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2006 LEXUS ES 330 Review


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LEXUS ES 330 FOR 2006
Silky, Smooth and Sedate
By Steve Purdy
TheAutoChannel Detroit Bureau

When Lexus (Toyota’s luxury division) automobiles burst upon the scene at the North American International Auto Show in January of 1989, first with the LS 450 and then the ES 250, they were a hit from the very beginning. Conventional wisdom, in those days, and perhaps even today, was that one should never buy a car in its first year of production because there are always problems to be sorted out. Well, those first Lexus products began to dispel that notion, and are continuing to dispel it today.

With an ambitious tag line of “Relentless Pursuit of Perfection,” later changed to “Passionate Pursuit of Perfection,” the Lexus folks showed great promise and confidence, building their line of luxury products into the most diverse and respected line of cars and sport-utility vehicles in the US market.

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ES250, the second Lexus product, went on sale in September of 1989. This “entry-luxury,” or mid-size luxury,” automobile has been revised, updated and redesigned over the intervening years. The version we’re testing here is the fourth generation introduced in 2001 as the ES 300. In 2003 the engine became 3.3-liters requiring a name change to ES 330. In just a few months it will be replaced by a fresh new fifth generation ES 350. We’ll get our greedy little hands on that one later. In the meantime let’s just enjoy this one. And I do mean, “enjoy.”

Styling is pleasant, understated and conservative, not particularly distinctive. A family resemblance with cousin Camry is obvious, but the ES 330’s styling is certainly less tepid than Camry. The steeply raked hood flows between elongated, backswept headlight bezels hiding projector-bulb lights, terminating in a puckery little grill. The wide, low air intake with fog lights on either side look graceful and efficient. The side view is plain white bread and the tail is plain but pretty. A single chrome exhaust tip pokes out below a full bumper that hides the undercarriage well. Paint and finish are exceptional. Our test car is a lovely gentle blue called Blue Shale Mica.

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The interior is a class act, indeed. Still understated and conventional stylistically, the materials are first rate and beautifully integrated. High quality leather seats pamper driver and passengers while they see and touch lovely wood accents, fine quality plastics and a bit of chrome trim.

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The center stack is not at all cluttered even with the navigation system. Controls are all handy and intuitive. I must say, though, that the seat heater is a bit of a disappointment. This is winter in Michigan after all. I had the seat heater on high the whole time and could barely feel it.

Performance, as well, is smooth and silky. Active motor mounts insulate the engine from the chassis enough to smooth the feel even more. We can barely feel the engine start. Under the hood is the nicely finished 3.3-liter, 24-valve, quad-cam, V-6 with VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence) emoting just 218 horsepower. The 236 lb-ft of torque makes it feel like more. With the sophisticated, smooth (though leisurely) shifting 5-speed automatic transmission (also with “Intelligence), the power train fits this luxury car well.

The ES 330 is a front engine, front-wheel-drive 4-door sedan with 4-wheel independent (McPherson struts) suspension. Power rack-and-pinion steering, disc brakes on all fours, and lots of electronic magic to make everything work beautifully together, give us lots of confidence in nearly any driving conditions. I’m sorry to say we had no snow this week so I couldn’t go try the active driving dynamic controls, but I think we can be assured that Lexus has gotten it right given the reputation they enjoy. We did drive our usual testing route that includes mighty rough railroad crossings and some dismal pavement. The chassis and suspension smoothed everything out like a luxury car should.

The sticker says the base price of this ES 330 is $32,300. That price includes leather, power seats (10-way for the driver and 8-way for the passenger), moon roof, power everything, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with V-rated all-season tires, tilt steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, dual-zone climate controls, lots of air bags, mist control wipers and lots of other stuff. The sticker on our test cars lists options of 17-inch alloy wheels (with Michelin Energy MXV4s, in this case), heated and cooled seats, high intensity discharge headlamps with rain sensing wipers, a really neat power rear sun shade, a voice-activated navigation system with 6-plus-one CD player (no cassette), skid control, adjustable pedals and XM radio kit - all this for a mere $38,800 including delivery, processing and handling fee.

“Entry-luxury” they call it. If this is your first luxury car you could sure do a lot worse, though probably not a whole lot better. The new Buick Lucerne is a close competitor and for 38-grand you’ll get a Northstar V-8. But there are lots of great products in this class so shopping might be a chore. Perhaps there will be some bargains to be had since Lexus will be replacing the ES 330 soon with an all new ES 350. That one will have a bigger, more powerful (272 horsepower) engine, a 6-speed transmission, revised quieter suspension and much bolder good looks.

So, stay tuned. We have the greatest respect for Lexus products, but we’re still diligently digging to find some laps in that patina of perfection. Next time – the Lexus GX 470.