COAL: 2005 Lexus ES330 – A Toyota By Any Other Name

2005 Lexus ES330 front

By 2005 I was halfway between 30 and 40, and looking for a car with a more upmarket nameplate than the Toyotas and Hondas I’d been choosing in the past. As a longtime Toyota owner, I had been eyeing up a Lexus as the next logical step, and the sale of the Prius enabled me to step up (so much for high fuel economy, though).

Having owned several Camrys and liked them (mostly), the ES was my main choice. It also had the advantage of being in my price range – I might have liked to step up to a GS sedan or RX SUV, but those represented a big jump in price. In 2005, the ES was in its fourth generation on the XV30 platform (shared with the Camry from 2002-2006), with a 218 hp 3.3 liter V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission. This version moved more toward being a luxury sedan and away from any sporty intentions that previous models exhibited (a bit). Astute readers of my COAL series may note that this is the same platform that was used under the 2002 Camry SE I didn’t like at all, but the ES felt like a very different car to me.

I went shopping with intention of looking at both the BMW 3-series and the ES (as the closest BMW and Lexus dealers to my house were directly across the highway from each other) as lease estimators online said both could be in my price range. I headed for the Lexus dealer first and drove the ES330. I found it amusing that the salesperson made a big deal of the presence of a cassette player, as Lexus customers still listened to books on tape. Sounded like my kind of crowd!

The test drive demonstrated to me that the car felt like significantly more than a fancy Camry – quiet, adequately powerful, and very well assembled. It seemed like everything I touched inside the car felt expensive and high-quality, and the styling was relatively conservative outside and inside (Lexus was still quite a few years away from the spindle grill), which I liked. In the negotiation phase, I found the lease payments were within my budget with a reasonable mileage allocation. The brochure for the car (which also feels hefty and expensive) still has the monthly payments written on one of the back pages. As I had been interested in Lexus for a long time, I headed back home to discuss the purchase with my wife to get her agreement on the purchase. I didn’t even visit the BMW dealer (which some in the CC world will probably see as sacrilege). At the time, I could have gotten something sportier in the IS sedan, but the ES simply felt more…mature.

Lexus ES330 front interior

Once I got the go-ahead to lease the car, I returned to the dealer to make my selections. I really wanted the “Oasis Green”/”Cashmere” color combination (read medium green and light brown), but settled for “Blue Shale Mica” (slate blue) and black as the dealer didn’t have the green one. The ES I selected from their stock was probably the most highly equipped car I’d owned. It had heated and cooled seats that were interesting, adjusted by a pop-out knob to control the level of heating and cooling. The heated seats worked really well but the cooling was kind of a gimmick (it just meant the black leather seats weren’t burning hot in a Maryland summer, not that the seats ever got really cool).

The leather seats, door panels, and dash materials were all soft-touch and low gloss. I was not entirely a big fan of the shiny (real) wood dash trim and really didn’t want the mixed wood/leather wheel, but the car I chose came with it (and I paid extra for the option, unfortunately.) Amazingly, even in 2005 in a Lexus an in-dash CD changer was optional. The car also had the usual bells and whistles that were becoming common in higher-end cars, such as memory seats (driver and passenger seat both had memory features), a right hand outside mirror that tilted down to show the curb when in reverse, dual auto climate control, and an autochromic inside mirror with compass. This was also my first car with HID headlamps, which I really liked as they were very bright with a good light pattern.

Lexus ES330 rear

This was my second car where I purchased paint protection film instead of a front end mask as it provided protection for the relatively dark blue paint while not being visible except up close. The fact that the film has a pretty long lifespan (longer than the lease duration, essentially) was another selling point. I installed this film myself from a kit I purchased online. I was much more nervous with the ES installation as the car was quite a bit fancier than the Matrix.  I managed not to mess it up with any trapped air bubbles, cat hair, or unnecessary trimming to get rid of creases.

That’s not to say these installations went entirely smoothly, as the film pieces are relatively large and cumbersome (especially the hood and bumper pieces) and have to be stretched somewhat to conform to the contours of the bodywork. These first installations took me most of a day and probably every curse word in the English language. Since then, I’ve gotten pretty good at installing these, which saves quite a bit of money on installation labor. Still a lot of grunting and cursing, though…

From a driving perspective, I found the vehicle to be very enjoyable to drive, both as everyday transportation and for longer trips. The acceleration from the 3.3 liter V6 was quite good, the handling was safe but unexciting, and everything was very quiet and smooth. It was probably just my imagination, but the ES felt much more solid and enjoyable to drive.

Dashboard of Lexus ES330

One area where the Lexus beat the cheaper Toyotas was in the area of dealer service, which was amazing to me. When I arrived at the service lane my dealer would match up the license of my car with the appointment entry in their computer to greet me by name and have the service information already preloaded. Unlike at the Toyota dealer where dropping off the car for service meant catching a shuttle bus, these dealers provided new Lexus loaners for every service (even just oil change) which made the services easy to fit into my schedule. Not that I visited the dealer very much, as I had no problems at all with vehicle – very reliable and durable. (Of course, since the Lexus cost more than the Toyota, I was well aware that this great service wasn’t coming for free!)

The only problem I had with the car had nothing to do with how well the car was built. At the time I owned the car, I worked in an office building near a Washington DC Metro subway station, so we had a lot of traffic through our parking lot from commuters as well as people who worked in the building. I tended to keep my car at the opposite end of the parking lot from where the commuters parked so it wouldn’t be dented by a careless parker.

One day, for a reason I can’t now recall, I parked the car close to the commuter end of the lot and a careless person backed into the front corner of the car. The damage was limited to a caved-in portion of the front bumper (analogous to the “Camry dent” that has been the subject of at least one CC article) and some scratches on the headlight. Of course, the person who backed into me didn’t leave a note or offer to have his/her insurance pay for the damage, so it was up to my insurance to do the repairs (including the paint protection film, luckily).

Dented Lexus ES330

Overall, this ES was a high-quality and enjoyable car to drive that I was glad I leased. However, the reason why Lexus was so generous with loaner cars became obvious when I was given the next-generation XV40 model as a loaner. Getting behind the wheel of this larger and more substantial ES got me thinking about trading up…