SAN DIEGO, CA – Although it predicts it will sell just 14,000 units of the new GX in 2010, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.’s Lexus brand expects that meager volume to give it a 25% share of all midsize luxury SUV sales in the U.S.

“That segment has declined dramatically,” Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager-Lexus, explains here at a preview of the new model.

Sales in Ward’s Middle Luxury SUV category, where the GX resides, have tumbled sharply, from 136,990 units in 2003 to 26,547 through October, as U.S. car buyers and manufacturers have migrated to car-based utility vehicles.

Templin defends another generation of the body-on-frame GX, saying there are still customers that want the ruggedness a 4-wheel-drive SUV provides.

Nevertheless, he hints the GX’s days as a truck-based product may be numbered.

“I think there’s always going to be a need for a vehicle like this – that’s a midsize product with 3-row seating,” he says, noting the growing numbers of Gen X and Gen Y buyers with families.

“Whether it’s this type of vehicle or a car-based application of an SUV, it’s going to be important we stay” in the midsize utility segment.

The GX was all-new in 2003, joining the fullsize LX SUV and RX cross/utility vehicle as the third Lexus light truck.

The SUV brought many young, affluent families to Lexus and kept existing Lexus owners from abandoning the brand.

Lexus is counting on that continuing with the ’10 GX, which goes on sale in limited numbers in December and will see greater availability in January.

The ’10 GX grows 1 in. (2.5 cm) in length, due to a longer front overhang, is 0.2 ins. (0.5 cm) wider and, depending on the grade, is 2.5-2.9 ins. (6-7 cm) lower than the ’09 GX.

The biggest change is under the hood. Lexus has installed its new 4.6L V-8, also in the ’10 Tundra, swapping out the ’09 GX’s 4.7L V-8.

The new V-8 is 13% more fuel efficient and, despite the downsizing, more powerful, Templin says.

The 4.6L generates 301 hp and 329 lb.-ft. (446 Nm) of torque, vs. 263 hp and 323 lb.-ft. (438 Nm) for the 4.7L.

In addition, Lexus swaps out the ’09 GX’s 5-speed automatic for a 6-speed unit, helping push fuel economy to 15/20 mpg city/highway (16-12 L/100 km), up from 14/18 (17-13 L/100 km) for the outgoing model.

The new GX includes the first non-hybrid application of Toyota’s fuel-sipping, cooled exhaust-gas-recirculation system.

Although it adds some cost, expect cooled EGR to migrate to more models in the future, Charles Hubbard, senior dealer education administrator-Lexus College, tells Ward’s.

Lexus has retained the GX’s solid-axle rear suspension, which Hubbard says provides better towing capability than would an independent setup.

Like many new Lexus models, the GX now has just two grades, base and premium.

Starting at $51,970, the base trim offers such amenities as heated and ventilated front seats, 10 airbags, light-emitting diode tail and license-plate lights, a 40/20/40 split sliding second row seat and a power, fold-flat third-row seat.

The premium trim ($56,765) adds a heated steering wheel and heated second-row seats, semi aniline leather surfaces and rear air suspension and adaptive variable suspension systems.

Options for premium-grade ’10 GXs include a Crawl Control system, which varies speeds between 1 and 4 mph (2-6 km/h) for downhill driving on tricky terrain, and intelligent high-beam headlamps.

Optional on both GX grades are a Mark Levinson audio system with navigation and Lexus’ Enform telematics system, wide-view front and side monitor, a pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control and a rear-seat entertainment system.

Lexus expects the base grade GX to account for 90% of total sales.

Fifty percent of the expected buyers already will be Lexus owners, with some moving up from the RX CUV or downsizing from the LX.

The GX “is a size that’s easier to maneuver and fit into parking lots,” Templin says of its advantage over the larger LX.

The GX is assembled at Toyota’s Tahara, Japan, plant.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com