Go everywhere in luxury and take all your friends.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $55,445
As Tested $57,261

The Lexus LX470 is the best luxury sport-utility vehicle on the market today. Completely re-engineered and redesigned as a late-1998 model, it does everything a luxury SUV should. And it does those things extremely well. The LX470 offers crisp handling, a luxurious ride, a silky smooth V-8 and an elegant interior. It is built to the highest standards of quality. Each body panel fits perfectly. Every switch, every moving part has the feel of fine craftsmanship. Interior materials are first class and occupants are swathed in luxury. When it comes to luxurious off-road vehicles, it just doesn't get any better than this.

Walkaround

The LX470 rides on a completely new platform. Only the transmission and transfer case are carried over from the previous LX450. A sophisticated new 32-valve, 4.7-liter V-8 replaces the previous in-line six.

All body panels are new. The LX470 looks more muscular, yet more refined, than the LX450 it replaces. And the split-lens halogen headlamps, chrome Lexus grille, body cladding, integrated running boards and elegant use of paint give the LX470 a more upscale appearance than its distant cousin, the Toyota Land Cruiser. (The LX470 offers at least 28 key features not available on the Land Cruiser, such as the Lexus engine and the hydropneumatic suspension.)

Bland styling may be the only criticism we can level at this vehicle -- and even that is arguable. With the exception of its sporty new GS models, Lexus rarely takes chances with styling and it's a strategy that seems to be working quite well. We're not saying the LX470 is unattractive -- we find it far better looking than the Lincoln Navigator -- but it does not offer the fine European styling of the Range Rover.

The Inside Story

Lexus designers wanted the LX470 to be able to fit into a typical two-car garage and they wanted it to remain manageable in city traffic. The overall length has been increased 3.5 inches, but the LX470 remains shorter than the Lexus LS400 sedan. This longer length allowed a roomier cabin. The whole cab was moved forward to create more rear-seat space. Three rows of seating provide luxurious accommodations for six people, capacity for eight. Try that in your LS400.

Interior shoulder room has been improved by nearly three inches, but the LX470 is less than a half-inch wider than the previous model. The rearmost jump seats are among the best we've seen of their type. They are comfortable and relatively easy to access -- something that cannot be said of the new Mercedes M Class. They can be folded aside when not in use, but they are a bit larger than others of their type and take up some cargo space. Removing them provides an additional 15 cubic feet of cargo capacity for 90.4 cubic feet total. In normal running mode, with the rear jump folded to the sides and the center seat set up to carry passengers, there is 39.2 cubic feet of cargo space.

The front seats are supremely comfortable. Larger door openings make getting in and out easier. There's a good view of the road ahead and large side mirrors provide good rearward visibility. Attractive walnut trim adds an upscale look to the leather interior. The electroluminescent instruments offer exceptionally good legibility and look great. Our only quibble was that we could not find the instrument cluster dimmer on a dark and stormy night when we first began driving the LX470.

Every imaginable luxury feature is provided. Big rear quarter windows swing out at the touch of a pair of dash-mounted buttons; they replace the split sliding rear quarter windows for a cleaner look. Side mirrors retract electrically for parking in tight quarters. Auxiliary power outlets in the dash, center console and rear cargo area offer convenience. A hydrocarbon sensor automatically switches the air to recirculate when high levels of air pollution are detected, while an activated charcoal micron filter removes dust, pollen, and odors from the interior air stream -- a benefit for hay fever sufferers.

Ride & Drive

We drove this brute through the mountains of West Virginia and later in Maryland -- and we want one. While ours was a 1998 model, Lexus does not expect any changes other than option packages to the 1999 model.

The new V-8 engine is smooth. The suspension provides a comfortable ride on winding back roads and bumpy interstates, yet is capable of climbing any mountain, fording any stream. Engine noise is minimal. At high speeds, there is some wind noise coming from the vicinity of the large mirrors, which we would not want to do without. Like the Range Rover, the LX470 features adjustable ride height. Press a button and the hydropneumatic system raises and lowers the vehicle nearly four inches. This allows the driver to increase ground clearance for fording water or obstacles or lower ride height for highway cruising.

Based on the smooth 4.0-liter V-8 used in the LS400, the new 4.7-liter V-8 was specifically designed for an SUV. It produces good low-rpm torque; fully 80 percent of the peak output is available at just 1100 rpm. That provides responsive low-speed performance and power for towing or scaling steep terrain.

While most sport-utilities use truck-based engines, this new 4.7-liter V-8 features four camshafts and four valves per cylinder. It produces 230 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, the latter a substantial increase over the previous in-line six. The LX470 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. That isn't exactly quick, but it is respectable performance given the size and bulk of the LX470, and it represents a substantial two-second improvement over the previous LX450. And you can feel good about this performance: Lexus expects California to certify the LX470 as a low-emissions vehicle.

The full-time four-wheel-drive system is permanently engaged and utilizes a limited-slip center differential to distribute torque. Throw in a locking center differential and a rear limited-slip differential and only the driver -- or worn-out tires -- can be blamed for sticking one of these in the mud.

Shock absorber damping is controlled electronically using feedback from various road sensors. The driver selects among four range settings according to personal preferences and the system constantly adjusts the semi-active shocks among 16 settings according to conditions. It's a sophisticated system and it works extremely well. The LX470 rides smoothly over unpaved roads, but inspires driver confidence with taut response on twisty backroads.

The rack-and-pinion steering provides sharp response. It's easy to turn the steering wheel in crowded parking lots, but does not isolate the driver on the open road. A new anti-lock brake system is designed to offer better performance off road than traditional ABS by avoiding early activation on slippery slopes. The big disc brakes feel responsive and stop this 5400-pound vehicle in an amazingly short distance.

Final Word

The LX470 offers a much better interior than the Mercedes M Class, better ergonomics than the Range Rover, far more refinement than the Acura SLX and it rides and handles better than the Lincoln Navigator. Another plus: Lexus dealers have achieved the highest honors in customer satisfaction in six of the past seven years.

But the LX470 isn't for everyone. For one thing, it won't fit everyone's budget. It starts at $55,445 (including destination). (Lexus points out that the LX470 doesn't cost much more than the LX450, which ran about $52,000 when equipped with popular options now standard on the LX470.)

The LX470 won't fit everyone's garage, it won't slide into the smallest parking spaces without risking door dings and it isn't the most nimble vehicle at the shopping center. But we always look forward to driving one, whether we're heading to the symphony or a distant trout stream. One problem: Lexus is only ships about 7000 LX470s a year, so expect to wait.

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