Lexus ES 330 marks years of entry-luxury success

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The ES mid-sized sedan has been the volume leader in the Lexus automobile fleet since it reached the market in September 1989, instantly becoming a sales success, giving buyers the opportunity to enjoy an entry-level luxury sedan at an affordable price.

Nothing much has changed over the years (other than the emergence of sport utility vehicles but more on that later).

The 2004 ES 330 carries on with the affordable luxury theme in a sedan that might arguably offer the most bang for the buck for people seeking sedate, sophisticated transportation.

Often assailed by the automotive press as too soft and too bland the annual sales of the ES have shown that auto writers who have hammered on that theme for more than 15 years are not preaching to the congregation. Sales of the ES have remained strong through the years. In 2003 Lexus dealers delivered 65,762 ES 300/ ES 330 sedans, just a fraction under the 71,450 ES 300s that left showrooms in 2002.

While the ES has been the top-selling luxury car in the U.S. for some time, the wildly popular Lexus RX 300 and the new RX 330 car-based sport utility vehicle have eclipsed it. Last year the RX sold an amazing 92,366 units. Nevertheless this missive is about the ES.

Friends of ours who have owned an ES since the mid-90s upgraded to an ES 300 in 2003 and we asked them why they returned to the Lexus brand and specifically to the ES sedan.

“We tried out a few other things,” they said, “and we were intrigued by the Cadillac CTS.” The chief complaint with the new Cadillac was that it was just too noisy inside. The edgy looks and the sporty suspension apparently played no part in their decision, so they thought.
As it turned out they wanted to be swaddled in quiet comfort, something they had gotten used to in their nearly decade-old Lexus. The soft ride and the plush interior appointments won the day. Lexus doesn’t claim that the ES 330 is everything to all people. If you want sporty, but want to remain in the Lexus fold, there’s the sport-tuned fun-to-drive IS 300 sedan or a step up to the GS.

The ES, which has always been based on the Toyota Camry platform, has received several upgrades for 2004 after a complete makeover in 2002. The biggest news for ‘04 is a bigger engine that generates more horsepower and torque than the one it replaces. The 3.3-liter V-6 makes 225 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque compared to last year’s 3.0-liter that generated 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque.

Combining the bigger engine with a revised 5-speed automatic gives the ES 330 improved response with silky smooth shifts. Acceleration has been noticeably improved. Lexus claims a 0 to 60 run in 7.2 seconds, a second faster than the previous edition. That doesn’t quite fall in the sedate category, but it still isn’t a sport sedan.

The mid-sized Lexus offers a smooth ride, a floating ride much like its larger sibling, the LS 430. Brakes are just right for quick, smooth stops. Steering is well-boosted, as you might expect from a luxury sedan, but steering feel remains excellent.

The bottom line - the new ES is an easy and enjoyable car to drive even if it doesn’t have the sporting intentions of a BMW or a C-Class Mercedes.

Lexus has also improved the airbag system for 2004. A new larger side airbag provides a greater protection area that includes the torso. And a new front occupant classification system is designed to help determine whether a child or an adult occupies the front passenger seat. If the system determines a child is in the front seat, an indicator light will display “airbag off” and the front passenger airbag, passenger side airbag and seatbelt pretensioner are deactivated.

The ES 330 is well appointed with features you would expect in a luxury car. It also includes the now-famous Lexus ultra-quiet interior and Lexus ground-breaking illuminated gauges that virtually every luxury brand has adopted over the years.

Standard features abound for a base price of $32,350. Included are such luxury amenities as leather seating surfaces, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with memory, 8-way power passenger seat, power moonroof, dual-zone climate control and stereo with single-disc CD player.

In addition to the airbags, another standard safety feature is four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brake Force Distribution. A Vehicle Stability Control (VCS) system can be added for $650. VSC helps control loss of lateral traction while cornering on slippery or dry road surfaces by using throttle intervention and/or applying individual wheel braking to help control any discrepancy between where the driver is steering and where the vehicle is heading.

Options on our ES 330 test car ran the price up to $38,794. They included all-season tires with chrome wheels, $1,700; navigation system with the Mark Levinson audio system including a 6-disc in-dash changer, $3,120; the VSC system, $650; adjustable accelerator and brake pedals, $140; and trunk mat, wheel locks and cargo net, $197. Can you believe they still charge for a trunk mat?

Unfortunately, Lexus has bundled the excellent-sounding Mark Levinson system with the navigation system. We think those buyers who can do without the navigation, should be afforded the option of including the better sound system a la cart.

The new ES 330 is an excellent choice for people who have reached the point in life where they can afford some luxury in their driving and their driveway, where the neighbors are sure to notic