Since our last report, our debt-free 1996 Lexus ES 300 crossed the 150,000-mile mark. This is a major milestone for any used car, and since the owner's manual stops listing the recommended services at 150,000 miles, it now puts us in uncharted waters. The voyage to 150K saw a few rough patches recently, but nothing that would sink our project car.
One October morning we noticed that the driver-side front tire looked low. We first suspected an air leak from a nail or road debris, but after taking it to a tire repair shop, the true culprit was the chrome wheel itself.
A portion of the chrome plating had worn off from the inner part of the wheel, which led to corrosion. This corrosion, in turn, was slowly letting air out at the tire bead. The tire shop used a wire brush to remove the corrosion and then applied bead sealer. What wasn't clear however, was how long this fix would last. The shop said the sealer might last six weeks, or it might last a year. The only permanent solution would be to either re-chrome the wheel or buy another one. We opted to fix the leak at $35 and regularly monitor the tire pressure.
Breakdown in Fresno
The Lexus crossed the 150,000-mile threshold in Fresno, California, home to our Senior Automotive Editor Brent Romans. We'd boasted about how rock-solid the car had been, so (of course) the car failed to start the following day. Romans was waiting to pick up his daughter from school and had been parked for a few minutes. There was power to the accessories (radio, lights, etc.), but the engine wouldn't crank. He tried jump-starting the Lexus, but it didn't work.
Romans called a tow truck. The driver cycled the key on and off about 10 times until it finally caught and started the vehicle. The following morning, the Lexus started fine but would not maintain idle, and shut off each time. Romans took the car to a local mechanic, who we'd found by using some crowdsourced online reviews.
The problem turned out to be the starter solenoid contacts, which were corroded and worn. Our mechanic explained that this was a fairly common issue with Toyota products of this era. "Back in the day," said the mechanic, "Toyota used to force you to purchase a whole new starter motor, but now you can just get the contacts separately."
This issue was so common that the mechanic even had a bag of the copper contact pieces on his work bench. The mechanic also cleaned up the Lexus' throttle body, which he said had heavy carbon build-up on the throttle plate and bore. He speculated this was likely the cause of the subsequent die-at-idle problem. The new starter contacts were $14.65. With labor and tax, our final bill came to $137.
Off-Brand vs. Name Brand Gas
Our Lexus served as a guinea pig for an informal experiment in November. We wanted to see if there was a difference in fuel economy from gas bought at no-name stations. After 1,000 miles of driving, we saw no appreciable difference. These findings match up with what we learned in a recent feature on cheap gas. This means that our hypothetical owner of a debt-free car can save a few bucks while not having to worry about a loss in fuel economy or compromised engine longevity.
Major or Minor Service?
The 150,000-mile service on the Lexus ES 300 is considered a major service by dealer service departments. The owner's manual calls for a whole list of things, including an oil and filter change, new air filter, new A/C filter, replacement of the brake fluid and coolant and a bunch of systems inspections. At the dealership, this service would cost us well over $250.
If our Lexus were a new car, we would abide by the owner's manual. But our goal for this project is to put ourselves in the shoes of a budget-conscious family and take the lower-cost route. So we took the car to an independent garage. We told the mechanic there to take care of the bare essentials — an oil change and tire rotation. We also asked him to look into a potential oil leak.
A few hours later, we got the condition report: There was an oil leak around the timing-belt cover. This could have led to a domino chain of repairs. If you take off the timing belt cover, you might as well check and, if necessary, replace the timing belt. And if you do the timing belt, you might as well replace the cam seals and the water pump. This would add up to about $798. Luckily for us, we knew the timing belt was in good condition. We had it checked at the last oil change. But we made the decision to live with the oil leak and periodically check on the oil level. After all, what old car doesn't have some type of fluid leak? As long as the oil isn't gushing out, we can live with it.
The cost for our 150K service was $75, which was more in line with the cost of a minor service. By not going the soup-to-nuts route, we saved about $200.
Also in November, one of our editors noted that the Lexus' headlights were quite dim at night. Part of the problem was the clouded headlight housing. The other problem was old bulbs, which seem to have lost wattage with age.
Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed had cleaned the headlights with a DIY kit when we first purchased the Lexus, but the effect seemed to last only a few months.
Since there was money in our budget, we bought a set of Philips "X-treme Power" headlight bulbs for $28 on Amazon.com. The company claims they give off "80 percent more light," so we tried them out.
There was a definite improvement in the light quality, but not quite 80 percent better. During the installation, Reed also noticed that one of the high beams had burned out. He picked up a set of Sylvania Silver Star bulbs for about $24.
Plotting a Course for Uncharted Waters
The Lexus is now heading into its final stretch of months with us. We don't see much reason to drastically alter our maintenance course. We will continue to change the oil every 5,000 miles, the interval recommended in the owner's manual.
We've driven more than 16,150 miles in the Lexus so far — well past the 15,000-mile mark we set out at the beginning of our project. At this writing, we have stayed within budget for seven straight months and have a surplus of $942.
Our Lexus still has a few lingering issues, but what car of this vintage doesn't? We'll keep a close eye on things and handle any repairs as they surface.
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.