The ES 330 may be the smoothest, quietest car in its class. It's easy to drive smoothly, keeping passengers comfortable and making the driver look like a pro. The 3.3-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission are refined and responsive. A supple suspension gives it a civilized ride on rough city streets, beat-up freeways and poorly maintained back roads. The brakes are easy to modulate for smooth stops in everyday driving. The ES 330 is front-wheel drive and its emphasis is on convenience and comfort.
The seats are comfortable, the leather-trimmed upholstery is nice, and the rich-looking interior is accented in wood and aluminum-toned brightwork. Its controls are straightforward and easy to operate. An excellent Mark Levinson stereo is available as a factory option, and satellite radio can be dealer-installed. The rear seats are roomy and comfortable and feature outboard seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters. The trunk is a decent size.
True to the Lexus legend, refinement, quality, fit and finish, and attention to detail are evident throughout. You see, feel, and even hear the quality. It can be heard in the solid sound the doors, trunk and hood make when they're closed.
Lexus freshened the exterior appearance of the ES 330 for the 2005 model, and upgraded some of the interior appointments. No additional changes have been made for 2006.
Lexus ES 330 ($32,300)
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 sheet metal. The optional 17-inch alloy wheels use a six-spoke design. Chromed door handles are easy to grab and do not require awkwardly flipping your hand over as they do on some of the other cars in this class, such as the Audi A6.
The underbody is smooth, nearly flat, contributing to exceptional aerodynamic efficiency (with a coefficient of drag of just 0.28), and the body is constructed using advanced composites and resin-steel sandwiches to further minimize the intrusion of noise.
When it designed the ES, Lexus set out to make it one of the safest cars in the class. The passenger compartment is reinforced in critical areas, and front and rear crush zones are designed to crumple and to help absorb the impact of a crash.
The standard leather-trimmed upholstery is quite nice, and the seats are very comfortable. The seating position is excellent, with lots of front-seat legroom. Optional power-adjustable pedals are especially useful for shorter drivers, helping them find a comfortable driving position without sitting too close to the airbag-equipped steering wheel; we recommend them for families with short drivers. 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, and both front seats have a memory function. The shape and construction of the front seats is borrowed from the flagship LS 430 and they can be ordered with integrated heat and ventilation.
The ES 330 is about 10 percent larger inside than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with significantly more front hip room. The ES 330 does not offer as much headroom as the Mercedes, however, and six-foot drivers may wish for more.
The rear seats are roomy, making this a comfortable car for four adults. Five is a crowd, but it'll work for short distances. Overall, it's roomier and more comfortable (with more hip room and leg room) in the back of the ES 330 than in the back of a Mercedes C320 sedan. The outboard rear seatbelts have pre-tensioners and force limiters, similar to those in front, which can help reduce injuries to rear passengers in an accident.
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 German cars; we prefer the Lexus mirrors. They automatically tilt down, if desired, when you shift into reverse. 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 rearview 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 Optitron gauges. A large speedometer dominates the layout. 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 fuel and temperature gauges. On the left is a big tachometer.
The optional navigation system is powerful, with excellent graphics, a huge database (5 million points of interest), and voice activation. It's a good system, but requires some experience and study to master. Once you've done that, it works well. Input an address or point of interest (restaurant, hotel, airport) and the system directs you verbally and visually. Pressing the Map button displays the address of wherever you are at that moment on the fly, a great feature when looking for an address where the numbers are hard to spot. To reduce the chance of driver distraction, the navi cannot be programmed when the car is moving.
Audio functions are integrated into the navigation system, which we found a mixed blessing. To change preset radio stations, for example,
The 3.3-liter V6 engine gives the ES 330 responsive performance in everyday driving situations. Lexus says the ES 330 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. It's rated 21/29 mpg City/Highway by the EPA and is certified by the government as a ULEV II Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle. Power ratings are down slightly for 2006, to 218 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, but that's only because the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has instituted new test procedures that tend to deliver more conservative numbers. The engine itself, and its performance, have not changed. This year's ES is just as powerful as last year's model.
The transmission shifts very smoothly. Upshifts in normal, everyday driving are almost invisible. Yet the gearbox delivers responsive shifts when driving aggressively. The gated shifter allows manual gear selection, but we found this to be a clunky proposition and preferred to just leave it in Drive.
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. The four-wheel independent strut suspension provides precise handling with minimal body sway. The speed-sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a very nice touch: light and effortless around town, but with good feel. There is very little, if any, torque steer.
Overall, the ES 330 handles well, but it is tuned more for a smooth ride than sporty handling. Its front-wheel-drive layout and front-heavy weight distribution (61 percent front/39 percent rear) limit its cornering potential. Serious driving enthusiasts may prefer the Lexus IS with rear-wheel drive, but most drivers will be happier with the ES 330. The standard 16-inch wheels come with all-season tires (215/60VR16). The optional 17-inch wheels should provide sportier handling with a choice of all-season or summer tires, both with slightly lower-profile sidewalls (215/55VR17).
The optional Adaptable Variable Suspension is worthwhile for drivers interested in adjusting handling and ride quality to suit conditions or mood. The system automatically and continuously changes the shock absorber damping 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 indeed 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 city streets. This setting works best when driving at high speeds or when whipping along mountain two-lanes. The softest setting works very well at low speeds on rough neighborhood streets, filtering out the undulations of neglected pavement. We liked using it for that, but it's on the squishy side for other conditions. The middle two settings were just right for everyday driving.
The brakes are very smooth and 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. The ES 330 comes standard with anti-lock brakes (ABS), which help the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency stopping situation; in an emergency stopping situation, remember to maintain hard pressure on the brake pedal and to look and steer where you want to go. The ES also comes standard with electronic brake-f
The Lexus ES 330 delivers a smooth, refined ride. Its engine and transmission are smooth and so are its brakes. 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.