As part of Auto123’s recent visit to the award-winning Toyota/Lexus plant in Cambridge, Ontario, the automaker had the idea of sliding the invited guests behind the wheels of its 2020 range of SUV models before stepping into the assembly plant for the big tour.
That day consisted of treks that were rather too short to permit doing a proper appraisal of the new models. Dare we say, an exercise in time-wasting? Well yes, with one exception. Our drive of the big 2020 Lexus GX 460 revealed an interesting new facet to this vehicle.
Allow me to set the scene. I climb out of a UX mini-‘ute in a forest whitened by the previous evening’s snowfall. Kindly Toyota/Lexus representatives, while trying their best to protect themselves from the abnormally frigid weather conditions for mid-November, invite me aboard a GX sitting there, beckoning. Ok, if you insist, I say. A gentle snow is falling.
My guide Giulio settles into the passenger seat. Sporting John Lennon-style round glasses and long hair, he has me drive on pockmarked-surfaced trails that wind their way through a vast field. He tells me land developers plan to build a gold course there. I continue driving, wondering about the why and wherefore of this little jaunt. Until Giulio has me stop the GX between two trees.
“You’re going to head over there”, he says, pointing a finger. “But first we’re going to engage the Crawl function”.
This system is included standard on the Executive version of the GX, which accounts for 70% of the model’s sales even though it retails for $81,950, or $6,000 more than the Premium, which doesn’t get Crawl.
Before activating the system, you need to make sure you’re in 4x4 Low mode. Then a small lever rises up from the central console; it controls the Multi-Terrain function. From a menu displayed behind the steering wheel, you choose the ground surface that most corresponds to what you’re seeing as you look out the window. On this day, Giulio recommends Mud and Sand.
Finally, I engage Crawl by pushing on an On/Off button. At this point the same small lever used for choosing Multi-Terrain now can be used to select the speed at which I want to crawl. I get a choice of five different shades of slow. Sensing the trap Giulio is setting for me - I’m no fool - I choose Very Slow.
“We’ve just set these parameters,”explains Giulio, “so we can go down a steep descent. This descent, we’re going to entrust to the vehicle. I ask you not to touch the brake pedal… even though I know you’ll want to. It’s the GX that will take care of everything, or almost. All you have to do is hold the steering wheel to keep the vehicle moving in the right direction.”
“But where’s the trail?”, I ask, reasonably.
From where I’m sitting, all I see on the horizon is a distant field and, above it, a heavy sky. If there’s a trail in front of me, the enormous hood is preventing me from seeing it. Which means that it drops away beneath my front wheels at an angle that is not at all reassuring.
My guide explains, “the angle is 39.8%, to be precise,” as if that will calm me. “But don’t worry about it. Look, there’s your trail.”
He’s pointing at the central screen. Activating Crawl makes a camera project a view of the ground in front of the vehicle onto that screen. Even better, virtual yellow lines prolong the angle of the front wheels. I need only superimpose these lines on the tire tracks in the mud to keep the GX going in the right direction. At least, that’s the theory.
Do I go? Please – of course I go.
Repeating to myself that the yellow lines are not pointing me straight into one of the trees that line the descent, and dutifully removing my foot from the brake pedal, I plunge down. Literally. Right then a memory races to mind, that of the time I did a tandem parachute jump. I remember closing my eyes for a moment and muttering a quick prayer. Same here.
The GX shudders into the void, but instantly the Crawl system goes into action. It feels as if a big magic hand broke up from the ground below and grabbed the rear axle. The system modulates the brakes, torque and differentials to allow for a tortoise-speed progress, but also very controlled. The vehicle grinds its teeth, rattles its cage and grumbles a complaint, but the system works! I take back the thought, which had popped up a moment earlier, that my last moment on earth had come.
That said, if I hadn’t been restrained by my seatbelt, my face would have made sudden, intimate contact with the windshield, so steep was the descent. It takes some effort to not slam on the brakes. But really, there’s no point – the machine does it all better than I could.
Those versed in ins and outs of off-roading will know that this Crawl function is Toyota’s version of what Land Rover calls Hill Descent. The venerable British automaker was the first to produce this kind of extreme-conditions control system in a vehicle. Toyota has taken the ball and run with it to create its own distinct system.
“And what’s more,” concludes Giulio, visibly proud of the demonstration and its effect on me, “we did it using standard-issue tires (Dunlop AT23 GrandTrek). I totally hadn’t anticipated this snow! I was sure I’d need more aggressive treads to complete the exercise successfully. But we were shot on time so left everything as is and hoped for the best.”
Hoped for the best!? He had me go ahead in the HOPE that the vehicle wouldn’t careen out of control on an insane trail and take to his demise an automotive journalist who really had only wanted another free buffet lunch out of the whole day.
Fortunately, the best had come to pass. Not only that, I came out of the exercise with a newfound respect for a formidable piece of engineering, one that most likely 99% of Lexus GX 460 buyers will never put to the test in conditions like this.