The Lexus ES 330, a much-refined cousin of the Toyota Camry, represents the most luxurious (and least sporty) take on the entry-luxury segment. With its sumptuous leather, whisper-quiet cabin, smooth ride, and bulletproof reliability, it's a choice pick for anyone looking for a cushy ride and upscale cabin ambiance for less than $35,000.
For 2005, Lexus' designers revised several of the ES's exterior elements, including the front and rear lamps, grille, and foglamps, and added several new exterior and interior finish selections. In addition to the new cosmetic treatments, 2005 sees the arrival of an enhanced steering wheel, standard satellite-radio compatibility, positional memory for both front seats, and side-view mirrors that, when the transmission is put in reverse, tilt downward for greater curb view during parking maneuvers. The optional heated front seats are now ventilated, as well. Safety improvements include rear seatbelt pre-tensioners and force-limiters, plus voice activation for the optional navigation system. Six-spoke 17-inch wheels, available in two finishes, are another new option for 2005.
The ES 330's smooth exterior design inhabits the safe middle ground between radical and staid, and it more than fulfills its charge of keeping its passengers extremely well insulated from the outside world. Though it shares a platform with the Camry, as with the previous generation, the ES 330 has its own bodywork, sharing familial design language with both its Camry cousin and the Lexus line. Optional 17-inch wheels add a bit of flash to the otherwise bland presence. The lower body panels and front fenders feature anti-chip paint, but it isn't as mirror-smooth as the similar finish available from Mercedes. If you've ever had trouble operating the stiff door handles on a German car, however, you'll be happy to know that the ES features low-effort pulls.
Liberal use of wood and leather impart a truly cosseting, Sybaritic ambiance to the ES 330's interior. But while many competitors end the luxury interior treatment there, Lexus sweats the details: Plastics are of the highest quality, the fits between the panels are tight, and knobs and switches feel precise and substantial.
The controls for the driver's-side, 10-way-adjustable leather seat (the passenger gets an eight-way seat) are logically placed on an easy-to-reach center console. Drivers under six-feet tall will be nicely accommodated, but as is the case with most sedans in this class, the standard moonroof leaves taller drivers a bit short on headroom. The easily accessed interior comfortably seats four adults with ample legroom front and rear, although adding a third passenger to the rear seat cramps things considerably, typical for a midsize car. The ES 330's trunk is commodious at 14.5 cubic feet of space.
The instrument cluster is easy to view, although its busy design is a bit out of sync with the rest of the clean-lined interior. In stark contrast with the confusing arrays of buttons strewn on the dashboards of many competitors (and that doesn't even include BMW's maddening iDrive), the ES features knobs and large rocker switches for its audio and climate controls that are blissfully simple to operate. Want it warmer? Click a toggle. Radio too loud? Twist a knob counter-clockwise. Luxury is to be free from inconvenience and stress, a principle the ES openly embraces.
The ES 330 offers as standard most of the safety features one would expect in an entry-level luxury car, including eight airbags, traction control, anti-lock disc brakes, and front and rear crumple zones. Electronic vehicle stability control and brake assist (helps ensure the ABS engages during panic stops) are the only safety options, and they're highly desirable.
Unlike many class rivals, the ES 330 offers only one engine; fortunately it's up to the task. The 3.3-liter/225-horse DOHC V-6 is coupled solely to a five-speed automatic, and it provides reasonable power while sipping relatively little fuel. Its 21/29 city/highway mpg EPA rating is among the best in class. Cadillac offers two V-6s in the CTS sedan, and while one boasts 30 more horsepower than the ES 330, neither Cadillac engine is as fuel efficient. The power output does trail several lower-priced midsize sedans, such as the Honda Accord, and within Toyota, it bows to the much more robust Avalon.
Lexus looked at the balance of ride and handling offered by German competitors and decided to tilt the needle far toward the comfort end of the spectrum. Lexus is uniquely situated to offer such a narrowly focused luxury car because it also offers the sporty IS line in the same price range. While the ES is agile enough to be safe and predictable, it doesn't inspire enthusiasm when pushed. The steering is overly isolated and handling leaves the driver too removed from the road. The standard suspension is smooth and pillowy, so the optional Adaptive Variable Suspension, with four settings from Comfort to Sport, is an unnecessary indulgence for most. This effective technology can provide control over the dynamic personality, but it can't transform the ES sport sedan. Braking is satisfactory, though a bit of nose-dive is apparent during hard stops. Road visibility is comparable to that of other cars in its class.
The five-speed transmission handles the ES 330's overriding mission of maintaining the serenity of its occupants with silken shifts during normal usage, although a firm stab at the loud pedal can elicit a sharp kickdown; it's almost as though Lexus engineered this intentionally to remind you that the ES prefers to be driven gently and slowly. The engine, silent other than near full throttle, provides solid but hardly awe-inspiring power.
Lexus' top-notch quality is evident throughout, and reputation suggests the ES 330 will only visit the shop for the occasional scheduled service. Those who spend long hours commuting in heavy traffic or running errands over bumpy city streets will love its solitude and comfort, as will anyone else who just wants an ultra-quiet, sedate, and luxuriously reliable ride. Those searching for sportier performance should consider a German competitor like the BMW 3 Series, an Infiniti G35, or Lexus' own IS range. The 2005 ES 330 comes with a four-year/50,000-mile basic warranty, four-year/unlimited-mileage roadside assistance, power train coverage of six years/70,000 miles, and corrosion protection of six years/unlimited miles. The Lexus ES 330 earned recognition as an IntelliChoice Best Overall Value, claiming the Near Luxury category for 2005. Projected to be an Excellent value over a five-year ownership cycle, the ES 330 is desirable sedan on many levels.
The ES 330 is a happy marriage of sumptuous luxury and Lexus reliability--best of all, this wedding costs less than $35,000.
Supple, high-quality interior Whisper-quiet cabin of solitude Best Overall Value of the Year
Driver divorced from the road Bland, Camry-esque exterior No rear entertainment system for the kids
2005 finds the ES 330 with a few minor tweaks to its exterior and an updated palette of paint and leather choices. Voice activation for the navigation system, ventilated front seats, and six-spoke 17-inch wheels are now options.
The ES 330's interior is where it shows its stuff--and where you should spend the extra money: voice-activated GPS navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, and premium audio take the pampering to another level. Drivers with shorter legs will the love the adjustable pedal assembly.