By Mark Holthoff
Best Used Cars, SUVs Lexus
With some vehicles, the designers and engineers get pretty much everything right. They look sharp, they drive well, and they last — sometimes well beyond 200,000 miles. The Lexus GX 470 (2003-2009) is one of those vehicles.
Hailing from some of the peak Lexus years, the GX 470 offers the unusual combination of off-road prowess with on-road civility. And it does so with both style and grace — not to mention a good dose of Toyota reliability.
Back in the day, a brand-new GX cost a pretty penny. One could easily top $50,000 with options. That reserved them mainly for the well-to-do (and/or highly leveraged). But nowadays, outstanding used examples can be had for less than half that amount, making the GX a relative bargain in the world of used SUVs — especially considering its superior off-road capabilities.
So if you’re in the market for a luxury vehicle that can almost literally go anywhere and won’t break your wallet in the process, a used GX should definitely be on your shopping list.
GX 470 Introduction
Lexus introduced the GX 470 (internal code “UZJ120”) at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and it first appeared in showrooms later that year as a 2003 model. The SUV follows in the footsteps of its larger sibling, the LX, which debuted a few years earlier. Where the LX is based on Toyota’s legendary off-roader, the Land Cruiser, the GX 470 is based on the mid-size 4Runner, also a highly-capable SUV.
And like the LX, the GX takes Toyota’s excellent setup — in this case, a rugged body-on-frame chassis with four-wheel drive (4WD), a solid rear axle, and a locking center differential — and adds Lexus-levels of comfort and refinement. These changes include three more inches of roof height for a roomier cabin, adjustable air springs at the rear for a softer ride, plus a fully-loaded interior to keep everyone coddled from garage to trailhead. To ensure each trip is properly hushed, they also threw in 44 additional pounds of sound deadener as well as thicker glass in the windshield and side windows.
The formula works. The reviewers at Edmunds call the GX 470 “a luxurious sport-ute that offers a near-perfect blend of on- and off-road capability.” And after their first drive, Car and Driver quipped, “Mom and Dad up front go first-class, cosseted by leather and beautifully finished woodwork, while the kids get optionally DVD’d into back-seat bliss during those tedious interstate hauls to Grandma’s house.”
GX 470 Engine and Transmission
Under the hood, Lexus fitted Toyota’s excellent 4.7-liter “2Uz-FE” V8 engine, the same found in the LX 470 and also available as an option on the 4th generation 4Runner. Initially producing 235 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque, the engine was upgraded for 2005 with variable valve timing (“VVT-i” in Toyota lingo). That bumped power to 270 hp and 330 lb-ft of twist, though the following year those numbers were revised downward slightly (to 263 hp and 323 lb-ft) thanks to new SAE testing procedures.
Mated to the GX’s V8 engine is the “A750F” 5-speed automatic transmission, another widely-used component that’s seen duty in models ranging from the full-size Tundra pickup to Toyota’s retro off-roader, the FJ Cruiser. A manual gearbox was never offered, in keeping with the luxury theme.
Powering all four wheels through a lockable center differential, the combo hauls the GX to 60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds. The more powerful VVT-i engine shaves about half a second from that time. That’s not bad for a nearly 5000-pound SUV. But as you might expect, fuel economy for this tall, heavy brick is rather poor, at an EPA-estimated 15 miles per gallon (combined).
Properly equipped, a GX 470 can tow up to 6500 pounds.
GX 470 Features and Options
To get a sense of how different the GX is than the 4Runner it’s based on, just have a seat behind the wheel. Where the 4Runner is spartan and utilitarian, the GX is rich and opulent. It starts with the three added inches of roof height, which gives the cabin an airy feel. The seating position in the GX is also notably higher than in the 4Runner, providing a commanding view of the road — or trail — ahead.
Lexus loaded the GX with luxury features. They include heated leather seats, bird’s eye maple wood trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power moonroof, and an 11-speaker stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Audiophiles could also opt for a 14-speaker 240-watt Mark Levinson audio system, which was only available if you also sprung for the optional navigation system. Rear-seat DVD screens, which fold down from the roof and tie into the car’s audio system, were offered as well.
The GX seats five comfortably in its first two rows, and a third row (pictured below) was optional, adding spots for three more — theoretically. In reality, though, the third row is quite cramped and suitable primarily for smaller children. Though it can be partially folded away, the third row also takes up much of the rear cargo space. We’d advise avoiding it. If you really need an eight-seater, step up to the larger LX instead.
Safety-wise, Lexus included everything you’d expect in a luxury car — anti-lock brakes (ABS), stability and traction control, emergency brake assist, and an array of airbags, including side-curtain airbags, which are something of a rarity in vehicles of this age. The traction control system also includes settings to assist with ascending and descending steep inclines on the trail.
GX 470 Model Year Changes
After its 2003 debut, the GX 470 underwent mostly minor changes through its six-year production run (2003-2009).
For 2004, Lexus added a back-up camera, though it was available only with the optional navigation system.
Starting in 2005, Lexus offered a Sport version of the GX. Vehicles with the Sport package are distinguished by unique styling elements such as smoked-bezel headlamps, graphite-colored wheels and trim, and black bird’s eye maple accents in the cabin. They also have some fancy off-road kit: Toyota’s Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which is capable of automatically disconnecting the anti-sway bars to allow for additional suspension travel when the SUV encounters challenging off-road terrain.
As noted earlier, 2005 was also the first year for the more powerful V8 engine, which uses variable valve timing for a roughly 15% bump in power.
Bluetooth connectivity first became available in 2005, as well, when Lexus updated the optional navigation system.
While there were no notable changes for 2006, the GX received further navigation system upgrades for 2007, including an AUX plug to connect external devices to the audio system. The optional rear seat entertainment screens were also enlarged to nine inches starting that year.
Lexus made some minor styling updates for the 2008 model year. These include a darker grille and wheels, additional brightwork inside and out, revised turn signals, and darker wood trim inside.
There were no significant charges to the GX 470 for 2009, its final year before being replaced by the completely redesigned GX 460 (internal code “URJ150”).
GX 470 Problem Areas
The GX 470 enjoys a strong reputation for reliability thanks to its Toyota roots. But if you’re shopping for one, there are still a few problem areas to be aware of.
Like many other Toyota’s from this era, the GX 470 can suffer from undercarriage rust. In fact, after a related class-action lawsuit, Toyota recalled many of its body-on-frame designs from 2004 through 2008 to remedy any issues with rust. The GX 470 was not specifically named in that recall. However, the model can be affected, especially if it’s been used in areas where the roads are salted for snow and ice.
Before you purchase a used GX, make sure to inspect the underside for signs of rust. Light surface rust is okay and to be expected. However, if there is any evidence of serious corrosion, such as flaking metal or rust through, it’s best to walk away. The cost to repair a rusty frame can sometimes exceed the value of the vehicle.
The alloy wheels on these SUVs are also prone to corrosion and pitting, especially if driven in wintry conditions. Fortunately, it’s a fairly easy fix. Whether you choose to refinish the wheels or replace them with a used set in good condition, the cost is about $150 per wheel.
Air Suspension Issues
The air suspension on the GX 470 helps it to achieve its near perfect balance of on- and off-road abilities. But it can cause headaches when parts start to fail. If the vehicle sags or leans to one side, has a bouncy or stiff ride, or gets stuck at a single ride height (e.g. too high or too low), it’s likely that one or more of the air suspension components has gone bad.
Most used GX examples on the road today will likely have had one or more air suspension pieces replaced by this point. If not, expect to undertake this during your ownership. The good news is that there is strong aftermarket support for the work, so when the time comes, you should have little trouble finding replacement parts. We’d highly recommend taking any affected GX to a specialist to ensure that only the components which need replacing are touched. It’s rare that every piece of the system would need to be replaced all at once.
Another option is to convert the air suspension to conventional coils and shocks. That costs less than a full rebuild of the air suspension. On the downside, though, it compromises the outstanding ride quality that the factory suspension provides.
Some GX 470 owners report that, shortly after coming to a stop, they hear a distinct clunking sound from the rear end, accompanied by a sensation of the vehicle being pushed slightly forward. This occurs when a part of the driveshaft, which is designed to extend or retract with a change in the vehicle’s height, binds due to corrosion or a lack of grease. While this is not an especially serious issue, it can certainly be annoying.
A cheap and simple fix is to repack the area with grease. However, the grease usually wears away with time and use, leading to a return of the issue. A longer-term repair is replace the original part, which has since been redesigned to address this problem. Expect to pay around $500 for a full replacement, including parts and labor.
The GX 470 dashboard is prone to cracking, as are the dashboards of some other Lexus models from the era, including the ES sedan and the RX crossover. Lexus has acknowledged the problem and in many cases has replaced affected dashes under a special extension of the original factory warranty.
Jeff Ostroff, editor of CarBuyingTips.com, documented his own personal experience with the issue in this article. He writes that cracks first appeared in the dash of his 2004 GX 470 shortly after the original warranty expired. While he was miffed, he left the problem unaddressed for years. Then in 2015, Lexus mailed a letter informing him that his GX was eligible for a free factory replacement, an $800 value.
A cracked dash is primarily a cosmetic issue, but it can be quite unsightly. If it matters to you, we suggest seeking out an example that has had the original dash replaced under the warranty extension program.
GX 470 Prices and Recommendations
In a recent search on Autotrader, we found 352 used GX 470s for sale nationwide, ranging in price from around $7500 for well-used early models with over 200,000 miles to $25,000+ for later garage queens with under 50,000 documented miles. Additionally, a few even pricer listings feature GX 470s that have been extensively modified for extreme off-road use.
We think the sweet spot for used GX 470s is $15,000 to $20,000. That gets you into a very well-maintained specimen with relatively low miles from one of the most desirable years (i.e. 2005 and newer, when the more powerful V8 was fitted).
Good buys can also be found in the $10,000 to $15,000 range if you don’t mind driving a GX 470 with a bit of visible wear and tear and over 150,000 miles on the clock. These vehicles can take a beating and keep going strong, so that still represents a lot of great SUV for the money.
Finally, before you spend ten grand or more on a used GX 470, we highly recommend hiring a Lexus specialist to evaluate it. For about $250, they’ll provide you with a thorough inspection of the entire car. This can reveal major, deal-breaking issues, like hidden damage from an accident, or minor things that you can use as bargaining points, like worn brake pads. Either way, it’s easily worth the money to complete a professional inspection prior to finalizing any used car purchase.
Photos courtesy of Lexus
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