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1996 Lexus LX450

The economy must be looking up on the Dark Side of the Force. Darth Vader just ordered a new battle wagon and it's a Lexus.

It's large and it's tough and, natch, he chose black. In keeping with the big man's position in the universe, the Lexus LX450 is an exclusive, expensive ride.

Lexus Canada doesn't yet know how many it will have to sell, but fewer than 200 is a good guess. Although the price is also the stuff of guesswork, we can now be certain that it will fall in the $70,000-$80,000 range, probably closer to $70,000. (Forget those wild hundred-grand rumors.)

The LX450 itself has an honorable lineage descending from a long list of doughty warriors called Toyota Land Cruisers.

The Land Cruiser line has not been offered in Canada for some time; Toyota argues that the 4Runner ably fills that niche. But the sudden increase of interest in hyper luxury sport-utilities left Toyota without a player in the game and the Lexus division was given the nod to tart up the latest Cruiser.

Which drops me to my knees to beg the question whether a hurry-up knighthood and a new suit of clothes are enough to transform a burly off-roader into a status-mobile acceptable at Princess Leia's court.

FANCY ADDONS

The LX450 does have the look. Lexus has employed little more than some fancy wheels, substantial tires (P275/70R16!), body cladding and fender flares plus an LS400-like grille to transform the homely Land Cruiser into a classy head turner.

Never, in all the years that I've been testing cars has a vehicle generated so much attention. Stopping for gas was a spectator event. If "hey, look at me" is the point of these off-the-scale sport-utes, then the LX450 is a success and nothing further need be said.

And, it does have the ride. The Land Cruiser provided Toyota's typical sport-ute bumps and joggles. The Lexus engineers have smoothed things out considerably and in the process the husky suspension has been made more compliant.

Those mammoth Michelin LTX M/S tires don't have a very aggressive tread I don't take 70 grand 4x4s out to the bush anyway. But, under controlled conditions, I did present the LX450 with some challenges typical of a real off-road trek and I was impressed with both the vehicle's abilities and the gentle way it went about its business.

The four-wheel drive system is on all the time thanks to a viscous coupling that should prove welcome when the snow flies. Low range is selected via a lever that is just within the range of reachability on the right side of the shifter console. Optional lockable front and rear differentials are available if you are moved to answer the call of extreme off-roading. On slippery, dry dirt, I got straight stops from four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Out on our decrepit freeways the big machine glides along minimally disturbed by irregularities in the pavement. The cabin is very rigid and the doors close with a solid clunk of authority. Consequently our highway passage was suitably quiet; like a Lexus one might say. At left lane 401 speeds the peace was disturbed only by some wind noise that seemed to come from the windshield wipers.

However sweetly tuned, the Land Cruiser underpinnings remain. The system may be brute strong, but penalties in handling must be paid for its lack of sophistication. Pleasant enough, the LX450 is initially responsive to the helm and it goes around corners without too much lean. Nonetheless, speed-limiting understeer comes on quite early and no amount of encouragement will get the thing to go round more quickly.

I did love the straight six engine. We tend to forget how wonderfully smooth the inline six configuration is. Civilized even further by a dual-cam 24-valve head, the 4.5-litre produces 212 horsepower at 4600 r.p.m. and 275 poundfeet of torque at 3200. The engine and transmission are rated to withstand the rigors of pulling a 2269 kg trailer.

According to Toyota, the LX will guzzle a daunting 18.1 litres of refined fossils in 100 km of city driving and 15.7 on the highway.

Like most multi-valvers, the Lexus six was most happy once it got rolling. With plenty of weight to move, this results in leisurely acceleration from rest. A 0-to-100 km/h run took a slowish 12 seconds flat, regardless of what the driver did with the throttle and brake. Highway passing was much more impressive with 90 klicks becoming 120 in about 7.25 seconds.

So far we have a sport-utility that looks like a Lexus, rides and runs somewhat like a Lexus and handles like a truck.

If pressed, Mr. Vader will admit that he purchased his LX450 primarily for its off-beat panache. But he also insists that he bought it to lug his collection of antique light sabres.

Before we go any further, perhaps we should evaluate the LX450 in terms of its qualities as a utility.

A look at one of the photos will reveal that, commanding physical presence notwithstanding, the LX is close-coupled; there is no long rear overhang. Such a shape leaves less chance that the underchassis mounted spare tire will ground out on rough terrain, but it does restrict interior room.

The rear load zone is fairly short, but adequate. To help, the second-row seat backs can be folded flat or, with a wrench or two, the entire assembly will come out. However, the load limiting factor remains the 90 cm (35-inch) distance from the hatch to the back of the front seats.

The cargo area is also diminished by the presence of forward-facing jump seats. Great for kids; don't put me back there. The seats will fold up against the wide windows, but still take up a lot of room. Fortunately, these chairs are readily removable without tools.

The step-in height is 58 cm (22.8 inches) and the seatbase ride height is approximately 84 cm (33 inches) above the road surface. That's relatively high; perhaps the rise-above-it-all feeling it engenders are part of owning a machine of this ilk. But that's also high enough to split the seam in your Jedi tights.

Once we've clambered in, then, the experience had better be solid luxury. Nope, the interior carries over from the Land Cruiser with meager Lexus-like addons. The good Toyota stuff is all there well laid out dash with dual air bags, fine seats, painstaking assembly. But so are the questionable practices like the exposed metal seat mounts and mechanicals.

What really kills it, however, is what they're added: a clumsy console box that tries to include a CD changer, cup holders, a woofer and storage but does none of it well; plus cheezy slip-cover-style leather upholstery on a smattering of wood-grain trim doneup in shiny plastic.

The LX450 may be the finest Land Cruiser ever conceived. But, Toyota should have spent another $2,000 on it and charged another three. As it is, the LX450 is not a Lexus.

Sorry, Darth.

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