Last month the Japanese automaker Lexus hired a team of backhoes to create an obstacle course at a ranch near Tucson, Arizona. They dug an enormous pit and carved deep gullies and a steeply tilted track on the side of a towering pile of dirt. After they finished, the usually sunny Arizona sky turned dark, and it poured rain for several days. Suddenly a merely tricky-to-navigate off-road trail was almost impassable.
Lexus built the course so journalists and reviewers could try out the Overtrail edition of the company’s redesigned 2024 GX sports utility vehicle. The GX, which has been around since 2002, is a midsize offering among Lexus’s numerous SUVs. The new design has a boxy, retro-looking exterior that recalls the utility aspect of many early SUVs. Inside it’s a mix of high-tech (there’s an 18-inch screen on the center of the dashboard and a heads-up display on the windshield) and analog (a shift lever instead of knob to change gears).
It’s pretty easy to select the right driving mode in the GX, especially when you have an instructor sitting next to you named Warren who Lexus provided to talk through the options. When he’s not working for car companies, Warren teaches Special Forces members how to drive in extreme off-road conditions.
The first part of the course consisted of two telephone poles laid down parallel to each other like railroad tracks; drivers try to navigate the length of without slipping off. Next came a stretch of alternating four-foot-deep potholes that pitched the GX from one side to other so that one wheel, and sometimes two, came off the ground. Then there was a towering bump that somehow only barely scraped the GX’s skid plate (which comes standard on the Overtrail).
Next it was up the side and across the face of a practically vertical 20-foot-tall slope. Then into a mud-filled gully that seemed as if it would trap the front bumper but didn’t. Finally to the edge of a pit that measured 50 feet across and 15 feet deep. Driving into it felt like pushing off the top of a black diamond ski trail, but the GX did not slide or spin out while going into the pit, across the mud-filled bottom, and up and out the other side.
We drove the course three more times, each in a different drive mode, which varied from less computer-assisted (in other words, requiring lots of finesse on the gas and brake) to the practically automatic Crawl Control setting, which took us in and out of the pit with ease.
Many of the mechanical and electronic technologies the GX uses to navigate obstacles have been around for years, but Lexus has improved them and, just as important, made them extremely easy to use. “Even a novice can drive the GX through this course,” said Warren, who, by the way, doesn’t break a sweat when you accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake on the way into the pit.
Indeed, the off-road drive mode options (mud, sand, etc.) are self-explanatory. You can call up a digital gyroscope on the screen that shows you how far the GX is tilting, front to back and side to side, and it makes helpful warning noises if it’s almost too far. And you never have to get out and lock a differential, an unpleasant aspect of taking older SUVs off-road.
After the trail ride, Lexus sent everyone off to brave the paved roads around southern Arizona, past strip malls and car dealerships and into the takeout lane at Starbucks. Here the GX Premium’s appointments, including a wonderful 21-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system and massaging, cooled seats—made the ride extremely comfortable. The on-road drive modes are also intuitive, as are the various driver assist settings.
Off-road capability and regular-road comfort is a hard combination to pull off in one car, but the new GX excels in both milieux. It is available in Luxury, Premium, and Overtrail models, all of which can be purchased in “plus” configurations. The Luxury and Premium have a third-row option; the Overtrail does not. Towing capacity is a whopping 9,063 pounds. Prices start at $64,250.
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