January 4, 2013
The 1996 Lexus ES 300 is an extremely reliable car. What's most reliable is that it is always down in the garage waiting to be driven. I was supposed to take a vacation road trip to Death Valley in one of our new cars but I was bumped, and wound up in the ES. No problem. We're old friends.
My two sons and I headed out and drove north through driving snow to the little town of Lone Pine, Calif., some 230 miles away. The next morning I came out to find the ES covered in a layer of ice crystals. I fired it up, turned on the defroster and rear window heater and went back inside for a second cup of coffee. When we left for Death Valley, all the glass was clear and the interior was toasty, but our hopes for good fuel economy were destroyed.
October 17, 2012
This is something that you might relate to: pretty much every time I get into our Lexus ES 300, it reminds me of driving older cars that have been in my family through the years. The ES is like that car your parents/uncle/grandma bought years ago, and it's still around. Maybe you no longer live where you grew up, so you fly in to visit for the holidays. And there it is, the used car in the family that's still kicking and yours to drive during your stay since you didn't get a rental car.
Our ES is like that for me. The seats are worn, the steering wheel wrap is slick and the radio antenna sounds like it's got one foot in the coffin when it powers up and down. This car's done its time. But no-starting issues from last week notwithstanding and knocking on fake wood, the ES does again seem to be running pretty well, and there's a sense of comfortable familiarity here that I sort of enjoy.
Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
September 25, 2012
My favorite part about driving our long-term 1996 Lexus ES300 is how easy it is to hang my elbow out the window. This low beltline, combined with the Lexus' thin A-pillars, make for a very open-feel driving experience. It may seem trivial, but in this era of rising beltlines in cars, it's a sense that's getting harder and harder to duplicate. Many cars these days make you feel as though you are riding in a bathtub.
For some, that high-beltline "bathtub" design is actually a desirable feature. Consumers like all that metal surrounding them, said a Cadillac design executive in a 2010 AARP article, "They feel safer, even if that isn't necessarily the case."
In the same article, a Ford safety director pointed out that the high beltline on a 2011 Ford Taurus was one of its most attractive features. Not to me.
Still, some exterior features, such as larger A-pillars, do help strengthen the car in an accident. The ironic part is that they also reduce visibility.
What do you think of cars with high beltlines?
Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 149,367 miles
September 19, 2012
After a long weekend with the Lexus ES 300, I put the key down on Mike Schmidt's desk and told him, "This is the world?s best commute car."
And it totally is.
Easy to slide into and out of the driver seat. A driving position that?s big enough to spread out and an expansive view through the windshield. Accelerates smoothly if not quickly, and the transmission is meant to enhance the whole smoothness thing with unobtrusive shifts and a relaxed (and probably imperfectly efficient) calibration for the engagement of the torque convertor, predictable brakes, soft suspension rates, and steady and deliberate driving dynamics.
I never once thought twice about it. Not when I drove it to the grocery store. Not when I climbed a 2,000-foot ridge on a narrow 3-mile road to visit a friend's house, nor when I braked the car though the two dozen corners on the way down again. Not when I accelerated into freeway commute traffic, not when I jumped on the brakes in freeway commute traffic. And not when I drove 70 miles on the San Diego Freeway with the a/c blasting at full force (it did pretty well for a car of this vintage, really), on a day when the dashboard readout for the outside temperature registered 102 deg F.
In fact, I never had to think about the car at all. This is a testament both to the inherent goodness of the car as a piece of transportation technology and also to its present state of repair, when all major issues have been addressed and its service needs have been optimized.
This might be just a cheap used car. But when I'm driving it, I never think of it as cheap or used. To have so much for an investment of so little makes this Lexus ES 300 the most perfect device for a day in Los Angeles commute traffic that I can think of.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 149,208 miles.
September 14, 2012
A friend of mine is staging a big car show on top of the remote hill above Ortega Canyon Road where he lives as a way to raise money for his local fire department, and I?m thinking real hard about taking the 1996 Lexus ES 300.
Really, it's that good. It's in great condition and expresses its time way better than my plain old Porsche 911. And what are the chances that you're going to see another one up there?
I might even dust it off before I go.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 149,028 miles
August 02, 2012
So I'm sitting there on the San Diego Freeway in the late afternoon heat of August and it occurs to me, how much car do you really need for this sort of thing?
As I look around, every car is crawling forward at less than 20 mph while the drivers fiddle with the radio and the air conditioning. This $5,000 piece of rolling stock is pretty much exactly as good as any of the cars around me.
Actually, the Lexus is better. It was built in the first place to be a quiet, calm refuge, which is just what you want in commute traffic. More important, new brakes and new suspension bushings have transformed this car.
Usually I'm not the one to buy cheap brakes (when you need them, you really need them), but this brake setup is perfect for the freeway. The engagement is smooth and the effect is predictable, and the difference in response from the original rotors with their uneven, baked-on coating of brake pad residue is completely night and day.
Even better, the new suspension bushings help the Lexus track straight and true once the freeway opens up and speed begins to increase. I've recently driven plenty of cars with a lot less straightline stability, especially those with poorly developed electric-assist power steering.
And the final transformation in the Lexus comes with the replacement of the valve in the heating system, as the car no longer smells like an old storage locker. This car just keeps getting better and better.
It's always scary to buy a used car, since you never really know what you're going to have to spend on it from month to month. At least with a new car, you know what your car payment is going to be. Yet the Lexus ES 300 shows us that a good plan takes care of the uncertainty, and once you find and solve those big issues that probably led to previous owner's decision to sell the car in the first place, the succeeding stuff is generally affordable to address.
And best of all, a used car seems to repay your maintenance by delivering a better driving experience.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com
July 30, 2012
I invited a friend to go hiking with me this weekend but I warned him we would be driving to the mountains in a 1996 Lexus ES 300.
Him: "Can you guarantee that we will get there and back?"
He agreed to "risk it" and came along anyway. So I gave him an assignment.
"What features or qualities does this old car lack, compared to modern cars, that you miss?"
"Well," he answered. "We're probably not going to meet any girls."
I had to admit that he had a point there. Girls, boys or adults of any kind did not express any interest whatsoever in this car. That might be because they didn't notice that it has the gold kit.
But the good old ES did make it 460 miles from Los Angeles to Lone Pine and back without incident. And from Lone Pine (elevation 3,400 feet) it climbed to the Whitney Portal at 8,400 feet. Not once, but twice! The 3.0L V6 had adequate power and the four speed automatic downshifted willingly.
My friend did admit that the ES has a nice big trunk for all our gear. But he's a tall guy and had trouble finding a comfortable seating position. It's hard to say if a modern car would have provided the adjustability needed to ease his pain. I dealt with the situation by telling him his pain was psychosomatic.
On the way home Sunday morning, we were cruising along at 73 mph and the 188 hp engine hardly seemed to be working at all. So I took this video to try to capture the smooth, quiet ride this old timer still provides.
Philip Reed, Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 147,038 miles
June 28, 2012
I'll be honest, I was worried. Just how crappy would this $3,500 Lexus be? I mean, I'm an overly pampered journalist used to driving new cars. How could I possibly lower myself to driving this thing? Just kidding.
Seriously though, our crappy old Lexus is fine. Even for stuck-up journos. Sure, bits of the interior are certainly looking rough, but there's more good here than bad, and for the price? Come on.
The brakes work well (thanks Dan Edmunds), there's no shimmying or wheel vibration, the ride is reasonably comfortable and the transmission only very occasionally shows some abruptness.
True, no one will accuse the steering of having feel. But dang, this V6 has some honest punch, both from a stoplight and even at speed on the highway. And the engine is smooth and sounds good.
I look at things like the sun visor that constantly falls down slightly as "character," not "just one more issue."
Now I wonder if I could get a bike in here...
Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor @ 145,938 miles.
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
June 13, 2012
Eight days ago this 1996 Lexus ES 300 was parked beside the Pacific Ocean. Now, here it is beside the Atlantic, in the small town of Noank, Connecticut. I took the long route so the trip meter is now showing 3,450 miles. I had one mishap -- the car overheated in Detroit due to an earlier faulty repair. Other than that, and a rock chip in the windshield, it's been smooth sailing.
We are doing this project to show that a car with 142,000 miles (and climbing rapidly) is dependable. This probably isn't news to people that know cars and realize how incredibly reliable cars have become. The advent of fuel injection has helped enormously (cars now start in the cold and run more efficiently) and so has onboard computers that monitor various sensors in the fuel and exhaust streams. But since 1996 there have been a lot of creature comforts and new features that this old guy doesn't have.
The feel of this Lexus is vastly different than the new cars. The suspension is so soft it reminds me of my Dad's '65 Chevy wagon, the seats are almost like benches, the storage is poor and the cup holders are almost unusable (small and too close the dashboard). But on the plus side, the visibility is wide open, it's quiet, roomy and comfortable with a Big Gulp trunk. And I'm getting about 29 mpg on the highway. It's not going to carve canyons, so I consider its handling to be a non-issue. Hey, it's a point A to point B car. And as for the gold kit, my Dad thinks it looks sharp.
I really appreciate the comments on the posts about this trip. Some have requested a wrap up when I get back home. I'll certainly pull everything together when I finally get back to Los Angeles which, hopefully, will be in a week and change.
By the way, this picture was taken in the parking lot of Costello's Clam Shack (picture below), a seafood joint right on the dock. Next door is a similar restaurant with a related name. Together the names evoke the memory of a great comedy team from early television. What is the other restaurant called?
Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 142,501 miles
June 07, 2012
For the past two days since I left Wendover, Nevada, I've been driving through a wicked crosswind. Tumbleweed is flying across the road, trees are bending, windmills are spinning and flags are snapping. When there's no crosswind, the 1996 Lexus ES 300 is nice and quiet. The weather stripping around the doors seems to hold out the wind noise just fine. But this crosswind has created a horrible turbulence in the driver's side window next to my left ear. It sounds like a hurricane.
I've noticed that when I pass an 18-wheeler I hit a zone of silence just as I approach the rear left back wheels of the truck. I have about 45-seconds of blissful stillness and then, when I approach the front of the truck, the racket starts up again. It's a wonderful demonstration of the importance of aerodynamics.
I've check and it doesn't look like the weather stripping around the driver's door is at fault. In fact, I think this same thing might happen in many newer cars since aerodynamics are design to deal with wind coming over the car from the front, not from the side. However, I have noticed that, here and there, bits of black plastic flashing between body panels on the Lexus have dried and, in some cases are curled up and flapping in the wind. I'm tempted to buy some epoxy and clue them back into place but so far, I haven't had the time.
Other than that, this old car is running fine and carrying me 600 miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean each day.
Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 140,866 miles
June 05, 2012
My route took me through a section of the West I'd never seen before -- eastern Nevada. Looking at a map I thought it would be incredibly barren and visions of being stranded miles from any garage filled my mind. But once I got rolling on Highway 93, I realized I was in for a treat. The road follows a series of valleys with green meadows, towering cottonwood trees and grazing cattle. I arrived in Wendover, Nevada, a total distance of 640 miles, without any mishaps.
Reading the comments to my first blog I was really happy that so many readers dug the idea of a road trip in a beater. But I realized I didn't introduce this project very well. I should have mentioned that we've had the Lexus checked by no less than three different mechanics including a mechanic from a dealership. We also bought new tires and a new battery for it as soon as we got it. We've done all we can do and if there is some gremlin lurking deep in the engine that's just a reminder of the uncertainty of life itself.
Still, when I'm miles from nowhere, and I feel what I think is a misfire, my heart skips a beat. But during this long drive the ES's motor churned away faithfully and delivered 28 mpg. The seats are definitely old school with only a suggestion of lateral support. But the leather is polished so it's easy to slide around on the seats when you get restless from sitting too long. What I like is the way the low beltline and the skinny A-pillars give a good view of the scenery.
Highway 93 also provided an interesting surprise, which is on the jump.
This is Extraterrestrial Highway which is near Area 51. I didn't dare go any farther for fears of alien probings.
May 14, 2012
I "broke in" our recently acquired 1996 Lexus ES 300 this weekend and even though most wouldn't give it a second glance (here it is getting shined at the car wash), I have to say it's a pretty remarkable car. Not only is it in such great condition for a 138K car but it cost us under $3,500.
And I know by now you've probably read up on our Debt-Free Car Project, but this car's amazing story particularly hits home with me because I have a friend who was looking for such a deal for MONTHS. And honestly, I didn't think such a car existed for him -- one that still ran well, was in good condition, didn't have a salvage title and was so cheap -- especially after it seemed like every search he did turned up really questionable choices.
Since I work for Edmunds, I felt it my duty to warn him away from car salesmen who refused to price their vehicles at TMV, and especially those selling salvage-title cars with missing airbags.
But here was our 1996 Lexus ES 300, accident-free and in impressive running condition. It showed me to not lose hope for my friend. In the end, however, after a lengthy search and many dead ends he finally settled on a 1996 Camry that had a salvage title and a missing sunroof window. He paid $2,500 for it. His car still runs well but I kinda wished he lucked out like we did.
Caroline Pardilla, Deputy Managing Editor @ 138,716 miles