Home » The Time Bomb And The Snooze-Fest: 2004 VW Passat vs 2005 Lexus ES330

The Time Bomb And The Snooze-Fest: 2004 VW Passat vs 2005 Lexus ES330

Sbsd 11 6 2023
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Good morning! It’s cold and rainy here in the Pacific Northwest, so for today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re heading to sunny San Diego, California, to look at a pair of sedans. They’re both in beautiful shape now, but one has a reputation for breaking its owners’ hearts (and bank accounts), while the other one just chugs along, mile after coma-inducing mile.

But before we can do that, we should finish up Friday’s festival of speed. I regaled you all with a tale of illicit speed from my younger days, and offered up two cars capable of besting that speed. I meant to ask you all to share your own tales of triple-digit tomfoolery, but I apparently didn’t need to; many of you included your own tales of speed in the comments, which were fun to read.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

In the end, the striped Dodge won, based largely on the Corvette offering too little for too much. I still want a Corvette someday, I think, and the C5 seems like a “sweet spot” between the old thrashy ones and the increasingly-clinical newer models, but I agree: Twenty grand for that car is just too much. Besides, how can you say no to a Hemi with a stick?

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Now then: When a car model is new, we have no way of knowing for sure how reliable it’s going to be. You can make some generalizations: Toyotas and Hondas are usually safe bets, Minis will cause you some heartache but be so much fun to drive you’ll put up with it, and so on. But you can’t know for sure until some more time has passed and some more miles are accumulated. Twenty years down the line, however, the picture is a lot clearer. At that age, a car’s reputation precedes it, and certain problems become a matter not of if they will happen, but when.

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Today we have a pair of sedans, close in size, price, and mileage, both in quite nice condition. One of them is a shining beacon of reliability and durability, but it has all the driving dynamics of a Sleep Number bed. The other is a fine road machine, reponsive and joyful to drive, but its reliability reputation can best be described as “Do you feel lucky, punk?” The choice is yours.

2004 Volkswagen Passat – $3,300

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed automatic, FWD

Location: San Diego, CA

Odometer reading: 130,000 miles

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Runs/drives? Yep

I’m so disappointed in this car. I’m a VW/Audi fan from way back, and I really liked the B5-generation Passat and its cousin the Audi A4 when they were first introduced. I couldn’t afford one back then, but I thought they might make good used cars one day. The ensuing twenty years have not shown this to be the case. There are those who love these cars, and try time after time to make them work, but from what I can tell, doing so is as futile as trying to kick a football held by Lucy Van Pelt.

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What is it that brings these lovely, pleasant-to-drive cars to their knees? It’s not just one thing, sadly. Some cars have an Achilles heel, but this one adds a trick knee, a bad hip, sciatica, and a shoulder that likes to pop out of its socket. This car is powered by the 1.8T engine, a twincam inline four with five valves per cylinder and a turbocharger. Its possible problems include ignition coil pack failure, water pump failure (plastic, like some BMWs with similar failures – what on Earth were they thinking?), timing belt failures (admittedly mostly due to neglect), and oil sludge. Yes, despite the fact that we’ve been baking engine components in dead dinosaur gravy for more than a century, we still apparently sometimes don’t get the recipe right.

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This Passat allegedly has none of those issues. In the seller’s own words, it “cannot run any better.” I presume this means it runs perfectly, but it’s a strange way to phrase it. Everything works flawlessly, they say, and at the moment, this car needs nothing but fuel.

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But on the subject of fuel… There is one troubling sign in the photos: a shot of the dash showing the trip computer displaying an average of eight miles per gallon. Now, according to G Love, “that’s some highway sailin’,” but I don’t think he meant in a Passat. I can’t imagine having a heavy enough foot to use that much fuel in this car. It’s probably inaccurate, and there’s probably an explanation, but you have to admit it’s a bad look.

2005 Lexus ES330 – $3,998

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.3 liter dual overhead cam V6, five-speed automatic, FWD

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Location: Spring Valley, CA

Odometer reading: 135,000 miles

Runs/drives? Of course

The Lexus ES is sort of an also-ran in Lexus’s lineup. It has never really been much more than an extra-fancy Camry. Originally cobbled together from a Japanese-market Camry variant just so Lexus could have a second model in showrooms alongside the mighty LS400, the ES250 felt half-assed. Later ES generations managed to differentiate themselves a bit more from their Camry roots, but the only real reason to buy an ES over a top-of-the-line Camry was the badge on the grille.

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That’s not to say that the ES isn’t a really nice car, because it is. I have a small amount of experience with the ES330; my mother-in-law had one for a while, and I drove it once or twice. It is a toweringly dull car to drive, with numb handling and a transmission that can’t be bothered to kick down ever, but it is extremely comfortable, very quiet, and feels like it’s machined from a solid piece of steel.

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This one, despite the misfortune of being painted white, looks really good for its age. It has only 135,000 miles on the clock, a mileage at which it’s just hitting its stride, and it should have a good decade of life to give. The headlights are a bit cloudy, but other than that, I’m having trouble finding fault with it. If you had four grand to spend on a used car, you really couldn’t do much better. I mean, as long as you’re not looking for something fun to drive.

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But then again, for daily use, “fun” is overrated. Comfort, competence, and reliability matter a lot more. This car has great seats, probably a better-than-acceptable stereo (with a cassette deck!), good AC for when it’s too hot, strong heat for when it’s too cold, and a nice big sunroof for when it’s just right. If you want handling, get a Miata to play with on the weekends.

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Reliable cars are wonderful things. Being able to count on getting where you’re going, and back again, is really the bare minimum we should expect from a car. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and anybody who loves cars has fallen for a zippy engine or razor-sharp handling or turn-back-and-stare-at-it styling, overlooking any number of faults in the process. Sometimes we just can’t do boring, no matter how much sense it makes. So what about you, Autopians? Are you smitten by the high-tech but fragile Volkswagen, or would you rather play it safe with the tried-and-true Lexus?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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DDayJ
DDayJ
8 months ago

I owned a B5 A4 1.8T for many years. I got rid of my B5 A4 1.8T right around this mileage. I have not even considered the purchase of another VW/Audi product since getting rid of my B5 A4 1.8T.

Since then I’ve owned multiple BMWs, because I hate money, and I still won’t touch a VW/Audi. I didn’t know you could replace that many suspension components and window regulators on a single car.

Jeff Wood
Jeff Wood
8 months ago

Having nursed a B5 to 200+k miles with the same drivetrain, I will take anything but a B5….

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
8 months ago

Gray and rainy in the PNW?!? Somebody call the news! It’s a day ending with y!!

Given how reliable that forecast is for that part of the country, I’ll also pick the reliable Lexus.

Nsane In The MembraNe
Nsane In The MembraNe
8 months ago

The ES has always kind of struck me as the poser Lexus to be honest. It’s always been a gussied up Camry and it always will be…and neither the Camry nor the ES have anything at all to offer people who enjoy driving. They’re appliances through and through and they’ve never tried to be anything else.

Hell I’d have a really hard time picking a modern ES over pretty much any competitor…particularly the 3 series, which remains a joy to drive even in 2023. The reliability is a big selling point, as is the comfort, as is the fact that there’s a hybrid on offer…which is conspicuously absent in many of the other offerings.

But I simply cannot sacrifice all joy in my daily driver. Honestly sometimes a fun drive home from work on a weeknight is one of the only joys I get during the work week. All this being said…of fucking course I’ll take a used Lexus over a used 21st century VW product. That’s like asking me if I’d rather have a steak from one of the best places in town or go to Arby’s with a $5 budget.

There’s really no comparison unless you’re a masochist or in it for the memes.

Last edited 8 months ago by Nsane In The MembraNe
IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
8 months ago

The first gen ES was even more of a phone in job than this one. The bodywork was almost identical, so they painted the lower panels grey and called it good enough. It came with gold badges, but you could also order the Camry with gold badges so even that was nothing special.

Last edited 8 months ago by IRegertNothing, Esq.
Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
8 months ago

Lexus because I don’t need more drama in life.

Tbird
Tbird
8 months ago

You speak truth about the Lexus/Camry/Avalon. Can be duller than dishwater but will ALWAYS get you there.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
8 months ago

I am going with the Lexus. I have driven an ES330 on a few occasions and found them comfortable and pleasant to drive. I am not a fast driver, so I don’t place a lot of value on performance. I also like cars that have somewhat plain styling, and an older ES330 certainly qualifies as plain. I don’t need a cheap sedan, but if I did, I would have a look at an ES330.

Last edited 8 months ago by Stig's Cousin
Usernametaken
Usernametaken
8 months ago

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Lexus

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
8 months ago

Is this supposed to be a hard choice? Most of us are not afflicted with the same burdens as Mercedes when it comes to terrible old VWs.

A. Barth
A. Barth
8 months ago

Lexus, please!

The pictures strategically do not show the outboard bolster of the driver’s seat, so I assume it is in bad shape (mostly expected after almost 20 years), but the rest of the car looks very good. Clean up the headlights and bask in the vanilla-ness for next 200,000+ miles. The initial purchase price is slightly higher but the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is likely to be much, much lower than the VW’s.

Lexus: It’s better than walking.

Alexk98
Alexk98
8 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

You’d be surprised how well this era Lexus interior wears, I’ve seen a couple of 200k+ mile GS300s from the same era that look showroom floor new inside, even on the outer seats, and run like new too. These cars are absolute tanks and while a GS would be an awful lot more interesting than an ES, the build quality is identical.

A. Barth
A. Barth
8 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

That’s good to know – thank you!

Alexk98
Alexk98
8 months ago

The Lexus, because I’d rather be marginally more bored but significantly less poor and more comfortable over the lifetime of ownership

Clark B
Clark B
8 months ago

My ex drives a 2005 Passat wagon with the 1.8t engine. He’s had it since 2012 when we picked it out for him. He told me that it hit 200k miles this year, with minimal issues in the six years since we split. I put a LOT of work into that car that helped it get there, but I absolutely loved how it drove and the design has aged well in my opinion. A Stage 1 tune really wakes up that 1.8t as well.

I would not recommend the Passat to literally anyone else, but I’d roll the dice on it. The average fuel economy at 8mpg is likely from a recent reset of the fuel economy monitor, with only a short amount of run time afterwards, possibly only at idle.

AustinAmbassadorYreg
AustinAmbassadorYreg
8 months ago

Owned a B5.5 with that engine and trans combo, it really was a great car to drive and the wagon was very practical. Oil sludge isn’t an issue with regular synthetic changes and a larger Mann filter. Keeping an extra coil pack or two around can fix that problem in short order when one goes out. I didn’t have any issues with the water pump…..Still went with the Lexus.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

I think it would be a lot easier (and cheaper) to make that Lexus as engaging as the Passat than to make that Passat at as reliable as that Lexus.

Lexus all the way.

05Mil Machine
05Mil Machine
8 months ago

I would rather be bored in my Lexus on my way to work than excited about how broken my VW is on my way to the parts store in an Uber….

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
8 months ago
Reply to  05Mil Machine

This. And you said it better than I would have

V10omous
V10omous
8 months ago

But the heart wants what the heart wants, and anybody who loves cars has fallen for a zippy engine or razor-sharp handling or turn-back-and-stare-at-it styling, overlooking any number of faults in the process

OK, I agree, but the alternative to the Lexus is a bland-looking FWD automatic VW sedan, not a Miata or a Mustang or something.

Hell, the Lexus at least has six cylinders. I’m ready to declare it the more exciting car, let alone the more reliable one.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
8 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Exactly. Handsome as it is, the reason the Passat has aged so well is because it was somewhat bland to begin with. At least with the Lexus, I can justify that dodgy project I always wanted because I’ve got a rock-solid commuter.

CatMan
CatMan
8 months ago

In the seller’s own words, it “cannot run any better.”  The Glass-Half-Empty personality of mine reads this as, Something is definitely wrong with it and it can’t be fixed.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
8 months ago
Reply to  CatMan

I read that the same way. “Well, it runs as good as it’s gonna run considering xyz”. Haha.

A. Barth
A. Barth
8 months ago
Reply to  CatMan

I see it as one of those truthful-yet-intentionally-vague comments that can be read two very different ways, like when someone says about an employee “You would be lucky to get him to work for you!”

Interpretation 1: this is a great employee and hiring him would be a real win

Interpretation 2: this employee does absolutely nothing, and if he ever did accidentally do some work it would be a minor miracle

Uncle Cholmondeley
Uncle Cholmondeley
8 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Exactly! Other possibilities:

  • “I cannot recommend him highly enough!”
  • “No one is more qualified than he is!”
DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
8 months ago
Reply to  CatMan

Yup,”Cannot run any better (and believe me, I’ve tried!)”

D-dub
D-dub
8 months ago

Nobody buys a 20 year old 4-door sedan because they’re looking for engaging driving dynamics. Take the Lexus.

Richard O
Richard O
8 months ago

Having been the owner of a B5 in the form of an Audi A4 Avant Quattro 1.8t, I can say with a modicum of knowledge to run away from the VW. Lexus all the way.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
8 months ago

Toyota > VW any day

The Lexus wins by default

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
8 months ago

I’m feeling lucky. Passat, please.

The B5 Passat’s design has aged exceedingly well, and this one looks pretty flawless (cosmetically, anyway). Assuming that both cars probably need timing belt/water pump service, I’d rather take the VW than the blobby Del Boca Vista-spec Lexus.

Zelda Bumperthumper
Zelda Bumperthumper
8 months ago

The Lexus ad proudly states it has “FLESH OIL”, which sounds like something I’d like to avoid, so the VW wins by default.

D-dub
D-dub
8 months ago

It puts the lotion on its skin or it get VeeDub again.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
8 months ago

Easiest one in a while and I have a soft spot for VW/Audi. This Passat just isn’t that much of a step up in driving dynamics over the Lexus, plus none of that means anything if it’s just sitting in the driveway broken down. If the Passat were stick shift, I might have to think about it more, but probably not. I will get where I need to go whenever I need to be there and do it very comfortably in the Lexus.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago
Reply to  FloridaNative

If it were the 2.5 5 cylinder, which is pretty close on power to the TSI, I might go VW, but honestly I don’t consider the Lexus snooze worthy. heck of a lot of reliable miles left on that thing for the price.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
8 months ago

This Passat would be perfect with a manual transmission, and that’s one less weak point to worry about.
But the Lexus has a time bomb of it’s own. Has the timing belt been changed? I gotta know that first.
If it hasn’t, and the Passat’s service records are extensive, that might tilt the balance.

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
8 months ago

I like my veedubs, but this one isn’t particularly cool. There’s no reason not to choose the Lexus. It’s one 3M headlight restoration kit away from being perfect.

Goof
Goof
8 months ago

This.

Despite my affinity for hardcore toys, folks are always surprised when my recommendations almost always start with Lexus. Then they buy it, and immediately understand.

This is a commuting conveyance, not a weekend car. You want it to be reliable, durable, predictable, safe enough, hold what it needs to, and cheap to run overall.

It is extremely hard to beat Lexus there.

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