2004 Lexus ES 330 Reviews and Ratings

Sedan 4D ES330

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2004 Lexus ES 330
Mitch McCullough

The Lexus ES 330 is the smoothest, quietest car in its class. Smooth and quiet are good because it can be a rough, noisy world out there at times. This quietude can be shared with others. The ES 330 is a four-door mid-size luxury sedan that seats five.

Last year's ES 300 becomes the ES 330 for 2004 due to the introduction of a larger and more powerful 3.3-liter V6 engine. The 2004 Lexus ES 330 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph nearly a full second quicker than last year's model, which is a significant improvement that can be felt by the driver. More important, the ES 330 is more responsive when driving around town. The five-speed automatic transmission has been revised for 2004 for smoother shifting and improved response. Our overriding impression of the engine and transmission, however, is their smoothness. The Lexus ES 330 is so smooth that at times it feels seamless in operation.

The 2004 model year brings a host of other advancements that improve on this luxurious mid-size sedan. Among them: new and improved airbags, an upgraded passenger seat, and an enhanced navigation system.

The ES 330 delivers a compelling combination of quality, comfort, refinement, and value. Lexus has a reputation for exceptional quality and behind the high-quality fit and finish is a great deal of careful design and detail work. Living with this car is easy. It's loaded with features that make life more convenient. The lighting package, for example, is extensive, so when you shut off the car and open the doors the interior and perimeter of the car are illuminated so it's easy to see when you're getting out at night. Model Lineup
The ES 330 comes in one well-equipped model ($31,725), loaded with luxury and safety features found in higher-priced Lexus sedans.

Handsome, high-quality, leather upholstery with wood trim comes standard. Also standard are automatic dual-zone climate control with interior air filter, power windows with auto up/down and jam protection, and a power moonroof. An AM/FM/CD/cassette system comes standard with 86 watts and seven speakers. A 240-watt Mark Levinson audio system is optional.

Options include Vehicle Stability Control with traction control and Brake Assist ($650); Adaptive Variable Suspension ($620); DVD satellite navigation ($2,220); power-adjustable pedals ($140); power rear sunshade ($210); high intensity discharge headlamps with rain-sensing wipers ($640); heated front seats ($440); wood steering wheel and shift knob ($330); chrome wheels with all-season tires ($1700).

Safety was a top priority when designing the ES 330. Standard safety equipment includes the full complement of airbags: dual front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and front and rear side-curtain airbags. (Curtain airbags are very important for their ability to provide head protection.) It comes with three-point safety harnesses for all five seating positions; be sure to wear them as they are your first line of defense in a crash. The front seats are designed to reduce whiplash. To help the driver avoid accidents in the first place, the ES 330 comes standard with anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD). Walkaround
The Lexus ES 330 is based on the Toyota Camry, but is distinguished by unique styling. The rake of the ES 330 combined with its streaked-back headlamps make a striking statement. The front end seems to slope down in one continuous curve, from the top of the windshield, over the sculpted hood and tidy dark grille, down to the smooth air dam under the almost seamless front bumper. The headlight cluster suggests silvery eyes pulled back at the corners.

Tail lamps trimmed in silver echo the design, stretching around the corners, as if reaching to meet the headlamps. Nine-spoke alloy wheels complement the styling. Chromed door handles are easy to grab and do not require awkwardly flipping your hand over as they do on other models such as the Infiniti I35 and Audi A6.

Lexus designed its ES sedan to be the safest car in its class. The passenger compartment is reinforced in critical areas and front and rear crush zones are designed crumple to absorb the impact of a crash.

You see and feel the quality. It can be felt in the solid sound the doors, trunk and hood when they're closed. But sometimes the quality is hidden: The underbody is smooth, nearly flat, contributing to exceptional aerodynamic efficiency (with a coefficient of drag of just 0.28), and the car is constructed using advanced composites and resin-steel sandwiches to further minimize the intrusion of noise. Interior
The Lexus ES 330 presents a warm, inviting interior. It has a warmer ambience than the German cars, namely the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the BMW 3 Series. The ES 330 operates in that middle ground marketers refer to with terms such as "near luxury" or "entry luxury." It's more luxurious than the top trim levels of mid-size sedans such as the Toyota Camry XLE, but it's not as plush as true luxury sedans such as the Lexus LS 430.

The first thing that grabs your eye in the ES 330 is the California walnut wood trim, a dark hue with hints of red. It harmonizes with the brushed aluminum trim, however. All of the trim materials exude a high-quality look and feel. The standard steering wheel and shift lever are covered with stitched leather and look very nice. An all-walnut handle for the shift lever and a walnut-trimmed steering wheel are available for an even more prestigious appearance. Regardless, the steering column is manually adjustable for tilt.

The standard leather upholstery is quite nice and is available in ivory, charcoal, or black. The seats are very comfortable and the seating position is excellent, with lots of front-seat legroom. Optional power-adjustable pedals are a good idea for shorter drivers because they help them to find a good driving position without sitting too close to the airbag-equipped steering wheel. The seats are relatively flat, without large bolsters, making getting in and out easier. The driver's seat comes standard with 10-way power adjustments. For 2004, the power-adjustable front passenger's seat has eight settings, including power lumbar adjustment. The shape and construction of the front seats is borrowed from the flagship LS 430.

The ES 330 is about 10-percent larger inside than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the front seats of the Lexus offer significantly more hip room than the Mercedes. The ES 330 does not offer as much headroom as the Mercedes or the Infiniti I35, however, and six-foot drivers may wish for more.

The rear seats are roomy, and this is a comfortable car for four adults. Five is a crowd, but it'll work for short distances, like going to a restaurant, particularly if a member of the Little People is sitting in the rear center position. Overall, it's roomier and more comfortable (with more hip room and leg room) in the back seats of the Lexus ES 330 than it is in the back of a Mercedes C320 sedan.

The driver's seat offers good visibility out front. The self-dimming outside mirrors offer a good view rearward and seem larger than those on Mercedes-Benz cars. The inside rearview mirror is self-dimming (electrochromic) and features a digital compass. The slope of the rear window doesn't allow a panoramic view, though it fills the rearview mirror. The mirror is mounted so close to the headliner that adjusting it requires an awkward grab at its bottom edge. An optional power rear shade filters out the blazing sun, whether driving or parked.

The clean-looking instrument panel features three round, deeply recessed pods with highly legible analog gauges in white-on-black graphics illuminated when the key is turned. Centered is a large analog speedometer. A digital trip computer at the bottom of the speedometer displays range, average fuel consumption and other functions, controlled by a pair of buttons on the left side of the steering wheel. Similarly, a digital odometer with two trip odometers is displayed in the right pod with big analog fuel and temperature gauges. On the left is a big analog tachometer.

The optional navigation system has been improved for 2004 with improved graphics, a larger database of points of interest (5 million compared with last year's 2 million), and new convenience functions. It's a powerful system, but like most of these systems requires some experience and study to master. It raised, rather than lowered, our stress while we were learning how to use it. Technophobes should avoid this option as they may become frustrated and simply not use it. Once mastered, however, it works well. Input an address or point of interest (restaurant, hotel, airport) and the system directs the driver verbally and visually. Pressing the Map button displays the address of wherever you are at that moment, on the fly, a great feature. To reduce the chance of driver distraction, the more involving functions, like inputting destinations, cannot be operated when the car is moving. These systems are getting better each year, but still take time to learn.

Audio functions are integrated into the navigation system (when so equipped) and that's a mixed blessing. To change preset radio stations, for example, you first press the Audio button to call up your presets, which is two steps replacing what takes one step on a standard radio. (There are no audio controls on the steering wheel.) The good news is that the Audio button is smart: Press it when a CD is playing and you're presented with CD functions; press it when FM is playing and you get your station presets. The bad news is that the system at times left us gazing at a screen that had little or no function. After a few moments, the system automatically redisplays the dynamic map of your location, saving you from having to press the Map button.

The sound quality from the optional Mark Levinson system is fantastic, especially when a CD is playing. Combined with the sound-absorbing measures in the ES 330 cabin, it provides the audiophile with crisp, clear highs and lows and enveloping mid range. While the standard audio system is rated at 0.1 total harmonic distortion, the Mark Levinson system generates just 0.01 THD. If you like technology and music and can justify its considerable cost ($3,120), our recommendation is to spring for the navigation/Mark Levinson option, then spend some time in the driveway with the owner's manual open.

Thankfully, the climate control system is not integrated into the navigation system. Instead, it features separate controls below the navigation display that are clearly marked and easy to operate. It's an elegantly designed system with dual zones and nicely integrated switches for the seat heaters. A small display indicates whether the passenger airbag is enabled, a comforting safety feature, though we confess we grew tired of seeing the illuminated indicators. At the top of the center dash area is a small digital clock that's straightforward and easy to set, though it lacks the elegance of Infiniti's analog clocks.

The center console features a storage box with a power outlet, and two conveniently placed cup holders with adjustable rings. There's a purse hanger in the front passenger footwell, and two retractable coat hooks in the rear. Power windows with auto up/down with jam protection are used at all locations. Retained accessory power allows operation of the power windows and power moonroof after turning off ignition, but not the audio or navigation systems.

Trunk volume is comparable to the class, and considerably larger than that of the Mercedes C-Class sedans. A cargo net is available, but costs extra. Driving Impressions
The Lexus ES 330 delivers a smooth, refined driving experience with a smooth engine and transmission, a smooth-riding suspension, smooth brakes, and extensive measures designed to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.

The 2004 model's 3.3-liter V6 engine, which replaces the previous 3.0-liter V6, produces 225 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque (compared with last year's 210 hp and 220 lbs.-ft.). The larger displacement endows the ES 330 with better performance. The increased torque improves the car's responsiveness in everyday driving situations. According to Lexus, the ES 330 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. It's a responsive engine, but the ES 330 is not lightning quick. The ES 330 has an EPA City/Highway fuel economy rating of 20/29 mpg and is certified by the government as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV II).

The transmission was revised for 2004 for smoother shifting and it shifts very smoothly. Upshifts in normal, everyday driving are almost invisible, but the transmission is responsive when driving aggressively. Downshifts are responsive but smooth, a big improvement over last year's transmission. Also, less downshifting is needed with the increased torque and wider power band of the larger engine. It's best to put it in Drive and leave it there. The gated shifter allows manual shifting and an indicator displays the selected gear on the instrument panel, but shifting manually is a clunky proposition due to the gates.

The ES 330's suspension is tuned for a smooth ride. It filters out vibration and contributes to the ES 330's exceptional quiet and smoothness. Summer tires come standard, while all-season tire are a no-cost option (both size 215/60VR16). If it snows or rains a lot where you live, get the all-season tires; if you live in the Sunbelt, the smile states, then the summer tires should offer better grip on dry pavement. The four-wheel independent strut suspension is designed to minimize body roll and allow precise handling. The speed-sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a very nice touch: light, but with good feel, effortless around town. There is very little, if any, torque steer. (Torque steer is a phenomenon of front-wheel-drive cars felt as a slight tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration.) Overall, the ES 330 handles well, but it is tuned more for ride quality than sporty handling. Its front-heavy weight distribution (61 percent front/39 percent rear) limits its cornering potential, but the front-wheel-drive ES is the conservative Executive Sedan. Serious driving enthusiasts may prefer the similarly priced IS 300 (or a BMW 330i), with rear-wheel drive and an available five-speed manual gearbox, but the IS 300 does not offer the smooth ride quality, amenities, and overall refinement of the ES 330. Most drivers will be happier with the ES 330.

The optional Adaptable Variable Suspension ($620) is worthwhile for drivers who are interested in adjusting handling and ride quality. The system automatically and continuously changes the shock absorber dampening rate at each wheel in response to road conditions, vehicle speed, and steering and braking inputs. Overall, the system is tuned very nicely, and provides a great ride under all conditions. The driver can switch among four stiffness settings by moving a thumb wheel on the center console. The firm setting is relatively firm, but not as firm as a sports suspension: It tightens up transient response (quick lane-change maneuvers) but transmits more vibration into the cabin when driving on rough neighborhood roads; it works best when driving at high speeds or when whipping along mountain roads. The softest setting works very well at low speeds in the neighborhood, filtering out all of these undulations, and we liked it for that, but it's on the squishy side for other conditions. The middle two settings were just right everyday driving conditions.

The brakes are very smooth, effortless, yet sensitive. They require little effort to generate good stopping power, but are easy to modulate. In other words, it's easy to brake very smoothly in everyday driving, wrapping your passengers in a velvety experience, yet the car will stop quickly in an emergency braking situation. The ES 330 comes standard with anti-lock brakes (ABS), which allow the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency stopping situation; just remember to maintain pressure on the brake pedal and to look and steer where you want to go. It also comes standard with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which distributes braking force evenly to the tires with the best grip for improved stability and braking performance. Brake Assist is optional, but a good idea as it helps the driver maintain maximum braking force even when he or she makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal in an emergency stopping situation.

Optional Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) integrates ABS, EBD, traction control and Brake Assist (and includes all of them) and helps the driver maintain control of the car in slippery corners or even in dry corners when the tires lose grip. VSC retards the throttle and/or applies braking to individual wheels (something the driver cannot do) to help the car track along the path intended by the driver. It's a great active safety feature that can help drivers avoid accidents. Summary
The 2004 Lexus ES 330 represents an improvement over last year's model, mostly in terms of quicker acceleration performance. The ES 330 delivers a smooth, refined ride. Its engine and transmission are smooth and its brakes are smooth. The cabin is very quiet. Lexus quality and attention to detail pervade.

If you want a smooth and quiet mid-size luxury sedan, you cannot do much better in this price range than the Lexus ES 330.

Model as tested
Lexus ES 330 ($31,725)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Kyushu, Japan; Tsutsumi, Japan
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Vehicle Stability Control ($650) includes traction control and Brake Assist; Adaptive Variable Suspension ($620); Navigation System with Mark Levinson audio ($3,120); high-intensity discharge headlights with rain-sensing wipers ($640); power-adjustable pedals ($140); wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob ($330); heated front seats ($440); power rear sunshade ($210); all-season tires with chrome wheels ($1,700); trunk mat ($69)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Lexus ES 330 ($31,725)
Safety equipment (standard)
front air bags; front-seat side air bags; front and rear curtain air bags; anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution; child restraint seat anchors; seatbelts with ELR and ALR
Safety equipment (optional)
3.3-liter dohc 24-valve V6
5-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
halogen headlights with foglamps; heated rearview mirrors; California Walnut trim; power adjustable front seats (10-way driver, 8-way passenger) with two-position memory system; 7-speaker radio/cassette/CD audio system; automatic climate control; cruise control; trip computer; power windows; power door locks; tilt wheel; power moonroof

Engine & Transmission
3.3-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
225 @ 5600
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist
Suspension, front
215/60VR16 all-season
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

J.D. Power Rating
Overall Quality Not Available
Overall Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Mechanical
Not Available
Overall Quality - Design
Not Available
Powertrain Quality - Design
Not Available
Body & Interior Quality - Design
Not Available
Features & Accessories Quality - Design
Not Available

Overall Dependability Not Available
Powertrain Dependability
Not Available
Body & Interior Dependability
Not Available
Feature & Accessory Dependability
Not Available

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J.D. Power Rating Legend
Among the Best
5 / 5
Better than Most
4 / 5
About Average
3 / 5
The Rest
2 / 5

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