How Lexus Gained Off-Road Cred

The luxury brand's rugged SUVs can venture just as far into the woods as Toyota's.

 Front view of a tan 2024 Lexus GX Overtrail

Lexus | 2024 GX Overtrail

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With its boxy lines, traditional truck-like construction, chunky tires, and available locking rear differential, the recently revealed 2024 Lexus GX midsize SUV is ready to take on the wilderness.

The backwoods, however, are a far cry from the intended stomping ground of Lexus models. Back in 1989 when Toyota launched its luxury division, Lexus was all about on-road comfort and serenity.

Front three-quarter view of a gold 1990 Lexus LS 400 sedanLexus | 1990 LS 400

To prove it, the brand aired a television commercial showing its LS 400 luxury sedan balancing a champagne glass tower on its hood while running at 145 mph.

Champagne and mud aren't quite oil and water, but they're close. If you're wondering about how the brand — in what Lexus called its relentless pursuit of perfection — became a builder of off-road vehicles, let us fill you in.

Front three-quarter view of a silver 1996 Lexus LX 450Lexus | 1996 LX 450

Lexus Makes Its Own Land Cruiser

The brand's first SUV, the 1996 Lexus LX 450, arrived as a lightly dressed-up version of the highly capable Toyota Land Cruiser, sporting the same solid axles, standard full-time four-wheel-drive system, and optional locking differentials. The Lexus treatment consisted of little more than a different grille and headlights, standard leather seats, and woodgrain trim — likely due to the fact that it was rushed to market — but shoppers didn't seem to mind. It was Lexus' answer to the vaunted Land Rover Range Rover, and it quickly exceeded sales expectations, requiring dealers to take down names on a waitlist while the brand raced to build more.

Over the next quarter century, the model moved progressively upmarket and performed well for Lexus. In fact, for many years the LX outsold its mainstream counterpart. What's more, they seem to hold their value, if not raise it. A low-mile, first-generation Lexus LX 450 sold on collector-car auction site Bring a Trailer for $100,500 in August 2022. It cost about half that when new. (For reference, a Range Rover from the same era has yet to crack $81,000 on the same site as of July 2023.)

Side view of a silver 2007 Lexus GX 470Lexus | 2007 GX 470

Lexus Capitalizes on the SUV Trend With the GX

As consumers continued to flock to SUVs in the early 2000s, Lexus looked to make another LX, only a bit smaller. It took the rugged Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV (sold outside the U.S.), draped its cabin in leather and wood, slapped on different badges, and set the price at $45,000. Voilà! The Lexus GX 470 was born.

As with the LX, Lexus kept all of the donor Toyota's off-road tech. The body-on-frame construction, the solid rear axle, and the two-speed transfer case gave the GX more in common with the go-anywhere Land Rover Discovery than unibody rivals such as the BMW X5 and Acura MDX, which were — and remain — more carlike.

Even now, while other automakers have transitioned their rugged SUVs into city-friendly crossovers, Lexus has retained truck-based roots for its LX and GX to ensure their capability on and off the pavement. And off-roaders have taken note.

Front three-quarter view of a tan 2024 GX OvertrailLexus | 2024 GX Overtrail

According to Scott Brady, publisher of the adventure magazine Overland Journal, "Lexus has embraced overlanding. Both the LX and GX are suitable to drive around the world unmodified."

That's especially true of the new 2024 Lexus GX Overtrail, which includes a locking differential and all-terrain tires plus a unique suspension that aids articulation to help keep the tires planted whenever you decide to leave the asphalt. Yet, with a 21-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and a 14.0-inch touchscreen on the options list, the GX stays true to Lexus' reputation for providing the good stuff, too.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.