8.10.2014

UPDATED: Where We Took The 2014 Lexus GX460

Front 3/4 view of 2014 Lexus GX460
The 2014 Lexus GX460.
A typical test drive is a lousy way to get to know a car.  But it's all most people get. Ten minutes or so in the blocks around the dealership, with a salesman in the passenger seat distracting you from really absorbing what the car does well and not so well.

Even after you buy it, you'll probably spend less than an hour a day in your new car, so you don't get a real sense of what your vehicle is about until the first good road trip.  Since TireKicker World Headquarters relocated to Sacramento late last year, we've been doing those on a semi-regular basis (see our day trip to Placerville via back roads in the Mazda MX-5 Miata, to Ukiah and Mendocino in the Mitsubishi Lancer and to Ukiah then down the coast in the Toyota Avalon Hybrid), and our most recent was just two weeks ago, in the Lexus GX460.


It was only 13 months ago that we last reviewed a GX460, and we were very impressed with it.  But that was a week worth of routine daily use...a mixture of city street and urban freeway driving in the flatlands of Phoenix, Arizona. This time, we chose to put the GX460 through an intense weekend. Between Friday noon and Sunday night, we would cover 687 miles at altitudes ranging from 220 feet to almost 10,000 feet above sea level on roads from eight-lane freeways to winding, narrow mountain roads.

Destination upon leaving Folsom, in the foothillls east of downtown Sacramento, was Bishop, California (population 3,864), a fishing/backpacking/bouldering/Mule Days mecca in the Eastern High Sierra 40 miles south of some of the best skiing in the world at Mammoth Mountain.

Bishop, California early 1970s postcard
Early 1970s postcard of Bishop, California.
Why Bishop? Well, I grew up there from age 9 until age 17 (the latter part of that was when this postcard was shot), was back off and on between school and work until age 20...and had it as a second home (my grandmother and other relatives lived there) since birth.  With relatives long dead and gone, I hadn't been back in 25 years and Navigator had never been.  Justification enough.

Rear 3/4 view of 2014 Lexus GX460
2014 Lexus GX460.
The GX460 is especially well suited for such a trip.  Large, comfortable, plenty of stretch-out room for people, a cavernous cargo area for stuff, a 301-horsepower 4.8-liter V8 that is more than a match for any mountain grade, and the hallmark Lexus isolation that can keep the outside out combined with rugged off-road capabilty should you want to get up close and personal with Mother Nature herself.

For the base price of $60,715, you get an impressive list of standard features (click here for said same). Our tester added only one option...the upgraded 17-speaker, 330-watt Mark Levinson Premium Audio system for $1,145. Bottom line with $910 for delivery, processing and handling: $62,770.

Folsom, California to Bishop, California map
Folsom to Bishop via U.S. 50, CA 88 and U.S. 395 (source: Google Maps).
The route to Bishop was pretty straightforward. East on U.S. 50, which stops being an urban freeway about 25 miles from Folsom in Placerville, then becomes a two-lane forest highway. Just shy of South Lake Tahoe, take State Route 88 over Monitor Pass and join U.S. 395 just south of the Nevada border and Topaz Lake for the final 130 miles into Bishop.  No muss, no fuss for a 250-mile jaunt that took us about six hours because we stopped for lunch in tiny Markleeville (population 210) and for ice cream at Mono Cone in Lee Vining (population 222).  Without those, it's probably four and a half.

Saturday morning, after pastries, juice and coffee with old high school friends at Great Basin Bakery (leave Schat's for the tourists...the other tourists) we drove up to my favorite place for sitting and thinking...South Lake.  It's 25 miles from downtown Bishop, but a dramatic 25...taking you from the 4,100 foot valley floor to 9,800 feet.

Author at South Lake
Yours truly at drought-ravaged South Lake. 
The mountains are still there...and with snow on them in late May, but the years of drought plaguing California and an ill-timed decision to release water to work on the dam means there's not much lake there.  That patch of dirt in the middle of the photo behind the trees?  That should be water.

2014 Lexus GX460 at Bishop Creek Lodge
2014 Lexus GX460 at Bishop Creek Lodge.
So we retreated...stopping at the venerable (established in the 1920s) Bishop Creek Lodge for lunch at 9200 feet. Great burgers, waffle cut fries and the owners' big, drooling golden lab named Cooper will be happy to see you. And sit with you, if you want. He won't beg. He just wants to keep you company (did I mention the drool?).

Then it was back down the mountain for a quick look at Keough's Hot Springs (established 1919 and where, to the extent that I did, I learned to swim) and then to a reception for some of the best nature photographers in the world (including one I went to high school with, Gordon Wiltsie) at the marvelous Mountain Light Gallery...the legacy of the brilliant Galen and Barbara Rowell, followed by better Mexican food than I found in 28 years in Arizona...at Astorga's near Meadow Farms.

On Sunday morning, breakfast at Jack's Restaurant (formerly Jack's Waffle Shop, there since 1946 and a much better bet than one of the chain places), a walk through the beautiful Bishop City Park and then home to Folsom. One of the kajillion things that makes Navigator the best travelling companion ever is that she shares my disdain for covering the same stretch of ground going and coming if there's an interesting alternative. And there was.

Bishop to Folsom via U.S. 395, CA 120 and CA 49.
We took 395 north out of town to just below Lee Vining and made a left turn on to State Route 120.  This takes you over Tioga Pass (9,943 feet at the summit) and through Yosemite National Park.  Heads up: This is only open a few months a year.  When it snows in winter, they close it and they won't bother plowing what remains to open it until April or May.  If you think that's late, remember the elevation and consider:  They closed it for a day because of snow two days after we went through.  It happens.

Also: It's a toll road, in the sense that, as with all National Parks, there's an entrance fee. $20, even if you're not going to stop and smell the stuff that made John Muir and Ansel Adams famous.  Double that to $40, though, and it's good for a year (actually, until the end of the month you buy it, so if you buy it on the first of a month, you get 13 months).  And if you think you may want to go on a National Park binge, bump that to $80 and your pass is good for a year in any National Park in the United States.

Whichever level you choose, it's well worth it.  It was my first trip to Yosemite.  Navigator was stunned, given that I'd grown up less than 100 miles away.  But Mom wouldn't take me.  She'd gotten the daylights scared out of her on Tioga Pass back in the 40s (by Dad, no doubt), and wouldn't go back. Even after they improved the road.  Never could understand it.  Until two days after we got back, when Mono County Tourism posted this shot to their Facebook page:

1960s black and white photo of Tioga Pass
Tioga Pass, 1960s.
The T-Bird and Ford wagon coming toward us and the Rambler sedan going away are '63s, which means this shot is no older than fall of 1962, when those cars went on sale.  Yes, the road was that bad that recently.  I get it now, Mom.  Today, it's much better, though it still has some serious pay-attention-or-die stretches. Be glad you have no cell service. We took our time, got out to commune with nature a couple of times, and then joined up with State Route 49 through the historic Gold Country towns of Jamestown, Sonora, Angels Camp, San Andreas and Jackson on the way home to Folsom.  About nine hours when it could have been four and a half another way.  Even though it's only six miles more than the way we came. And so worthwhile.

Interior view of 2014 Lexus GX460
2014 Lexus GX460 interior.
The Lexus?  Never put a foot wrong.  Nothing fazed it. We did select "sport" for the suspension setting on the twisty bits and that made a huge difference in the handling of this tall SUV, allowing it to hunker down and feel planted all the way through.  Best of all was how we felt.  We probably spent 20 of the 56 hours between departure and return with the GX460 strapped to us...and there was never any fatigue.

And perhaps best of all, we beat the EPA fuel economy estimate of 15 city/20 highway on our trip.  Despite the big climbs and slow speeds through the winding roads, here's our final mileage after filling up in Bishop for the drive back:

20.4 mpg showing on trip computer
20.4 miles per gallon on winding mountain roads at varying speeds.

Four-tenths of a mile per gallon may not seem like much, but the 20 the EPA quotes was for 65 mph steady-state cruising on a flat, open road. To get that mileage at the speeds we drove on the roads we traveled is a major accomplishment.

As with last time, I can't find a single fault with the GX460. Given its combination of comfort, ruggedness and unsuspected efficiency, if you're looking at a Land Rover LR4 or Range Rover Sport, you should be looking at the GX460, as well.

UPDATE:  Through a dual clerical error (theirs and mine), I wound up back in this very same GX460 two months later.  No big road trips this time, just a routine week of to-and-fro on the urban streets and freeways of Sacramento.  As might be expected, the GX460 is tremendous in the city when it comes to isolating the noise of traffic and heat of summer, and the visibility (you sit up very high) makes it easy to see brake lights ahead.  That can help make more intelligent choices about the use of throttle and brake, and that allowed us to significantly beat the EPA's city estimate of 15 miles per gallon, turning in a shade over 16 and a half.

Yes, it's big, but the height, glass and backup camera make all but the tightest parallel parking on city streets a breeze. Bottom line, accidental though it was, is that we've found that this tremendous vehicle for long trips is also very easy to live with for the 50 weeks a year you're at home just living life.

(There was no compensation from any of the businesses mentioned in this review. They don't know me, I don't know them and they don't know I'm writing this. But you might enjoy them.)

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