Extreme wheeling doesn’t necessarily mean tube buggies defying gravity on 4x4 paths better suited for mountain goats. When it comes to 4x4s and wheeling, sometimes “extreme” can also describe the level of build quality, or comfort, or maybe it explains the beauty found in the landscapes of a memorable off-road trip. Then again, maybe a combination of things can work so well together that they extremely satisfy. We recently had access to an ’11 Lexus LX 570, a couple days of time, and enough gas money for a 1,000-mile trip to find out if this luxury SUV could extremely satisfy or if it was just another extremely disappointing driveway dreamboat.
The first thing to remember about the Lexus LX 570 is that it is a sister vehicle to the Toyota Land Cruiser, which was our 2008 4x4 of the Year (Feb. ’08). That means it has the guts to go off-road unlike many luxury liners out on the road these days. By “guts” we mean a 5.7L V-8 that sends 383 horses and 403 lb-ft of torque to a six-speed automatic, a fulltime two-speed transfer case (2.62:1 low range) containing a Torsen limited-slip differential, and on out to axles carrying 3.9:1 gearing. Surprisingly, the rear axle is solid (not IRS), unusual in this upper-end 4x4 category, yet it’s a tough and straightforward piece of off-road functionality. Up front the axle is independent with 9 inches of travel. Traction control for both front and rear axles is handled by the vehicle’s brain and brakes, which Lexus calls Active Traction Control (A-TRAC). And while we’re hitting the Caps Lock key, the LX 570 also uses its brain to maintain directional control during cornering using Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and keeps itself from rolling backwards on hills by using the Hill-start Assist Control (HAC).
Moving to the suspension on the LX 570, we find more uses for the Caps Lock key. Active Height Control (AHC) automatically lowers and raises the vehicle (depending on vehicle speed and off-road mode), and the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) adjusts the shock absorber damping and spring rates according to the driver’s wishes (go drivers!).
The Lexus is capable of (and rated for) towing 7,000 pounds. Helping to stop the rig, either with or without a trailer, are 13.4-inch-diameter disc brakes up front and 13.6-inchers in the rear (and, yes, ABS). But we didn’t want to tow on the trip we had planned—we wanted to go wheeling.
An extremely comfortable, luxurious, and capable vehicle like the Lexus LX 570 needs a suitably extreme 4x4 test trip. We wanted to go from the highest point in the Lower 48 (Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 feet) to the lowest point (Badwater, Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level). Now, before you say, “Wait, there’s no road to the top of Mt. Whitney,” we know. We also know that during the winter it’s difficult to even get close to that mountain due to snow, but that’s what made this test trip perfect, see? Snow, mud, deserts, mountains, cactus, rocks, and other extreme terrain: It’s all good and it’s all on this trip!
Interrupting our northbound progress toward Mt. Whitney from Los Angeles, we turned off Highway 14 and headed through the tiny mining town of Randsburg on a quick side trip over to the Trona Pinnacles. This strange forest of rock columns was formed from calcium carbonate deposits under an ancient sea, but the day we drove through they were hidden under a sea of Tule fog. Recent rainstorms and flooding had left the road wet, and although the mud wasn’t deep, it was as slippery as a soapy linoleum floor. Although the LX 570’s traction control kept the tires spinning and us moving forward, we got an inkling that the P285/50R20 Michelin Latitude Tour HP tires were out of their element and might be better suited to wet pavement than wet Trona trails.
The easy thing to spot when you first drive the Lexus LX 570 is that, yes, it is extremely luxurious and comfortable (duh!). There’s plenty of space, leather, seat heaters, a great Mark Levinson 19-speaker sound system, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. (For comparison, while our living room at home has a bit more space, our DVD player doesn’t even work. Don’t even mention the rest!) There’s plenty of V-8 power for holding a steady speed on any road, and the standard GPS navigation system works so well with its large touch screen that minimal navigation is needed to learn how to work the, um, navigation. Virtually everything in the cabin works off some sort of power motor: windows, liftgate, moonroof, tilt/telescoping steering column, front seats, sliding second-row seats, and folding third-row seats. We lost track counting up the number of electric motors Lexus must have hidden inside the LX 570. That’s got to be some kind of “extreme.”
During our 1,000-mile test trip we ended up averaging 16.5 mpg, but the EPA estimate on the window sticker says to expect 14. Not too bad for a fullsize (read: heavy) SUV with a V-8 this powerful.
Heading west out of Lone Pine, we first drove around the rocky Alabama Hills, an area made famous by years of moviemaking (remember Tremors, Ironman, or just about any Western?). The residual granite boulders of these hills gave the Lexus and its Crawl mode plenty of traction, and we were feeling better about the tires too, until we headed up the Whitney Portal Road, hit snow, and got stuck—almost. Don’t get us wrong; the LX 570’s traction control worked extremely well. It just seemed that the tires were not quite up to the performance level of the Lexus when in a low-traction off-road situation. Granted, the Michelins on our tester are not designed for slippery off-road action but are, instead, more of a compromise all-season tire. Although they were exceptionally smooth and quiet on the highway, owners of a Lexus LX 570 might decide to try some other tires depending on how they will use the vehicle. Let’s face it: The Lexus carries an extreme price tag ($77,755 MSRP, but $86,710 as tested), yet it also has capabilities over and above most luxury SUV 4x4s on the market. So, if you’re lucky enough to afford one, we suggest maximizing its potential by getting some tires matched to your usage.
The next morning we headed east and used the LX 570’s GPS to find the road into northern Death Valley. Traveling for miles over graded and not-so-graded rocky desert roads, we made our way north to Ubehebe Road and Lippincott Pass. This was a rocky, steep climb up out of Saline Valley. With the LX 570 in low range with Crawl mode turned on and the suspension set to its highest setting, we slowly negotiated the narrow, winding trail to the top. This luxurious fullsize Lexus creeping up the canyon must have been a sight to see—that is, if there were any other people out there in the sticks (there weren’t).
The next rocky road we came to took us past The Racetrack Playa, with its rocks that somehow mysteriously move across a dry lakebed, Teakettle Junction known for, well, its many teakettles, and the half-mile-wide, 700-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater blown out from superheated groundwater only a couple of thousand years ago. Circling around and heading south on pavement down the length of Death Valley, we wound up finally at Badwater, the lowest point in North America.
Although separated from Mt. Whitney by two days of mountain ranges, many geologic wonders, and miles of lonely roads and even lonelier trails, the lowest and highest points in this country’s contiguous 48 states are, remarkably, less than 100 miles apart as the crow flies. This trip had definitely become extreme with its natural beauty and amazing geology. The Lexus LX 570 proved to us that it is not only comfortable but, indeed, capable as an extreme wheeler.
You need to know these if you’re shopping for luxury Lexus 4x4s.
Bubinga: An exotic African hardwood used for furniture, musical instruments, and, evidently, interior pieces of the LX 570.
Semi-aniline: Refers to the color dying process used for the leather interior of the LX 570. Looks like full-aniline to us.
Noble Spinel Mica: What Lexus calls the exterior color of our test vehicle. Otherwise known as maroon.