2004 Lexus ES 330
Click image to enlarge

by Haney Louka

When evaluating upscale versions of mainstream cars, it’s important to determine whether the premium paid for the name and features is worth the extra investment. Luxury items, whether cars, boats, houses, watches, or electronics, are purchased using discretionary income and as such carry an obligation to make owners feel good; a requirement not necessarily prescribed by the purchase of more affordable versions of these products.

The benefits of owning a Lexus over a humbler Toyota can be seen first with a look at warranty coverage. Canadian Lexus models (complete vehicle and powertrain) are warranted for one more year than their Toyota counterparts. But warranty coverage is not what makes owners feel good day in and day out. It’s all about the comfort and convenience features that are added to an already well designed vehicle.

The base price for the ES 330 is $43,800. That’s about $7,000 more than a top-of-the-line Camry XLE V6. Aside from the Lexus cachet, there’s quite a list of additional features: a larger, more powerful engine; a more advanced five-speed automatic transmission; dual-zone climate control; seven-speaker Pioneer audio; auto up/down for all power windows; California Walnut wood trim; power adjustable pedals; and classier styling, inside and out. It should be noted that the sporty 2004 Camry SE V6 now offers the 3.3 litre V6 and 5 speed automatic transmission, while the LE V6 and XLE V6 models retain the 3.0 litre V6 engine.

Luxury buyers are often willing to concede a little bit of practicality for the sake of styling and driver comfort: the ES 330’s trunk capacity is 411 litres compared with 473 for the Camry, a result of a more rounded and graceful rear end. And while they ride on the same wheelbase, the ES gives long-legged drivers a break with more legroom in front at the expense of available rear legroom.

My test example was an ES 330 with the Premium Luxury package. The $5,000 option package includes a Mark Levinson audio, adjustable suspension, HID headlights, rain-sensing wipers, a power rear sunshade, traction control, and a few other goodies.

Lexus wisely chose to equip my test example with capable Michelin Arctic Alpin winter tires in place of the standard all-seasons that accompany the car from the showroom.

The Powertrain

2004 Lexus ES 330 3.3 Litre engine
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The ES for 2004 employs the same V6 engine that’s found under the hoods of the Lexus RX 330 and Toyota’s Camry SE V6, Highlander and Sienna. In this iteration it pumps out 225 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm, gaining 15 horsepower and 20 lb-ft over last year’s model through a 300-cc increase in displacement. As with last year’s model, variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) is used to control the camshaft position resulting in optimum valve timing based on engine speed and load conditions.

The ES employs an electronic drive-by-wire system (ETCS-i ) that reads the position of the accelerator pedal and activates a small electronic motor to open and close the throttle. ETCS-i is claimed to simplify engine control by replacing idle speed control, cruise control, and traction control by a single unit.

Transferring power to the ES’s front wheels is a five-speed automatic transmission, dubbed “Super Electronically Controlled” to signify its ability to execute near-seamless shifts. Surprisingly, traction and stability control are options on the ES 330.

Inside and Out

2004 Lexus ES 330 3.3 Litre engine

2004 Lexus ES 330 3.3 Litre engine
Interior with optional navigation system shown. Click image to enlarge

Even though the ES shares a platform and some mechanical bits with a Toyota Camry, Lexus has taken great pains to ensure that there’s no confusing the two based on looks. The ES has a more slippery shape with headlights stretched back toward the A-pillars and a trunk lid that slopes gently downward for a smoother profile. Judicious use of chrome around the headlights, taillights, greenhouse, and on the door handles hint at the subtle luxury that becomes a common theme throughout. The overall height of the ES is about an inch and a half lower than the Camry. Again, it’s form winning out over function with most of that height difference coming out of passenger headroom.

The ES’s cockpit is a very nice place in which to spend time. Colours and materials are first-rate and there’s a general feeling of expensiveness that accompanies sitting down in the soft leather seats and looking at the polished walnut trim that encircles the cabin.

Controls on the wood-and-leather three-spoke wheel are limited to cruise and trip computer functions – I’d much rather see redundant audio controls on the wheel; trip computer buttons should be relegated to the dash or a steering column stalk. That said, the audio controls on the centre stack are large and easy to get used to.

The addition of rain-sensing wipers in my test example meant the deletion of a mist function on the wiper control. I can see the logic behind that design, but in practice I found myself longing for a spring-loaded mist function.

The Driving Experience

There’s one given when it comes to Lexus passenger vehicles: driver and passengers are in for a smooth ride, whether it’s the sporty IS 300, luxurious LS 430, or anything in between. The ES perpetuates that impression – refinement, bordering on isolation, oozes from all of the controls and the gutsy V6 under the hood.

2004 Lexus ES 330 3.3 Litre engine
Click image to enlarge

This is a powertrain worthy of high praise, in part because of what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t allow vibrations to penetrate the passenger compartment under any circumstances. It doesn’t attract attention to itself under had acceleration – it makes just enough of a growl to get the job done without fuss, and shifting is dealt with as seamlessly as possible.

The adjustable suspension in my test vehicle was of very limited benefit though. While the control was effective in transforming the ride from “granny soft to sport-firm” as Lexus’ promotional material boasts, it seemed to make the ride stiff for the sake of being stiff. What seems to be lost on the ES 330’s designers (I can’t generalize for all of Lexus because they produce the wonderfully balanced IS 300) is that a firm ride is typically a by-product of good handling. But setting the ES’s shocks to firm doesn’t make up for the lazy steering response (I drove the ES right after a few days behind the wheel of an Acura TL). Nor does it increase the level of communication through the various driver interfaces. So to me, it’s more of a gimmick than a genuinely useful feature.

2004 Lexus ES 330 3.3 Litre engine
Click image to enlarge

I have a couple of nits to pick with respect to the way the car’s power locks work. First, I understand the added security that comes with automatic locking doors that engage when the car is put into gear. But if automakers insist on incorporating this feature, it should be designed to automatically unlock the doors once the vehicle is parked. Too many times did I park the car, get out, and try one of the rear door handles only to find it locked.

Second, I believe drivers should be able to lock the doors with the key fob before they are all closed. In many cars (VW, Mazda, and Nissan come immediately to mind) I can open the rear door to get my two-year-old out, hit the lock button, throw the key in my pocket, and then close the door once my daughter and all of her paraphernalia are out. Once the door closes, there is usually a signal from the car (either a quick “beep” or a flash of the lights) to indicate that all doors are closed and the security system is armed. This Lexus and every other Toyota product I’ve driven would just beep incessantly at me until I close the door, and even then it won’t lock up – I have to have all doors closed before locking the car with the fob.

I know, picky. But it’s just not a well thought-out design.

To Sum It Up

Given the brand’s image and the luxury features that come standard on the ES, there is value in the price premium that this Lexus commands over a loaded Toyota Camry. As long as buyers don’t expect any serious sporting moves from their ES, this luxury mid-sizer will be sure to please.

Technical Data: 2004 Lexus ES 330

Base price $43,800
Options $5000 (Premium package)
Freight $1,535
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $50,435
Type 4-door 5-passenger mid-size luxury sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front wheel drive
Engine 3.3 litre V6, DOHC, 24-valves, variable valve timing
Horsepower 225 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 240 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Tires P215/60 R16
Curb weight 1570 kg (3460 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2720 mm (107.1 in.)
Length 4855 mm (191.1 in.)
Width 1810 mm (71.3 in.)
Height 1455 mm (57.3 in.)
Trunk space 411 litres (14.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.6 L/100 km (24 mpg)
  Highway: 7.5 L/100 km (38 mpg)
Warranty 4 years/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 6 years/110,000 km

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