1996 Lexus ES 300: Back Home Again
June 20, 2012
The 1996 Lexus ES 300, aka the "Debt-Free Car," made it from California to Massachusetts and back again, logging 6,834 miles in 16 days. The Lexus now has a hefty 145,786 miles on the clock. There was one problem when the car overheated in Detroit. It was an inexpensive fix, costing only $126 to retighten two hoses and replace a radiator cap. An oil change and tire rotation was performed at the same time. Other than that, and an on-again off-again check engine light, the ES perform admirably.
Here are a few other thoughts about this odyssey.
In the final miles of the drive I found myself wondering whether the trip would have been a lot more comfortable in a brand new car. The answer is, obviously, yes. But that isn't to say that this trip was uncomfortable or this 16-year-old car was sadly lacking. It cruised quietly and efficiently at highway speeds and strong cross winds couldn't knock it off course. It even climbed well in the high oxygen-starved passes of the Rockies with surprisingly smooth down-shifts providing adequate power. The 18-gallon gas tank allowed 400-miles between gas stations and the fuel efficiency was always in the high 20s on 87 octane.
As noted before, the lack of storage space around the driver was annoying, as was the 6-disc CD cartridge in the trunk. The simple addition of a windshield mounted $100 GPS guided me without any problems.
One major difference between this old car and any modern counterpart was the suspension. The struts are tired and the suspension setup is out-dated. Most of the time I didn't notice these shortcomings. In fact, the ES is a great cruiser. But get it on rough pavement, or put it into a sharp corner, and the difference becomes apparent.
Like with so many other issues, the trade off is money. We paid $3,480, plus tax, for this car. Yes, we've put money into it since then, most notably fresh tires and a new battery. But still, the total is far, far less than even a base economy car. And here's a surprise: I didn't have to add a drop of oil the whole way. Yes, the oil was changed in Detroit, but the level never dropped below F on the dipstick. It left me wondering how much farther this car can go.
To all those who commented, both pro and con, thanks for riding along.
Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @145,786 miles