered from a similar stasis when it comes to development, and it's much more apparent when contrasted against its upscale rivals from both Europe and North America. If you put the Lexus interior inside the 4Runner, you'd have a good approximation of what Toyota should be bringing to its top trim trucks, but as a reflection of the Lexus badge, it's a letdown.
The GX 460 also adds an extra row of accommodations compared to the 4Runner. In the real world, this back-back situation is strictly for kids, and it eats up sizable amounts of cargo space due to the taller load floor hiding the fold-down seats. Match that up with the massive swing-out tailgate (that blocks the curb and forces you to load from the street side), and the 4Runner is much easier to live with from a hauling perspective.
Bargain Toyota Is The Better Buy
Looking at the 4Runner line-up, you might be startled to see that the TRD-PRO model is sitting only $10k below the base GX 460, which starts at $53,000. For hardcore off-road fans, however, the gap is much wider, as you have to select the top-tier 'Luxury' trim on the Lexus in order to access the Off-Road package with its electronic driver's aids and additional skid plates (all of which are available with more affordable versions of the Toyota).
More to the point is the fact that you have to suffer through a serious amount of sheen to access any of the GX 460's advantages in power, so muted are they by the vault-like driving experience fronted by the Lexus. It's truly an unusual SUV in this respect, and with its somewhat pedestrian interior it's hard to see why most luxury buyers would put it on their short list. Unlike other high-end off-road options from Land Rover (the Range Rover Sport) or Mercedes-Benz (the G-Class), the GX feels like it's marking time while Lexus plans its next mid-size move.
The Toyota 4Runner's wide range of models make it more appealing for off-road fans who want a reliable and capable rig that's not going to break their heart if it gets scratched up during some weekend fun. If Toyota could somehow see its way to swapping in the GX's six-speed autobox and bring its cabin up to par with what can be found in the family-oriented Highlander or RAV4, then they'd have a much more competitive out-of-the-box 4x4 on their hands.
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