Living with the Lexus ES 330 is easy. Understand that statement, and you understand the essence of this entry-luxury sedan.
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. Sirius Satellite Radio will be offered as an alternative to XM® Satellite Radio on 2006 models. No additional changes have been made for 2006.
The 2006 Lexus ES 330 comes as one well-equipped model.
It comes standard with many of the same luxury and convenience features found in higher-priced Lexus sedans: handsome, high-quality leather upholstery with wood trim, automatic dual-zone climate control with interior air filter, power windows with auto up/down and jam protection, a power moonroof, and an AM/FM/CD/cassette system with 86 watts and seven speakers.
Options include a 240-watt Mark Levinson® audio system, six-disc CD changer and a choice of XM® Satellite Radio or Sirius® Satellite Radio (the latter a late-year addition). Other options include Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with traction control and Brake Assist; Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS); DVD satellite navigation; power-adjustable pedals with memory; power rear sunshade; high-intensity discharge headlamps with rain-sensing wipers; heated and ventilated front seats; wood steering wheel and shift knob; and 17-inch wheels and tires.
Safety was a top priority when designing the ES 330. Standard passive safety equipment includes dual front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags (for torso protection), and front and rear side-curtain airbags (for head protection). Three-point seatbelts are provided 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 help reduce whiplash. The outboard rear seatbelts are fitted with force limiters and pre-tensioners. To help the driver avoid accidents in the first place, the ES 330 comes standard with such active safety features as anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD). Optional Vehicle Stability Control is designed to improve driver control by reducing skidding in turns.
The Lexus ES 330 makes a striking styling statement with its dramatic front rake and headlamps that look like silvery cat’s eyes. 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.
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 cabin of the Lexus ES 330 is warm and inviting. Rich wood trim, available in golden bird’s-eye maple or red walnut, goes well with aluminum-like accents. All of the trim materials exude a high-quality look and feel. The standard steering wheel and shift lever are covered with stitched leather trim and look very nice. An all wood-trimmed handle for the shift lever and a wood-trimmed steering wheel are available for an even more prestigious appearance. Regardless, the steering column is manually adjustable for tilt. Steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio system and other functions are optionally available.
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, you must first press the Audio button to call up your presets; so what takes one step on a standard radio now takes two steps, which doesn’t seem like progress. 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 after tuning the radio.
The sound quality from the optional Mark Levinson® system is fantastic, especially for CDs. Combined with the sound-absorbing measures in the ES 330 cabin, it provides the audiophile with clear highs, crisp 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, our recommendation is to spring for the navigation/Mark Levinson® option, then spend some time in the driveway with the owner’s manual open. Don’t try and learn this stuff while driving. Satellite radio (XM® or Sirius®) and a six-disc CD changer are also available. We really like satellite radio for listening to the 24-hour news stations and for music as AM and FM have become so commercial heavy.
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, 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 cupholders 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 and jam protection are used at all locations. Retained accessory power allows operation of the power windows and power moonroof after turning off the ignition, but not the audio or navigation systems.
Trunk volume is comparable to most of the competition’s, and considerably larger than that of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. A cargo net is available, but costs extra.
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. And did we mention this car is smooth?
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-force distribution (EBD), which distributes braking force evenly to the tires with the best grip for excellent stability and improved stopping performance. Brake Assist is another good idea, as it helps the driver maintain maximum braking force in a panic stop even if he or she makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
Optional Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) includes traction control and is integrated with ABS and EBD to help 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. That can help avoid accidents, and we recommend it highly. All these systems work together as a team to help the driver maintain control of the car.