Big Wheels of Fortune By Brent Romans If, by chance, you are sitting around with your friends and the conversation has fizzled out, requiring something to rekindle it, I can suggest two possible options. One: Lift up your shirt and exclaim, "Do you think this boil is contagious?" Or, two, begin a trivia game with the following question: "Limited to base MSRP, what is the most expensive Lexus vehicle sold?" If any of your friends hazards, "The LS 430," feel free to smack them on the forehead and yell, "No, you're wrong! It's the LX 470!" You can then revel in your intellectual superiority. Yep, for 2003, the LX 470 is about $8,000 more than the LS. Even when equipped with options, the LS won't likely match the LX (though when one equips the LS with the $12,485 Ultra Luxury Selection option, it does finally surpass the LX). If you've got stacks of currency and gold bullion lying around, and you don't know what to spend it on, the LX 470 should do nicely. Heck, buy an LX 470 and an LS 430. Either way, you're getting a fine vehicle. The LX 470 has been a favorite vehicle of our editorial team ever since its introduction in 1998 — an earlier version, the LX 450, was available in 1996 and 1997. We last obtained an LX 470 in 2000 when we conducted a luxury SUV comparison test. It beat out the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Land Rover Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz ML430 to take first place. We summed up the win by saying: "The Lexus rules the class because it has no real weaknesses. Unlike the other four contestants, the Lexus fulfills all luxury SUV needs without compromise. If you were to purchase an LX 470 and never go off-road you would still possess an excellent luxury truck in terms of comfort, convenience and safety. If you were to purchase an LX 470 and never drive it on pavement, you would still possess a fully capable off-road machine ready to serve safari needs. It pampers and empowers, coddles and liberates simultaneously. No other vehicle in this test can make such claims. The other four vehicles each have their strengths and weaknesses. With the LX, it's all strengths." Since then, the competition has improved. The Lincoln, Cadillac and Land Rover have all been redesigned and the M-Class was updated last year. In response, Lexus has made a number of improvements to the LX 470 for 2003. On the outside, the LX has received subtle changes to the headlights, taillights and front grille and bumper. Eighteen-inch wheels are now standard. Inside, there's a redesigned center stack, standard side and side curtain airbags, additional audio controls for rear passengers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a new optional entertainment system (dealer-installed). Mechanically, Lexus has bumped horsepower output by five, added a new five-speed automatic transmission and improved the steering rack. There are also rain-sensing wipers and two new features — a "Night View" night vision system and the Lexus Link emergency communications service. The Night View system is the most interesting 2003 change. With it, the LX 470 is only the second vehicle sold in the United States to offer a nighttime vision system. Cadillac debuted its "Night Vision" system on the 2000 DeVille. The LX 470's system uses near-infrared technology to help enhance nighttime driving visibility. Though the premise is the same, the way it operates is slightly different than the Cadillac's. For Night View, there are two lamps mounted in the front bumper that project near-infrared light when the system is activated. This near-infrared light (it's invisible to the naked eye) reflects from objects ahead back to a charged couple device (CCD) camera mounted inside the vehicle at the top of the windshield. A dedicated computer processes the resulting black-and-white images, which are then projected onto the lower section of the windshield within the driver's field of vision. In contrast, Cadillac's Night Vision works passively, detecting infrared waves from sources that reflect or radiate heat, including people and animals. It, too, has a head-up display, but the display shows more of a ghostlike image of the heat sources, not necessarily their surroundings. In comparing the two, we think the Lexus system is much more useful on a regular basis. Because it's providing the infrared light, the resulting images are much clearer, thereby making them more useful to the driver. The only advantage to the Cadillac system is that it offers better performance when the weather conditions are rainy or foggy. Both systems are virtually useless in urban environments, so we strongly encourage you to analyze your typical driving situations before opting for Night View. It makes the most sense for drivers who are frequently traveling on darkened roads without many curves. Lexus says Night View works out to a distance of nearly 500 feet — about three to four times the range of the low beams. Even if you don't order the Night View system, there are other things to appreciate on the latest LX 470. The 4.7-liter V8 makes a bit more power this year: 235 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 320 pound-feet at 3,400 rpm. A new five-speed automatic helps to make slight improvements in fuel economy and acceleration. This is still less than the new competition is putting out, though: the AWD Escalade boasts a 6.0-liter V8 with 345 hp, and the Range Rover has a BMW-supplied 4.4-liter V8 with 282 hp. The LX also has a new steering system. It's power-assisted rack and pinion, as it was before, but this time around Lexus has made it variable ratio, as well. Last year's steering was fixed at 19.8:1. This year it varies from 12.4 to 18.0:1, depending on the vehicle's speed and the amount that the steering wheel is turned. While the LX's turning circle of 39.7 feet is unchanged from last year — Lexus would have to introduce a four-wheel-steering system to improve that — this new rack does make the SUV easier to maneuver in parking lots, as well as more responsive while driving on curvy roads. Inside, the LX 470 continues to provide a high level of luxury for up to eight passengers. The new dealer-installed, DVD-based entertainment system includes an overhead 6.5-inch flip-down LCD monitor ahead of the second-row seats. The player is mounted in the right rear quarter panel and the system includes two sets of wireless headphones and a remote control. Also of note: By loading a DVD into the navigation system's slot, placing the transmission in park and setting the parking brake, front passengers can watch their own movie on the dash-mounted navigation screen. Order the optional Mark Levinson audio system, and you've got your own mobile theater complex. Are these changes enough to keep the LX 470 on top? Only another comparison test will tell. It doesn't appear the LX is in such a dominant position as it once was. And a lot of editors here at the office think Lexus' new GX 470 is the better deal; it costs thousands less, has nearly the same level of features and offers more interior room for passengers. Still, the LX 470 is one fine SUV. It's comfortable in the city, smooth on the open highway and very capable in the dirt. If you are one who lives by following an "It's good to be the king" mantra, the LX won't disappoint.