I Found My Lexus GX 470’s Achilles’ Heel Off Roading With Jeeps

I Found My Lexus GX 470’s Achilles’ Heel Off Roading With Jeeps
Photo: David Tracy

Last we checked in on my GX 470, I was just back from Holly Oaks Off Road park in Southeast Michigan, where I learned that my Lexus project was more capable off road than I’d imagined. For this instalment, David Tracy and I joined some friends and Jalopnik readers — all in Jeeps — for a run up to Drummond Island on the East end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Before I get to the trip, lemme quickly (?) run down some additional modifications I’ve made since the last update:

Over the winter, I added a big arse light to the roof rack. I don’t need a 40-inch light bar, but the light bar faring that Prinsu offers for my rack is meant for a 40-incher so that’s what I bought. The Light Force Nightfall 40″ Dual Row Light Bar looks bonkers sitting above my windshield and creates noticeable aerodynamic drag. In hindsight, I should have gone with a single row. It came with a nice wiring harness, which I didn’t use and mounting brackets that wouldn’t work with a roof rack. After much fiddling, I ended up mounting it with stainless steel shelving brackets from Ace Hardware.

It was the only thing that failed on the Drummond Island Trip, briefly refusing to turn on once we left the trail. I can’t figure out if it was the light, or something with the sPod controller I use, but I unplugged it, plugged it back in and it’s back.

The other major development is the addition of a winch. I really hemmed and hawed about it, but ultimately decided I should. Further hawing led me to mount it behind the bumper cover, “hidden winch” style. There are some disadvantages to mounting it this way, mostly that you don’t have easy access to the spool and clutch. But ultimately, I did it this way to save weight. Usually, mounting a winch starts with adding a heavy steel, or sometimes aluminium bumper. The hidden winch mount I went with is basically a reinforced steel plate that sits between the frame horns, replacing the steel crash bumper without adding much if any weight.

Slideshow Image
Slideshow Image

There are some hybrid bumpers and really more than a few ways to put a winch up front, but I’m happy with the way this turned out. I still need to add some trim around the fairlead to cover up my haphazard trimming, but everything works and it looks alright with my fancy Factor55 ultrahook jewellery.

David would be mega bummed if I forgot to tell you that we added a little fold-down table to the rear tailgate the night before we crewed at Sno-Drift last winter. Here it is, helping me look that much more like a YouTube overland poseur:

At the last minute, I added one of those Weboost cell signal boosters to the roof rack, but I didn’t have time to give it a proper test on the island. It does look wild. I’ll be driving out to the sticks in the next week or so to test it.

OK, flashback over, on to the actual trip:

David and I drove up to Detour, MI Friday morning, after having stayed up until around 5AM wrenching on his XJ. As we were waiting for the ferry, David said, “I think I’m going to disconnect my sway bar.” I assumed he meant after we’d arrived at our rented mobile home. In fact, he meant in the line of cars waiting for the ferry, which as I’d pointed out was in view. He crawled under the Jeep and started wrenching, freeing the bar just in time for us to grab our spots on the boat.

Saturday morning, we met up with a group of readers and their Jeeps. I got to make the “Wow! I can’t believe I’m the only Lexus!” joke and we headed out on the trail.

The first thing we ran into was water. Over the course of the weekend, we went through a number of deep puddles, including this one that I should have probably hit a little more slowly. No matter, the GX470’s intake is high up in the passenger fender and as far as I know, we didn’t swallow any water.

We moved on to another set of deeper, muddier troughs and took stock of our options.

After seeing this:

Photo: Spencer Abbott

Then watching this:

And seeing David end up like this:

About half the group decided to follow what looked like a bypass to this particular obstacle. We ended up on a much more difficult route, where the GX’s big weakness showed. After a long logging road, we stopped at the edge of a forest where the trail split off into 5-6 different routes through deep bogs, shallower bogs, and one somewhat less deep muddy two-track route through the trees. We followed the shallower route, plodding through the black mud until we realised the GX was too big to fit through the trees ahead. The JK Wrangler ahead of me had to be carefully spotted through, so there was no way I’d make it without a chainsaw.

I backed up and pointed the nose of the Lexus into a hole we all new I’d hang up in. Within seconds, the front skid plate was resting on the high point between two mud tracks and we were planning a recovery. My old pal Spencer ended up winching me out and I headed back up the trail and toward a recently clear cut pine grove.Had the GX been just a few inches narrower, I’d have been able to follow the Jeeps into and out of the bogs.

I could do some trimming in the wheel wells and go up a couple tire sizes, I could lift it a little higher and get even more tire, but it’s always going to be big compared to a Jeep. With more clearance I probably would have powered through the bog where I got hung up, but the fact remains, there are always going to be places they can go where I can’t follow.

After my bypass of shame, we at lunch and headed toward The Steps for some rock crawling. When I walked up to the obstacle, I thought I’d hang back. The trail dead ends at a huge cliff after The Steps and I wasn’t confident that the GX would make it back up without catching a rocker panel. But I watched a Chevy Colorado ZR2 do it and decided I’d give it a shot.

It ended up being easy enough, thought I did order a set of rock sliders when I got home.

Next time, I’ll try to follow the route David took in his XJ.

Later four of us split off to tackle Mu’s Revenge, a rocky downhill climb with broken Jeep parts piled up at the top of the hill.

I’d just come through a huge mud pit, so my brakes were a groanin’ but taking the easier route here was no problem.

When I started planning this build, I didn’t intend to go out chasing tough obstacles. I wanted to build something that would take me and the kids to incredible places that we wouldn’t be able to access in a normal car. So, for me, a trip like this is more about testing, finding the limits of what the big Lexus will do so when I encounter an obstacle I know when to press on and when to turn around. I still have sliders to install, and I need to find a front recovery point that works with the hidden winch, but overall, I’ve been impressed with where this thing will go.