Saturday, April 17, 2010

What's Wrong with the Lexus GX460? An Idea Gone Too Far?

The other day, I noted the “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk” tag put on Toyota’s GX460 SUV by Consumer Reports with just a little bit of smug glee. I really shouldn’t have though even though my first inclination was “there they go again, another screw up from Mr. High and Mighty Toyoda himself.”

As is often the case with first impressions, I got to thinking about what Consumer Reports had done and Toyota’s response of taking the GX460 off the market. And then I did just a little bit of research—OK I googled the GX460 to find some driving reviews—and got some really interesting information.

A bit of background first. The GX460 is what Car and Driver described as a “gilded version of the Forerunner”. Like many Lexus models, the GX460 is based on a Toyota model and then “gussied” up with amenities to fit the Lexus nameplate. (Lexus has long been considered to be an acronym for Luxury Export to the U.S.). It is a model which starts at $52,000 and in its top version with all the “whistles and bells” tops out at $70,000.

The Forerunner/GX460 is a mid-sized SUV (think the size of the Ford Explorer). It’s a “body on frame” or truck based vehicle. When SUVs came into their greatest popularity the vast majority were body on frame. The Honda CRV and the ill-fated, butt-ugly Pontiac Aztec were arguably the first of the new “cross over” class of SUVs built on a car-like “uni-body”.

Now if you’re spending anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 on an SUV you want something which rides like a luxury vehicle not a truck. And this is where the problem comes in with the GX460. Toyota may have finally run up against the wall of where the laws of physics and mechanics collides head on with computers and software.

A body on frame vehicle can be made to handle really, really well by building it low to the ground and providing a stiff suspension (think NASCAR or Corvettes). But, SUVs like the GX460 are high off the ground and bumpy. To get a body on frame to ride smoother, manufacturers have traditionally provided a longer wheelbase and a softer suspension. The suspension allows for a softer ride but also sacrifices a bit of maneuverability. So what did Toyota do? According to a Car and Driver review in November, 2009:

“(The GX460’s) body control is better by the fitment of the “Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System,” which actively adjusts the stiffness of the anti-roll bars for more stable cornering and better wheel articulation off-road.”

Fantastic. High technology to the rescue. But perhaps Toyota went a bit too far. Also in November, 2009 online magazine Car Connection reviewed the GX460 and had this to say about it:

So the “Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System” is a way of computerized tuning of the suspension. But what has caused the problem is also the “lack of feel” that the vehicle might be in trouble as it takes curves. Picture it this way, in order to improve the ride, it’s as though the passenger compartment is being isolated more completely from the frame of the vehicle. The driver gets far less feedback from the vehicle as to what it is doing and the yaw and roll sensors are apparently not keeping up with the actual “attitude” of the vehicle.

Both of those are scary propositions. Car and Driver did a test drive review of the GX460 in March, 2010. Here’s what they said:

“Turn the steering wheel all you want; there’s no discernible feel. Press the brake pedal and you get mush... In corners, automatically adjusting anti-roll bars seem to keep the GX from introducing its door handles to the pavement, but the GX just isn’t designed to go fast or feel particularly carlike, unless that car is a Lincoln Town Car.”

I don’t want to drive that car. It would scare me. Maybe technology and engineering have been pushed just a bit too far in trying to get this vehicle to provide the kind of luxury ride that you just can’t do without sacrificing too much handling and safety.

Cross-over utility vehicles are now the best sellers for families. Most are available in “all wheel drive” versions. AWD is most decidedly not for “off roading”. Supposedly the GX460 is off-road capable. But, who wants to take a $70,000 SUV off-road anyway?

To get the comfort, handling, luxury and traction that buyers want the unibody, cross-over is the way to go. Not to fault Toyota—rather the blame lies with pretentious buyers who have to have an uber-SUV for all the money and with all the toys but it appears as though the limit may have been reached.

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