Guanacaste, Costa Rica – To get there required more than a half-day of plane travel and a (very) early-morning rise and shine. But waiting for us in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica was a special event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Lexus brand. That’s right, what is still one of the youngest brands on the market has just hit the three-decade milestone!
Launched in the United States in 1989, Lexus has marked the automotive landscape first with luxury sedans (the LS, GS, ES and IS, etc.) and then SUVs (the LX, RX and NX, etc.), as well as a few sporty F-tagged performance models.
The history of Toyota’s luxury division is already rich, and for the occasion of this event I had the chance to drive some of their very earliest models. But in the end, Lexus is a carmaker like any other, and like all the rest it has to work to win over a clientele that is increasingly varied, with a particular taste for all things SUV of course.
The event in South America also served as a launch pad for new models, and so Lexus brought along a few 2020 models, which the company clearly and repeatedly emphasized to us journalists on hand are pre-production models. In other words, they did not necessarily meet Lexus’s exacting quality standards as they apply to final products.
Among the selection of new models on hand, two in particular struck my curiosity: the RX (350 and 450h), possibly the most important new model for the company in years, and the intriguing, very “American” GX 460.
The time allotted for driving each vehicle was short, but it was enough for me to take note of a few substantial changes coming for the 2020 model-year.
First, the RX
The luxury crossover gets a first mid-generation revision since it debuted in Canada in 2016. At first glance the changes are minor, but look again and you notice some redrawing of the contours at each end of the vehicle. The headlights have a new signature, while the openings on the front end are larger.
In back, the lights now come L-shaped, plus there are redesigned diffuser, exhaust tips and wheels (either 18- or 20-inch). These changes, by the way, apply to the RX 350 and the RX 450h, as well as each model’s stretched version. Sitting inside the RX th quality of construction is clear, even if we’re dealing here with a pre-production version.
The same applied to the interiors of the RX 350 F Sport and the RX 450h L, both of which I got to try out briefly. And while the environment is still very familiar, there are notable changes for 2020, such as the appearance (finally!) of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on board the popular crossover. Less significant but also new is a smartphone storage space that wasn’t there before.
Lexus has also begun to cave to pressure regarding its infamous touchpad that serves as a mouse to navigate the infotainment system on the central-console screen. The pad is still there, but the screen itself is now a touch version – a sign that Lexus is likely reconsidering the way it makes users navigate the multimedia system, derided by many as unwieldy and distracting for the driver.
I could also harp on the uninviting third row of the stretched RX L, but that would be beating a dead horse. Numerous journalists have already pointed out that in the RX, the third row is strictly an “only when absolutely necessary” feature.
The good news is that under this little-changed outer shell lurks a structure that has been heavily reworked with an eye to delivering a sportier drive. A greater number of laser solders and of adhesive points makes for a stiffer architecture than before. The result is a more reassuring – and quieter – drive.
Other revisions made to the suspension help noticeably improve the RX’s road handling. Each of the RX versions (the 350 and 450h) retains its powertrain from previous, but the addition of a cold air intake in the RX 350 F Sport means that strong accelerations are accompanied by a very pleasant symphony of sound!
And the GX…
Lexus was a pioneering force with its unveiling in 1998 of the very first RX, an SUV that was in effect the first luxury crossover to hit the market. Next to that utility model that drives kind of like a comfortable sedan, the Lexus GX comes across as more of an old-school dinosaur. Its ladder frame that it shares with the Toyota 4Runner is a guarantor of decent agility and skills in off-roading situations. The problem is that owners of such an expensive beast are unlikely to dare venture out into the wilds, no matter how capable it is!
For 2020, the GX 460 gets a front end that puts it in line with the rest of the Lexus product range – up to you to decide if you like it or not. For the rest, the big 4X4 has changed hardly at all! Inside, those few who are familiar with the model will find everything still in the same place, as well as the same old dashboard that looks imported from another era, especially when compared with the thoroughly modern RX. So you get big buttons, rectangular climate control vents, buttons for choosing the drivetrain configuration next to the gear lever, etc. etc., all in a style you don’t see much anymore.
For those who don’t know it – and there might be many – the GX 460 also offers a third row of seat, but it requires a certain flexibility to access it. As with the RX, this option is useful in short-distance situations, but no good for long trips.
Despite the aging feel of it all, the quality of construction is excellent, which is impressive when you consider the current version of the GX dates to 2010. Lexus was again eager for us to understand this is a pre-production model, but I noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
On the road, the 2020 Lexus GX 460 behaves like all high-sitting 4X4s. For example, roll is pronounced on curves, so you’ll want to temper your enthusiasm in these situations if you want to avoid any risk of landing on your side. The V8 engine is not particularly explosive, especially as it’s mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission that’s slower in its transitions than Lexus’s more modern transmissions.
Nonetheless, this good old GX is a reassuring creature, which might explain why it remains decently popular in the U.S., in contrast with Canada where sales are marginal. Americans have always appreciated traditional 4X4s and the Lexus GX 460 fits in that category to a T.