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    Two Different Auto Design Approaches

    By Philip Ruth–

    “We’re trying to find a way to live in a burning building.” That’s MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on coping with the surging of COVID-19 across the United States. It requires making a lot of little decisions that lead to a markedly different lifestyle from the one experienced just a few months ago, now under a cloud of risk and worry. 

    It’s a bummer, man. I miss the gym, the library, and dropping in to stores and chatting with friends behind counters. Each metered out a daily chunk of community. Learning to live without that in each of its forms has been its own sad exercise. 

    But people still need cars, and a recent client going from something antiquated (an 80s Mercedes SL) to something in line with today’s trends (an Infiniti crossover SUV) reminded me of the progression of SUV design, and how two recent pressers—the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus GX 460—exemplified the evolution. 

    The Lexus truly is a truck. Though it just about matches the overall length of a 3,300-pound Toyota Camry midsize sedan, the GX 460 whumps onto the scale with more than 5,100 pounds under its belt. That’s about 500 pounds more than the Highlander Hybrid, even with the extra mass of the hybrid system.

    The GX 460 shares its platform with the Toyota 4Runner, which dates back to the 80s. As it was updated, the 4Runner stayed in the past, fixed as a truck, while competitors like the Chevrolet Blazer and Ford Explorer switched to car platforms. 

    The 4Runner and GX 460 can continue as trucks because the car-based midsize crossover market is neatly covered by the Highlander and its Lexus sibling, the RX. The Highlander’s 2020 redesign brings it closer to the cutting edges of crossover design, which is also sighted by the Kia Telluride and Mazda CX-9. It’s as competitive as market segments get, partly because there’s real profit to be made from the long options lists.  

    This was reflected in the $51,000 sticker on the tested Highlander Hybrid. The fuel-efficient powertrain adds $1,400 to the bottom line and seems worth it, as it keeps calculated mileage in the high-20 mpg range, even under a heavy foot. 

    A heavy foot is encouraged. The 2020 Highlander is another spawn of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), and as Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing. TNGA’s main gift is its lower center of gravity, and the Highlander digs into curves with cool-headed confidence.  

    The GX 460 is at the other extreme, with body-on-frame construction that makes it as tall as it is wide; the Highlander has six more inches across than up and down. That can make it feel tippy when three-point-turning, say, on Noe leading up to 21st Street, but the truck frame down below is a delight on rutted pavement, where all that weight smushes down the impacts. 

    Even though these two are about the same length, they are dramatically different. Kind of like life right now. 

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant with an automotive staging service.

    Published on July 16, 2020