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Whether your impression of Africa was (perhaps) formed by Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen or director John Huston’s The African Queen, you’ll know that in more recent films set in Africa a Land Rover invariably serves as the automotive backdrop. That’s fully appropriate, as far as it goes – and as far as a Land Rover will take you. The Land Rover’s stone-axe simplicity was perfect for the British colonies, perhaps less so when indulging in an afternoon of High Tea. But the romance of remote destinations still plays in our American zeitgeist, and whether your setting is Kenya or Kansas, few vehicles can better transport you to those destinations than the all-new Lexus GX 550. With the ruggedness of Redford and refinement of Streep, this dual-purpose Lexus is the perfect complement to your adventurous spirit, regardless of zip code.

Toyota, of course, has a well-established history of offroad capability; it was a supplier to the Japanese Army prior to and during World War II. One of its first exports to these United States after the war was the Land Cruiser, and with a brief interruption it reappears on Toyota showrooms this year as a midsize offering. On that same platform is the all-new Lexus GX 550, the third in the GX series, which dates to the 2003 model year launch of the GX 470. That V8-powered midsize SUV was a modest hit in the day, and enjoys even more enthusiasm from those liking its offroad chops and V8 power some 20 years later. Its successor, the GX 460, maintained the V8 powertrain, but seemingly lost the character, feeling more than a little like a Camry wagon on a lifted, ladder-type frame.

This all-new GX 550 will never be confused with a Camry wagon. Despite a relatively modest footprint when compared to the company’s extra-large LX 600, the GX 550 dwarfs the ’23 Grand Cherokee on our drive; its higher roof sits atop an expansive greenhouse – the benefits of great visibility in an offroad-specific vehicle shouldn’t be minimized – while its relatively narrow shoulders look perfect for negotiating tight trails. And while a vestige of the Lexus spindle grille remains in the GX 550’s front fascia, there’s almost no affectation in the balance of the sheetmetal; this is a SUV designed with a straighter edge, and while you’ll not confuse it with the retro architecture of the Ineos Grenadier, neither will you miss it on a Lexus showroom populated by the RX and NX crossovers…even when painted in what Lexus calls ‘Incognito’. Really. Incognito.

Inside, our test vehicle’s Luxury+ trim offers perforated, semi-aniline leather; the other GX trims, Premium and Overtrail, support you in what Lexus dubs NuLuxe…and I’ll call vinyl. The look is decidedly upscale and remarkably comfortable – but then, our Luxury+ trim brings with it an $85K window sticker. That comfort is extended to the 2nd-row buckets, while the third row is exactly what you’d think it would be in a relatively tight SUV. Access to that third row requires either a small stature or real athleticism, and once back there – unless you’re under 10 – you won’t want to stay long. As a grandparent a third row has real value, but don’t regard it as ‘extended stay’. 

Under the hood, the GX 550 separates itself from its Land Cruiser cousin with a twin-turbocharged V6. Displacing 3.5 liters, it delivers its 349 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque (at 2,000 rpm) through a 10-speed automatic transmission to – as you’d hope – all four wheels. This is a predictably refined and responsive powertrain (Car and Driver’s team reached 60 in just over six seconds), but then, it’s also thirsty. The EPA estimates you’ll get 15 City/21 Highway and 17 Combined. In our stop-and-go driving the dashboard indicated 14.6, which isn’t too far removed from the number we get driving our Hemi-equipped ’06 Grand Cherokee, or Lexus received when still building the normally-aspirated, V8-equipped GX 460. You gotta’ think a hybrid option is coming, but until then pay your Shell statement…promptly.

On the road the GX 550 delivers the degree of comfort you’d expect, and while the footprint isn’t small, it’s small enough to make parking at the mall – or underground parking in a commercial high rise – doable in a way the bigger Land Cruiser or today’s LX 600 aren’t. And that again is helped by the generous greenhouse. Steering is well connected (for the category), and while roadholding is acceptable on the Luxury’s 22-inch rubber, you do feel the GX’s 75 inches of height. But then, if you want to autocross you’re not stopping by a Lexus showroom – you’re buying a Supra.

Our off-road exposure was limited to an introductory drive in the hills of Malibu a few weeks ago. And the GX has real off-road capability, which is reinforced when opting for the Overtrail trim. That option box gives you a tad more ground clearance, along with real off-road rubber; it also deletes the third-row option. But then, if wanting to unplug from society you probably won’t be bringing four kids with you.  

The Premium and Overtrail trims also give you 9,000 pounds of towing capability, a real bump when compared to the Toyota Land Cruiser’s 6,000 pounds. If my wife and I returned to towing, we’d be tempted by the Canadian-built Escape 23, an all-fiberglass trailer that maximizes efficiency, minimizes maintenance (no alloy to keep polished!), and has a empty weight of just 4,600 pounds. With a strong U.S. dollar against the Escape’s Canadian currency, you’ll be in your campsite for under $70K – which is roughly what you’ll have spent for the GX 550 Overtrail and its 9,000 pounds of capability. We’re not sure what it would take to ship both Lexus and the trailer to Africa. But as a Plan B, you can drive to Kansas…

The bottom line? I’d enjoy owning this new GX 550, probably in its Overtrail trim. But I’d love it with a hybrid option and a real-world Highway estimate of 25+ miles per gallon. That would bring your monthly gas outlay in line with what you spend at Starbucks. Maybe.

Boldt, a contributor to outlets such as, Kelley Blue Book and Autoblog, brings to his laptop some forty years of experience in automotive retail, journalism and public relations. He is a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, The Washington Automotive Press Association and L.A.'s Motor Press Guild. David is the Managing Editor of txGarage, a regular panelist on the AutoNetwork Reports webcast/podcast, and the automotive contributor to Dallas' Katy Trail Weekly.

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