1996 Lexus ES 300 Long Term Road Test - Maintenance

1996 Lexus ES 300 Long Term Road Test

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Passed Smog

March 13, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

We're getting ready to sell this old guy and we had to get a smog test before we did the deal. We were a little nervous about whether it would pass, what with all the "issues" we've had lately (mass air flow sensor, check engine lights, O2 sensor etc.). So it seemed prudent to change the oil first and do a little highway driving. One smog test expert explained that long drives are helpful because it allows the catalytic converter to heat up enough to burn up all of the oil residue left from the inevitable "blow-by" in an older engine.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Repeat Business

March 6, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

The key to keeping maintenance costs down on a car is to find a reputable mechanic and build a working relationship. Seems like a no-brainer piece of advice, but for us it hasn't always been easy to follow. We've taken our 1996 Lexus ES 300 to a number of mechanics, based on who was driving the car and where we were at the time.

We really liked the service we received from our most recent mechanic, Alberto Garcia, who repaired our gauges. We decided to have him examine the cause of a pesky check engine light.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Check Engine...Again

February 26, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

Just when you think you have an old car sorted out, it seems that something else always surfaces. The infamous "Check Engine" light is back on in our 1996 Lexus ES 300, just over a month after we cleared it for the oxygen sensor.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Gauge Lights Fixed

February 18, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

You're looking at the almost-like-new gauge cluster on our long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300. The lights had been in a slow state of deterioration and had even gotten worse than when Brent Romans, first pointed out that they were fading.

It was most evident on the speedometer dial, where nothing was visible up to the 80 mph mark. I generally kept up with traffic and if I saw the speedometer needle, I knew I was going too fast. Clearly, this needed to be fixed.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Oxygen Sensor Fixed

January 31, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

On a road trip to Death Valley, the dreaded check engine light (CEL) came on. When we came back, we took the car to Pep Boys and they read the code for free: P0135, which meant that the oxygen sensor in "bank 1" was malfunctioning. It was surprising to learn that something was wrong with the car, since it still seemed to be running fine.

Even though a car seems to be behaving normally, experts say a faulty oxygen sensor can cut the fuel economy by 40 percent. Sure enough, when we checked our fuel records for the driving we did while the CEL was on, our fuel economy dropped from about 27 mpg to about 24 mpg.

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1996 ES 300: Could Not Duplicate

January 25, 2013

1996 ES 300

We heard that our long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300 had trouble starting one afternoon, and since Phil and I have become the go-to guys for all ES 300 issues, we went to take a closer look. A colleague told us that the Lexus' engine cranked, but wouldn't hold an idle and would consequently shut off.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Broken Door Fixed

January 17, 2013

2013 Infiniti JX35

If you're going to own an old car like our 1996 Lexus ES 300 you better have a reliable network of repair experts. We have met some great mechanics while handling our ES problems, such as the broken driver's side door handle.

To recap, on a recent trip to Death Valley, where we took the ES off road, the driver's side door wouldn't open from the outside and there was a nasty rattle inside the door panel. My first response was to nuke the latch mechanism with WD-40. When this produced no result, I shifted gears, so to speak, and watched YouTube videos of other people fixing their doors. It looked really complicated. So I took the car to Burke's Auto Body, in Long Beach, Calif.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: CD Player is Just Fine

January 7, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

A recent post reported that the CD player in the 1996 Lexus ES 300 was broken. It's not. The problem was that you have to put the CDs into the cartridge upside down or an error message is reported. I know because I've made that mistake before.

I wanted to make absolutely sure it was working so I grabbed the first disc from my stack of CDs that are busy gathering dust. I took it out to the car and put it in (upside down, as I already mentioned) and hit play. The Fab Four were soon amazing me with one of their best albums.

I moved on to the "jammed" cassette tape issue, also reported in the earlier post. I pushed play, then eject, and it finally both played and ejected. So we're completely back up to speed sound-system-wise.

There are plenty of things on the ES that could either be fixed or improved, so it's important to eliminate those things that aren't in fact broken.

Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor, @ 152,799 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Death Valley Road Trip

January 4, 2013

1996 Lexus ES 300

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.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: New Headlight Bulb Impressions

December 21, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

We installed new headlight bulbs in our long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300 last month. The photo above shows the previous bulbs. I have a few impressions and photos of the new bulbs after the jump.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Name the Stain

November 30, 2012

 Oil2.JPG Every old car is bound to have some type of fluid leaking from it. Our 1996 Lexus ES 300 is no exception. There are two distinct leaks here, the light brown one on the left and the dark red one on the right. I should point out that this didn't happen overnight. This is about nine days of accumulation.

Can you guess the two fluids? For reference, the ES 300 was backed into its space. The driver's side of the car is on the right side of the photo.

The stain on the left is motor oil. We found out about this one some time ago. There is an oil leak in the rear cam seal, near the timing cover.

The stain on the right is power steering fluid. We found out about this recently, after the last oil change. The mechanic noticed that a hose leading from the power steering to the pump was leaking. The leak is near the exhaust manifold. This may explain the smell that occasionally wafts into the cabin.

It would cost us roughly $400 to fix the power-steering fluid problem, and probably another $250 for the oil leak. We're going to pass on these for now. But if the leaks get worse, we may have to take care of them.

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 151, 855 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Tighten Your Timing Belt

November 23, 2012

Lexus Atlantic.jpg
Recently, we wrote the ES 300 might need a new timing belt and we would save the $360 a month allotted for repairs until we had enough to pay for the $800 job (timing belt + water pump + cam seals). This prompted some comments about the concept of the Debt Free Car in general.

"I am a fan of this project, but the basic premise is false," writes Bankerdanny. "People who are looking for a $3,500 car as a primary driver are almost certainly unable to afford a $360 monthly payment, that's why they are looking for a $3,500 car. So once they buy that car they are not setting aside $360 a month for repairs."

We don't have scientific proof to counter this opinion. But we would like to say that economically challenged people can still be organized. Thinking ahead doesn't cost money. Besides, we aren't saying all people handle car repairs this way. We are suggesting that they do this. 

There was once a grand tradition in this country where people "saved up for" the things they wanted. But because of easy money loans, credit cards and aggressive encouragement to buy! buy! buy! that trait seems less common. Let's bring back that tradition and set aside a little money for emergency repairs. 

In the meantime, the blogs, and your comments, have been a great opportunity for discussion. Thanks for chiming in, even when you don't agree with us.

Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @151,856 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Let There Be (Better) Light

November 19, 2012

ES 300 Headlights.jpg I was getting ready to put the Philips X-treme Power headlight bulbs into our 1996 Lexus ES 300 when I had a chance to take this picture. I parked the ES (left) next to Mark Holthoff's 1999 Mercedes-Benz CL500 with xenon headlights. The difference is pretty obvious. The ES's lights are yellowed while the Benz throws a nice clean white light.

Sunday afternoon I popped the new bulbs in with high hopes to rival Mark's beams. Here's what happened. 

First of all, I discovered one of the ES's high beams was burned out so I had to run down to the local auto parts story where I bought Sylvania Silver Star for $39 (minus one of those really irritating $15 mail in rebates). Then, I had to take out the battery to gain access to one of the low beam bulbs. But I was done in less than an hour with all four bulbs blazing away. 

Next time I get together with Mark I'll shoot an "after" picture. But I did drive the ES back up to the same location and eyeballed the result of the new bulbs. There is no question that they are brighter now but, because of the yellowed headlight lens, they now cast a brighter yellow light. So, as many of the commenters have said, need to clear the headlight lens too.  That will be the next DIY project. 

Philip Reed, Edmunds.com Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 151,763 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: A Clean Well Lighted Car

November 17, 2012

ES300 Headlights.jpg With the shorter days and the rainy weather, we've been feeling in the dark with our 1996 Lexus ES 300. Michael Jordan diagnosed the condition as "cataracts"  and got a lot of great comments about bulbs vs. cleaning the lens. We're going to do both. But we decided to pop for some new headlight bulbs. These X-treme Power bulbs from Philips come highly recommended by readers and other users on Amazon.com where we ordered them for $28. If they really are 80 percent brighter, maybe we won't have to scrub the lens.

We will report back after we install them. 

Philip Reed, Edmunds.com Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 151,503 miles 

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Cataracts

November 12, 2012


Good thing the roads in California are lined with reflective markers, because otherwise I might have driven the Lexus ES 300 into the ocean last night.

I'm not saying the headlights are weak, but the last time I saw a light pattern like this, I was riding an ISDT-style Husqvarna dirt bike with a headlight the size of a baseball. If you wanted more light, you just revved the engine harder.

The Rontoya tells me that the Lexus had its headlight lenses cleared with a Mequiars kit about six months ago, but it seems like the plastic has become occluded again. Maybe another treatment is required? Or maybe the bulbs are toasted?  Or the little electron running around inside the ES have grown feeble?

Probably you wouldn't notice the headlights while driving around in the city, since there are plenty of other cars to light the road around you, not to mention streetlights.  But when it gets fully dark, the difference between the Lexus' headlights and new cars is dramatic.

We'll look into it.  Probably we'll be polishing the plastic again.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 151,022 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: 150K + Maintenance = Uncharted Territory

November 06, 2012

lexus manual for 150k.jpg
We asked your opinion and you gave it to us: how should we handle the 150K service visit? Our dilemma is that, with a car this old, we're not going to do everything the manual recommends. So what's really important to do?

The general consensus, which we agreed with, was this: find a mechanic you trust, get him to give you a list of necessary work, and then prioritize.  That's what we did. And here's what happened.

We took the ES to Overseas Garage, in Long Beach, Calif., which is highly recommended on Yelp. We told Andy that the car was due for the 150,000-mile service but we didn't want to do everything the manual recommends. His expression was somewhat blank as if he wasn't real concerned about what was in the manual. The cars he deals with are basically, off the charts.

We told him to give us an oil change and tire rotation and give the car a look-over. We added that other mechanics told us we have an oil leak. Again, the blank stare.  But a few hours later we got a call from Andy. "Okay," he said, and sighs heavily. He tells me there is an oil leak around the timing belt cover. And if you take off the timing belt cover, you might as well do the timing belt. And if you do the timing belt you might as well do the cam seals and the water pump. Bottom line: $798.

Well, as Andy says, the leak "isn't gushing." In fact, we don't even see oil drips under the car. Occasionally we get an oil smell in the cabin but it mixes with various other old, musky, funky smells. And another mechanic told us the timing belt looks good. So we are tabling a decision on this repair as the money in our repair budget adds up. Remember, we are putting ourselves in the place of a family who needs cheap transportation but owns the car outright. Our fictional family budgets $365 a month – the typical amount for a used car down payment -- for repairs. Now, after spending $75 for our oil change and tire rotation, we have $629.

By the way, Lexus is cutting us loose into uncharted territory. The 150K service is the last in the owner's manual. From now on, we'll have a blank look on our faces when anyone refers to the owner's manual.

Philip Reed, Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 150,890 mile

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1996 Lexus ES 300: A Couple Other Minor Issues

October 19, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

In an earlier ES post, a commenter noted that our gauges were looking pretty bad. And true enough, they are.

Actually, I think they've gotten worse since we bought the car. Carroll took an earlier picture of them, and while the needles were always flickering/burned out in that picture and video, it seems the number illumination was fine. But now we've lost illumination for part of the speedometer. It's not a huge problem, but it can be annoying not being able to easily tell what speed you're going. (And in daylight, it's actually worse than the above photo would seem to indicate.)

Ron Montoya's done some basic research. The fix entails pulling out the gauge cluster, disassembling it, and installing new bulbs. It looks like we've lost two bulbs so far. (And while we'd be at it, we probably just replace all of them.) Alternately, we can pull out the cluster and ship it to a guy in Wisconsin who repairs them for $99. He can also put in LED bulbs if you want, and will also fix the needles.

We haven't decided what to do yet.

The other thing possibly needing attention: our ES has got a couple leaks (oil, I think). Not terrible, and not unexpected for a car of this age. But it's also something it might be worth checking out during its upcoming 150,000-mile service.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: At The Shop

October 15, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

I took our Lexus ES 300 in for service this morning to a local independent repair shop to address the car's engine issues. To be honest, the no-start problem has not reoccurred since that initial time, though I still had some die-at-idle this morning while the engine was cold.

Ron Montoya and I picked out the shop based primarily on the its Yelp reviews. The shop's owner seemed pretty familiar with our car's problems, so my initial feeling is that it's in good hands. I'll know more late today.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Update On No-Start Problem

October 11, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

Thy Olden Lexus -- it lives! Sort of. Maybe "it's in critical condition" would be more apt. After writing yesterday's post about how the ES wouldn't start in a school parking lot, I got a lift from my house back over to the school to see if I could get the ES to start. Or get it towed.

I had first done some very brief web searches to see if I could come up with possible causes. Nothing definitive turned up. Battery? Starter? The only thing that caught my eye for a possible temporary fix was that there was a "bound starter" and hitting the starter with a hammer might help. Percussive maintenance? I'm in!

Well, I tried that. The starter was hard to get to. And hitting it made no difference. The ES was still not turning over, with just one click in terms of sound yet with the accessories still working. So at that point it was quite late in the afternoon, so I called for a tow truck.

I had to wait about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, I listened to NPR on the ES' radio. Joe the driver pulled up and asked me a few questions. He asked if he could try starting it. Sure dude. At first it's the same thing for him. But then he quickly cycled the ignition key on and off about 10 times. About the 10th time the engine coughed and turned over a little. A couple more tries and it started. I was both dumbfounded and impressed.

Joe said he thought it was the battery and that maybe there was just barely enough power left to get it to start. The best part was that he didn't even charge for the service call.

So I drove the ES back to my house without any issues. I tried starting it once more, and it fired up. Thinking all might be OK, or at least temporarily, I hooked up my battery tender to the battery. It ended up charging the battery for a couple hours. Hmm. If the battery were really dead, it'd likely take more than a couple hours worth of charge, even though it did get some charge time when driving. So I was still perplexed.

This was all yesterday afternoon/evening. Finally this morning I tried it again. The ES started. But ... now it dies immediately at idle after starting. Keeping my foot on the throttle is the only way to keep the ES from stalling. This is the starting problem that we encountered before, when we eventually replaced the mass airflow sensor.

The good news at least is that the ES is safe at my house. I've scheduled a service appointment at an independent repair shop for Monday morning. My plan at this point is to drive it/nurse it over there.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Back In Action

October 16, 2012

Back In Action

The ES 300 is fixed, and the no-start mystery has been solved: the problem turned out to be the starter solenoid contacts, which were worn and corroded. (If that's what you guessed from my prior posts, pat yourself on your back.)

According to the mechanic at the independent repair shop I took the car to, this is a fairly common Toyota problem for cars of this vintage. Back in the day, he said Toyota used to force you to purchase a whole new starter motor, but now you can just get the contacts separately. The mechanic even had a bag of the little copper contact pieces on his bench, so I'm guessing ours isn't an isolated case.

The mechanic also cleaned up the ES' throttle body, which he said had heavy carbon build up on the throttle plate and bore. This was likely a cause for the subsequent die-at-idle issue. The idle control valve could still be the root of the problem, but he said it seemed OK at this time.

The new starter contacts were $14.65. With labor and tax, our final bill came to $136.72.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor @ 150,072 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Sleeps With The Fishes

October 10, 2012

Sleeps With The Fishes

It seems I neglected to "knock on wood" on the ES' wood trim yesterday after writing that it "seems to be running strong." And now I get punished by the irony gods. The ES is out of commission, marooned in the parking lot of my daughter's elementary school.

The situation: I drove to the school for afternoon pickup. Park, get the kid, come back to the car. Couldn't have been more than 3 minutes expired. Get buckled up. Turn the key. Nothing. Hmm. No turnover, no "click-click-click" sound. Just one "click." The car's accessories are working, though. Try a few more times. Same result.

Dying battery? That's my first guess. But it seems strange since the car's been starting fine and was just running a few minutes ago. Natural guy reaction: I pop the hood to take a look. Of course there's little reason to do this. I have no tools, no jumper cables and have no idea what to look for other than loose battery cables. If only a gremlin would pop out, laugh manically and then run away.

Naturally, being school pick up time, there are other parents pulling into the lot and getting their kids. One particularly good looking mom sees me standing in front of the ES with the hood open. "Need a jump?" she asks. I'm a bit flummoxed. The distressed, saved by the damsel. Yes, I say. I also mumble something about the ES not being my car, suddenly not feeling the love for the green, gold-packaged ES. She says she has her husband's truck, and it might have cables. She goes off to check. Meanwhile, my daughter is asking: "What's wrong, daddy?" So I get to tell her about cars and batteries.

Hot mom comes back. No luck on the cables. She apologizes. So plan B. I call a friend who's not too far away. "Come help me with this car," I ask. He knows what I'm driving. "About time, new car Romans," he says. "Where's your super awesome BRZ now?"

So my daughter and I wait around about 30 minutes until he arrives with some cables. We get everything hooked up. Turn the ES' key and ... nothing. Same problem. Oy. So it's not the battery. Maybe it's the starter. Or maybe the battery is just super dead because of a bad alternator. Or maybe it's the flux capacitor.

Anyway, we abandon the ES in the school lot so I can get my daughter home. I'm going back now, maybe to fix it, probably to get it towed. Whee. More on this tomorrow.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: 150,000 Miles

October 9, 2012


1996 Lexus ES 300

Our Lexus ES 300 has cleared 150,000 miles. It seems to be running pretty strong.

When we bought Thy Olden Lexus, it had 135,000 miles on it. You can read a summary about our experiences so far in Ron's Midyear Check-In article.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor @ 150,002 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Air Leak From The Wheel

October 5, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

A couple days ago we noticed that the pressure was pretty low for our ES 300's driver-side front tire. At first we thought we had a slow leak, perhaps from a puncture. But after not seeing any visible indications of such, we took the ES over to our tire place of choice (Stokes) and had them take a look.

Turns out some of the chrome plating had worn off from the inner part of the wheel, creating some corrosion. That in turn was slowly letting out air at the tire bead. Stokes used a wire brush to remove the corrosion and then applied some bead sealer. They say it sealer might last six weeks, or it might last a year. But the only permanent solution would be to re-chrome the wheel or buy another one.

Total repair cost was $35.00.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Midyear Check-In

September 27, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

The sixth chapter of our Debt-Free Car Project is now live. It is a summary of what has happened over the past few months and tallies up the repair expenses. Is the Lexus living up to its "Debt-Free Car" nickname? Follow the link below to find out.

The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Service @ 150K Miles

September 26, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

We bought this car to see if a $3,500 car could provide reliable transportation. The only measure of success is whether it is still running and safe to drive. As we consider each repair, we try to imagine a family on a really tight budget. So if it has a slow oil leak would our imaginary family pop for the $350 repair? Or would they just top it off now and then.

But now we have a big decision and we need your help. The fun of the project, for us, is the support and suggestions from you guys, the readers. So here's what's keeping us up at night.

Our ES is closing in on 150k miles and the big service visit that brings. For other Edmunds.com long-term test cars, we would simply whip out the manual and do whatever it said. With these near-new test cars, we expect them to last forever. With 150k on this old guy, "forever" is almost here. Some would say forever has already come and gone. 

Here's what's needed:

• Replace engine oil and oil filter
• Replace engine air filter
• Replace engine coolant
• Replace brake fluid
• Replace air conditioner filter

Then, of course, there is a laundry list of inspections to perform, the repair of each which will likely bring a hefty price tag. For an idea of what it would cost, we checked the 150K service in our Car Maintenance section and it came up with $214. Experience has taught us that a Lexus dealership would charge much more.

So, are we really going to do everything in the manual? Or do we just do the oil change, tire rotation and tell the mechanic to let us know about anything that will, "Stop the car from running?"

And, as you frame your response, think of that family on a tight budget.  Like a lot of folks these days, they're really having trouble making ends meet.

Philip Reed, Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor @149,430 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Hood Struts DIY

September 3, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

We've been using a golf club to prop up the hood when we check the oil and coolant. But since we haven't had any other expenses on our "Debt-Free Car" we decided to invest in a set of new, aftermarket struts.

As Ron Montoya noted in his blog post: "The struts cost $14 each. The 'out the door' price with tax and shipping was $37.07. For reference, the Lexus dealer near our office is asking $177 for each strut. Going the aftermarket route saved us roughly $350."

That is, if we could install them ourselves.

We looked at the instructions and a short video and it looked simple. Still, experience has taught us that dropped bolts, stripped nuts, a lack of tools and busted knuckles can turn even a simple DIY project into a nightmare. Still, we proceeded with optimism, mechanic's gloves and a set of wrenches.

With golf club securely in place, we used a box end wrench to remove the lower bolt. It came out slowly but easily. We then removed the upper bolt using an open end wrench. The aftermarket replacement was a bit different since it was actually two parts. In other words, we put in the strut first, then the connecter and then popped the end over the ball joint.

Only one strut held the hood up, but it sagged at one corner. The second strut connections actually had better access so we used a socket wrench and the job went faster. It only took 20 minutes and we didn't spill a drop of blood. Now, when we unlatch the hood, it rises easily and stays in place. It's incredibly satisfying to do a repair like this on our own, and save so much money.

Look! No golf club! 

Philip Reed, Edmunds Consumer Advice Editor @ 147,916 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: New Hood Struts

August 27, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

Back in July, blog commenter noburgers said: "You guys need to go to Amazon and get new hood struts cheap. I priced them out for you when you first reported the problem. Otherwise we will read how Phil or Ron missed work due to a concussion and scalp stitches, when that hood slams down on the back of their head. It takes only a few minutes to change one."

So far, neither Phil or I have missed work from a hood slamming on our heads, but the lack of working struts was still something that needed to be addressed. We could only use a golf club so many times before an accident happened.

I discovered these "Strong Arm Hood Lift Supports" in a Lexus owners' club forum post. I went directly to the manufacturer's Web site, but they were also selling on eBay and the shipping rates there were slightly cheaper.

The struts cost $14 each. The "out the door" price with tax and shipping was $37.07. For reference, the Lexus dealer near our office is asking $177 for each strut. Going the aftermarket route saved us roughly $350.

We're going to install these later in the week. I'm hoping it will only take a few minutes as noburgers forecast. Stay tuned for the DIY report.

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 147,823 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Twilight or Endless Summer?

July 27, 2012

 Endless Lexus Summer.JPG

First off, your web browser isn't acting up. This photo is my 15-minute attempt to duplicate the classic "Endless Summer" movie poster -- with very limited Photoshop skills.

I recently attended an auto industry webinar, hosted by Experian, which made me think about the longevity of our long-term Lexus. A slide regarding vehicles out of operation caught my attention.  It stated that the average lifespan of a vehicle is 16.1 years and the most frequent age at time of disposal is 17 years.

Our 1996 Lexus ES 300 is almost 17 years old. The earliest record on the car is from September 19, 1995, when it was manufactured and shipped to the original dealer, according to Carfax.

It seems like a reasonable lifespan for a car. The last car I owned was 17 when I decided to get rid of it. The repairs had started to add up and it left me stranded on a few occasions.

But when I drive our Lexus, it doesn't feel like a car that is in its twilight years. We've made a number of repairs (which we've chronicled in Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4) and have breathed new life into it. The car is far from perfect -- few used cars in this price range are. For instance, it has stranded us once for a lot longer than we would have liked. But we're confident we've sorted that issue out and it hasn't cropped up since.
Maybe I'm a glass-half-full person, but I am confident that our car will not only make it through the end of its one-year tenure in the long term fleet but also will have a long life well after we are done with it. Perhaps our repairs will make the process smoother for the next owner and give him a fewer things to worry about.
What do you think? Does this car have more summers in it?

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 146,576 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Fast Blinkers Part II

July 23, 2012


Once I focus on a problem, whether it's important or not, it really starts to bug me. The fast blinking signals in the 1996 Lexus ES 300 have become such a problem for me. I drove all the way across country in this car listening to the abnormally fast turn signal tick-tocking and I never got used to it. It violates a law of nature, like having your heart beat too fast.

Last week, I bought a new flasher for $12.99. But when I went to install it, I found the flasher is buried behind the fuse box and will require a major excavation to reach it.  So instead, I replaced both the front turns signal bulbs since I already had them on hand and many comments suggested this was the culprit. By the way, the comments and suggestions on Ron Montoya's post  were very helpful.

The new bulbs didn't fix the problem. So now it is on to the flasher.

Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 146,446 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Fast Blinkers

July 18, 2012

 Lexus Blinker.JPG Every used car is bound to have some sort of quirk. It's usually something wrong with the car that you never get around to fixing. On my previous car, a 1992 Honda Prelude, it was the A/C that would occasionally not blow cold until I pounded my fist on the dash. The quirk on our long term Lexus ES 300 is its fast blinkers.

Take a look at the video below to see it in action. Notice how the turn signals revert to their normal speed when the hazard lights are on.  It's been this way since we bought the car.

You're probably thinking, "It’s a burned out bulb," but that's not the case. All bulbs are working fine. See the videos below for proof.

I did some searching online and I came up with two theories. Either the flasher relay needs to be replaced or the contacts are dirty on one of the bulb sockets. I'll leave it to my DIY inclined colleagues to figure this out. In the meantime, it's just one of those quirks you deal with in an old car.

What's your theory on the fast blinkers?

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 146,374 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Oil Change and Tire Rotation

July 11, 2012

 Lexus oil change 002.jpg The oil on our long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300 hadn't been changed since Phil returned from his cross country trip.  Since we didn't have a great experience with our last mechanic, I wasn't planning on returning. I needed to find a new place. A colleague recommended an independent shop nearby, but it quoted me $165 for an oil change and a tire rotation. For reference, this was about $15 more than what we had paid at the local Lexus dealer. (Santa Monica is infamous for its high prices.) My colleague's shop might be great, but that price wasn't in the spirit of our debt-free car project.

I widened a Yelp search to take in more than just pricey Santa Monica and found a place in Culver City with more than 200 five-star reviews. I called to make an appointment, but the shop was booked until the following Monday. The car wasn't past due on the service, so we figured it would be OK to wait a week to have the service done.

I dropped off the Lexus bright and early Monday morning. Two hours later, I received a call that the car was done. The total cost was $47.95 – about $100 less than the Lexus dealership’s price.

There was one slight detail I noticed. The invoice from the shop said that it used 10W30 oil. The ES 300 owner's manual lists 5W30 as the "preferred" oil, but also shows 10W30 as an acceptable substitute. Would there be a performance decrease?

Not according to our resident oil guru, Jay Kavanagh. 5W30 is thinner oil and performs better for cold starts in colder climates, but here in California during summer, both oils should perform about the same.

All in all, I'd say it was worth the wait to save a hundred-plus bucks. I think I'll be going back to this shop in the future.

Days out of service: 0

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 146,247 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: The Rontoya Replies

July 05, 2012


The Lexus ES 300 has become the unofficial responsibility of Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Associate, Edmunds.com. Montoya has bought and sold all of our long-term test cars (including this one), and this has made him the master of all things practical about automobiles in general. He is the speaker of automotive truth -- the Rontoya.

So when anyone is about to take the key to the ES 300, they inevitably ask Montoya, "Do you think the Lexus will make it all the way to (insert name of destination)?"

Utterly practical as always, the Rontoya inevitably responds, "If it made it across the country and back -- 7,200 miles -- it will get you to (insert name of destination)."

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 146,180 miles   

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Waxing Appreciative

July 02, 2012

janice and our lexus.JPG

You meet the nicest people at the ritual bath that is our Monday morning car wash. As exec editor Michael Jordan and I were waiting for our cars to be finished up, fellow car-wash patron Janice Huntington gave our Lexus an appraising glance.

"Nice car," said Huntington, who was waiting for her Hyundai Sonata.

We explained who we were and how we'd come to buy the Lexus. Janice admired the color and let us take her photo with it before she left.

It makes me happy to know that our Lexus has fans with an eye for its enduring aesthetic.  

Carroll Lachnit, Features Editor @146,160 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Must Wear Gloves

June 30, 2012

ES300 steering wheel.jpg

At least germaphobes would need to anyway. Even I will admit the steering wheel is a bit gross the way it's falling apart, and it pains me to think about how many different hands have been grappling with it over the years.

So what do I do?

Well I don't wear gloves, that's for sure. After all, we spend our days making fun of those sissies who show up at local car gatherings with their "driving" gloves, usually in Ferraris and cars of that ilk.

No, what I do is I just try not to think about it. And I keep my hands at 9 and 3 where they belong.

Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor @ 146,012 miles.

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Front Brake Change

June 18, 2012


Here's a little secret: I installed new pads and rotors on our 1996 Lexus ES300 a few days before Phil set off on his trip.

Our car had a persistent shake and steering wheel shimmy under braking, a sign of uneven front rotors. A quick check revealed a thinnish pair of front discs that had been turned more than once already. Turning them again was not an option; new ones were in order.

The brake pads weren't necessarily on their last legs, but we decided to match new with new and swap them out, too.

From there Ron Montoya and I made two decisions in the spirit of the debt-free car project: 1) we would shop around for cheaper non-factory parts at local auto parts stores, and; 2) we would change those parts ourselves. After all, brake swaps are not terribly difficult in the grand scheme of potential DIY maintenance projects.

On the first point, Ron did very well. He paid $32 apiece for the rotors and $44 for a set of pads. Our out-the-door price with tax was $118. Later on I spent $5 for a can of high-temperature disc brake grease/quieting compound.

As for the second point, I'll post a DIY pictorial later.

For now it's enough to say our Lexus has new front brakes and the shimmy is gone. We should be good to go for another 30,000 miles or more. Best part is we got all that for less than $125.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing, installed @ 138,804 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: A Nagging Problem Fixed

June 18, 2012

Lexus Colorado.jpg 

I've been holding off writing about this because I wanted to have some resolution before I said anything. The first day of driving cross-country the check engine light came on. My approach to CELs is to see if there are any sudden new noises, weird smells, a change in performance or a drop off in fuel economy. If the answer to all these things is no, then reading the code can wait. Since none of these warning signs were present, I decided to look for the first chance to read the code but kept driving.

The next day the CEL went off. And then the following day the CEL came on again. Since it was going on and off it seemed that whatever was triggering the light was borderline.

When I reached my father's house in Barre, Mass., I used his code reader and got a code of P0401. A quick Google search showed that this was caused by the EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve. I found a wonderful little how-to about fixing the EGR valve, which showed me how to locate it on the top of the engine. I was pleased with what I found.

 A small hose was lying unconnected on top of the EGR valve (near the yellow tip of the pen I set on it). The hose may have inadvertently been knocked off when other work was done on the engine. It was a simple matter to push it back into place. I used the code reader to clear the code and, 1,500 miles later, it hasn't reappeared. And I've made it all the way to Colorado where I'm staying with my brother in the mountains above Denver.  

Wouldn't it be nice if all repairs were this easy?

Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 145,690 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Preventive Maintenance

June 11, 2012

 1996_es300_whl_lexus_lt_9999_0501121.jpg The second chapter of our Debt-Free Car Project is now live. It goes over the first service, an oil inspection, new tires and some suggested items to repair. A number of readers were curious about which tires we purchased. We bought a set of Kumho Solus KR21 for $83 each. Follow the link to read more details.

The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Props for Quick Repair

June 11, 2012


Dan Edmunds was right -- I found out how to prop open the hood of the 1996 Lexus ES 300 in a gas station in Utah. I used my Scotty Cameron putter. It provided great touch and feel. Most importantly, it gave me confidence to stick my head under the hood and check the oil and the coolant level.

I was checking the oil every other tank of gas and keeping an eye on the coolant level. However, as I was approaching my friend's house in Detroit last Thursday, I saw the temp gauge rising. My GPS showed I only had 3.4 miles left so I decided to go for it. As I rolled up out front of his house the needle was climbing. All I could think of was all the barren stretches of road where the Lexus could have overheated. Instead, it was nearly at my friend's house. Talk about great timing.

Early Friday morning, I followed my friend to a local Toyota dealership, Fox Automotive of Rochester Hills. The service advisor, encouragingly named Bradley Ernest, said they had a very full schedule and, if parts were needed it would have to have to wait until Monday. I told him I was driving cross country and needed to leave Sunday morning. I also asked him to change the oil and rotate the tires. Having done all I could, I did the only logical thing: went out and played golf.

When I got done, I had a message from Brad. I called him back anticipating a long song and dance about delays and extra charges.

Instead, Brad told me, "You're good to go."

"What do you mean?"

"It's all fixed. Come and pick it up."

When I got back to Fox, the Lexus was washed and waiting for me. Brad informed me that the hoses leading into the firewall were loose and the coolant had been leaking from there. Also, the radiator cap didn't hold pressure so they replaced it. The total bill for all items was $178. It seemed a little steep but I was rolling again and ready to stay on schedule.

Today I left Detroit, holding my breath and half suspecting that the leak would somehow reappear. But the temp gauge we level all day through 90 degree heat. Tomorrow I will be in Boston and halfway done with my trip.

Philip Reed, Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 142,056 miles

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1996 Lexus ES300: Hood Strut Fail

June 05, 2012


Jay knew it. Phil Reed probably figured it out at some gas station in Utah. The hood struts on our 1996 Lexus ES300 are one of several "little things" that have seen better days and need attention. At the moment, checking the oil is a two-person operation if you aren't in possession of a suitable sawed-off broom handle, though I suppose one could use his or her own head to prop the hood open.

This is a fairly common problem for older hoods and hatches that are held aloft by gas struts, and the solution is fairly simple to execute: buy a new pair of struts for $20 to $25 apiece at our local auto parts store and snap them in place.

I remember an el-cheapo plastic clip device I once installed onto one of the failed struts on a Honda CRX I once owned. It worked well enough holding the hatch open but did not make lifting it any easier. But the cost was more to my liking at the time, something like 5 bucks. I wonder if they still make them today.

Not even close. There isn't even a little bit of support left. Adding this to the DIY list after Phil gets back.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @Whatever Phil says miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Coast to Coast

June 04, 2012

Lexus Pacific.jpg 

Here's our 1996 Lexus ES 300 parked by the Pacific Ocean. In about a week it will be parked by the Atlantic Ocean. I'm driving across country, something I've never done before, and decided to do it in the Lexus. Of course I'll be a bit nervous after its recent "issues." But as a good friend of mine said, "By now, it's fully sorted."

I'm taking the northern route through Chicago, Detroit, and New York State to Boston. On the return trip I'll take a more southern route through Denver and back to Los Angeles.

Thinking ahead to my trip, I keep remembering the famous line from the Blue Brothers as they set out for Chicago: "We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's night and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it!"

Philip Reed, Edmunds Senior Consumer Advice Editor @ 139,602 miles

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1996 Lexus ES300: The Extended Repair

May 25, 2012

 Lexus in Tow.jpg After nearly a week of being out of commission, our long term 1996 Lexus ES300 is back in the fleet. There's a long story behind the delay, but first I want to address a couple of comments and misunderstandings.

1. A number of readers have suggested that we handle every repair on this car as a DIY project. As I mentioned in the last blog, this project is trying to duplicate what the average person might do when owning an inexpensive used car. I work for Edmunds and I even worked in the parts department of a dealership (shipping and receiving) but this doesn't mean that I am qualified to fix a car. In fact, I avoid DIY projects. I don't have the patience for it and I usually end up breaking things. In that respect, I am like the average person. I tried a quick fix, it didn't work, and then I took the car to a mechanic. That’s what most people would do. And that's what we intend to do with any future repairs.

2. We never had the chance to try out nsx603's potential fix because the blog was written days after the car was in the shop. Think of this blog as a parallel universe. Just because it was posted on the blog, doesn't mean it happened that day.

Now that we've tempered the gear heads expectations, we can move on to what actually happened. I had trouble coming up with a place to take the car to because I didn't really know of any reputable independent garages, much less one near the office. I have always taken my personal cars to the dealership. Same goes for the Edmunds fleet cars. Yes, I know you can spend less at an independent garage but this is my preference. In anycase, I remembered someone telling me about a garage a few blocks from the office. It had good reviews on Yelp, so I gave it a shot.

We brought in the Lexus on a Friday afternoon. I got a call from the mechanic that evening. The mass airflow sensor needed to be replaced and the OEM part cost $1,000. The mechanic told me he would try to find a cheaper alternative over the weekend.

I had a busy Monday and I didn't have time to check on the car. On Tuesday morning I called the mechanic. He said he called a number of places over the weekend but couldn't find anything cheaper than the $1,000 factory part. I told him I would find something myself and bring him the part. His $1K price wasn't off base. One place I called was asking $980 for a non-factory part.

It took me five minutes to Google an O'Reilly auto part shop nearby, call them, and find the part for $220 (plus a $39 core deposit, which was refunded later). The place was less than five miles away from the mechanic. I can't attest to whether the guy looked that hard or if he even tried. I ordered the part but it was not in stock. It would be delivered the following morning.

At the same time, I knew that the Lexus was leaking coolant. I had filled it with coolant to the "max" line and it had dropped to the "low" line in a week. The mechanic confirmed that it needed a new heater valve. O'Rielly was asking $40 for the part. An independent parts shop nearby had quoted me $25 over the phone. When I arrived the employee brought out a part that cost $72. I mentioned that I was quoted a different price. The man I had spoken to on the phone remembered our conversation and showed the other employee that there was a cheaper alternative. I ended up getting the part for $20.

Our imaginary debt-free driver has now been out of the car for three days and has had to borrow a buddy’s car to buy the cheaper parts. I'm subtracting one day for the day I was busy.

It was now Wednesday. I picked up the parts from both shops and took them to the mechanic. He was surprised that I found the inexpensive parts and agreed to install them both for $140.

I called the mechanic Thursday morning. He said he had finished the repairs late the prior night. I picked up the Lexus and it ran fine.

Clearly this repair took way too long and I won't be going back to that same shop. Some might argue that if it were my own car, I would be raising hell until it was fixed. That's not really my style. I'm a low key guy. Perhaps my calls may have been more frequent if it were my car, but at the end of the day this car is a work project.We're trying to duplicate the average person's experience, but we aren't beholden to it. I had a busy week at work and I attended to it when time permitted.  

Total Cost (Including sales tax): $420
Days out of service: 6

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 137,785 miles

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1996 Lexus ES300: DIY Troubleshooting

May 24, 2012

 Lexus Hood Open.jpg Our long-term Lexus ES300 left us stranded last week. Jay suspected the idle air control valve was the culprit. I ran a Google search on this and found a YouTube video that had a familiar scenario. The car in the video is a Camry, but it has the same engine as our Lexus.


Bloody knuckle aside, it seemed simple enough. And if a $4 bottle of carburetor cleaner would solve our issue, why not give it a try? The goal of our Debt-Free Car Project is to duplicate the average person's ownership experience. As such, we want to keep costs down and find alternative solutions. So we opened the hood, propped it up with our makeshift prop rod, (Yes, the car needs hood struts) and went to work.

It took Jay less than five minutes to remove the air intake hose. He sprayed the small opening in the throttle body as the video had instructed. We waited for the cleaner to dry, put the hose back on, and started the car. No go.

I was disappointed that this fix didn't work, but I'm glad we gave it a shot. Otherwise, I would have always wondered if we could have avoided a potential costly repair.

I called a tow truck and had them take the Lexus to an independent shop a few blocks away from the office. Neither Jay or I had AAA, so we had to go out of pocket on the tow. The nine mile trip cost $141.

To be concluded.

Ron Montoya, Consumer Advice Editor @ 138,780 miles

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1996 Lexus ES 300: Stranded

May 21, 2012


<sad trombone>

Tried to leave for the office on Friday in our longterm 1996 Lexus ES300 and was greeted by a general difficulty to start. Plenty of cranking power, but it took some throttle to catch and keep it running. It would die if I lifted. Never lift!

I suspected the idle air control valve and even attempted a quick DIY cleaning of it. No dice. There was no way I was going to try to limp this thing to the office in L.A. stop-and-slow traffic, so I called in for reinforcements.

My esteemed colleague Ron Montoya, cousin of Inigo, has more details and will give y'all an update in the near future.

Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor @ 146,000 miles or so.

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