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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Bitgy
Bitgy
8 months ago

We have a 04 Passat that looks just like that but 4Motion. Recently my average mpg meter has started resetting it’s self every time you shut if off also the heated seat doesn’t work but then will kick on all of a sudden same with the cruise control. Besides brakes, coil packs, timing belt and CV axles I have not done anything to it in the 17 years we have owned it. Oh and the flex joint in the exhaust. Oh and my buddy was a VW/Audi tech so just dumped coil packs on me when people changed all 4.

Goblin
Goblin
8 months ago

Why was this even made into a question ?
Can we try “Hersheys puke special or Lindt” next ?

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
8 months ago

The Lexus is an easy choice here… unless it’s a flood car, it will be reliable and durable.

Myk El
Myk El
8 months ago

I see most people voted with their heads this time.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago

My problem with anything German is they designed on theory, produce on optimism, improve on the fly, and introduce new theoretical improvements before they fix the problems from the prior design. I think they hired released Saab designers with out the SAAB accountants.
So yes I would be fine with the Toyota with no Toyota tax.

Last edited 8 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
8 months ago

Lexus 100%. I have personally seen the longevity the ES330 offers, with a close friend having one make it just under 340,000 before the engine gave up due to said friend driving the car without coolant after a coolant line split. The friend sold car with a dead engine for a tidy sum because the rest of the car didn’t look like it had more than 100k on it – and it was an upper-Midwest car it’s entire life. The ES330 is a bit dull to drive, but it’s solid in all the ways the VW is not.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
8 months ago

Since I am free of Mercedes Streeter’s obsession with unreliable VWs, the Lexus since it would be a massive upgrade from our current great white whale of a Buick LeSabre.

Church
Church
8 months ago

These results surprise (almost) no one.

Cerberus
Cerberus
8 months ago

They are both boring AF unless “excitement” is worrying about when and where the next catastrophic breakdown will leave you stranded. Had friends with these era POS VWs and Audis. One of which had three of them so that he could keep one running at any given time. I have never understood the fascination. To me, they are utter and complete trash that offer absolutely nothing in the way of looks (certainly not ugly, but they’re bland), character, or driving experience in compensation. I personally knew of about a half dozen engine failures before 50k and many other ridiculously expensive and premature failures for simple things, like an alternator. Then there was the electrical system that Torch might as well have thrown together with whatever substandard wiring and connectors not rated for the heat of the application they were used for that he had on hand in his garage. I’m not sure I ever saw one over 6 months old with all its lights working.

Lexus is ugly and boring, but shouldn’t break down and will be cheaper and much more DIY friendly to fix when it does. Don’t have personal experience with this particular generation, but my ex has the succeeding generation of the ES300 and it feels like a much better car than the Camry it’s based on, so much so that I wouldn’t guess they were essentially the same thing and I had the same generation Camry (thankfully for only a few months).

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago
Reply to  Cerberus

In my newspaper days I had a friend who delivered newspapers in a VW Wagon. He was a great mechanic but he had 3 wagons or more at any given time. I salute you Lee!

Temple Of Toyoda
Temple Of Toyoda
8 months ago
Reply to  Cerberus

2002 b5.5 v6 5spd wagon, glx trim, everything I wanted in a car, leather, fwd, manual, long roof, an engine replacement and ~$600 every 2 months from 160k-200k with honest mechanics. I drive a 2002 Lexus LS430 now. Change oil, bought snow tires, job done.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
8 months ago

That ES is a screaming deal. I’ll take it.

Like everyone else here agrees, that era of VW’s were truly great designs. But man, there’s an awfully high probability that you’d be better off setting your cash on fire than bringing a Passat home. It’s just going to disappoint you.

If the Passat was a 4-motion wagon in that condition though, I’d probably go for it, blood pressure be damned.

Isis
Isis
8 months ago

Spend a couple hundred bucks on brand new headlights and enjoy the miles for a decade. Lexus no question.

Scott Ashley
Scott Ashley
8 months ago

The ex bought a Passat post divorce and I was glad that I didn’t have to deal with maintenance and repair issues. Predictably the timing belt broke in a year or so and she was without a car.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago
Reply to  Scott Ashley

If you buy the Passat and drive it home plan your trip by VW Dealers like an EV and chargers.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
8 months ago

This generation was peek VW styling, but bottom of the sea reliability. Such a disappointment.

As for the timing belt on the 1.8T, it would always outlast the stupid water pump, so should be getting replaced long before it’s service life ends. The coil packs were a nuisance, but my mechanic just bought them in bulk. Never had any oil sludge issues, but I only fed mine the good stuff. Regularly.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago

I love the arguments about failure due to upkeep in maintaining the vehicles without measuring the required maintenence. When a VW requires Ferrari level maintenance it isn’t maintenance it is money pit.

Mike B
Mike B
8 months ago

I always liked those Passat’s when new, and that Lex is my least favorite Lexus model.

That said, I’m going with the Lex. At 130-ish K it’s not even at its half-life yet, meanwhile I wouldn’t trust the Dub as far as I could throw it.

Shoot, I actually wish the Lex were closer, I want a comfy commuter that I don’t have too much too.

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
8 months ago

I mean, I drove a 2004 Passat for 15 years, and only got rid of it because the front axle broke. The automatic would bum me out, but otherwise this is an easy choice for me. That Lexus would make me sad just walking past it.

And, for the record: yes, they had to do the sludge rebuild, and the electronics failed during the warranty period. But other than that, the car was essentially trouble-free for over 120k miles—the obligatory check engine light was on for the oxygen sensor, but it was always able to pass its emission test in PA. Speaking of which, the thing lived its entire life outdoors in a snowy city, but the axle was the only casualty: no rust on the rockers, intact interior, etc.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

You must be from Philly? People getting shot everyday and yet wonderful place to die oops live. I would not dump a good car for a broken front axle. That is a driver fault not car fault. And a lot cheaper than new car payments.

Ricki
Ricki
8 months ago

Lexus all day long. There’s a lot to be said for comfort an reliability when it comes to sedans.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
8 months ago

I already DD a boring reliable car (2004 Impala 3.8L) that allows me to own stuff even more unreliable than that Passat (like an 86 Vanagon.) But the fun car should at least have a manual transmission so I’m not sure what to pick here.

GertVAG
GertVAG
8 months ago

As I said on the article of Mercedes her fourth Passat: I love the handling of my B5’s (it was said to be inspired by the Focus MK1 and it shows) and here in Europe, my Passats were always dead reliable (1.9 TDI examples though). A true highway cruiser too. Passat for me and a smart maintenance schedule will bring us far.

Rich Hobbs
Rich Hobbs
8 months ago

No contest! A Toyota product with only 135k miles? Sign me up. Had an Es300 for a while. Great car..smooth, spunky, and it had 200k on it! With maintenance and care a 300k mile car. The VW nothing but a money pit. And I speak from experience. Ran a full service auto shop and the Mil was always coming on in the stupid VWs. I kept a couple of the coolant temp sensors in my desk drawer. The green one? Always going out. Tip. Polish out the headlites with mag wheel polish. Seal with a good carnauba wax or tape off and spray clear on them. I wish many happy miles of motoring…therefore you don’t want a VW.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
8 months ago

They’re both boring, handling dynamics is only 1 part of what makes a car exciting and the VW doesn’t have any of the other parts.
At this point they are both just transport, so get the Lexus.

Brandt S
Brandt S
8 months ago

I would run like hell from that Passat because it will cost you at least as much per year to keep it on the road. These were great cars when they were under warranty. I had one and kept it WAY too long (11 years) from new. I finally jettisoned it when it was costing about $2k annually on necessary repairs – and I didn’t even start trying to get the electrical gremlins sorted out.

Those early 1.8t engines were oil sludge nightmares and will die if you don’t use synthetic oil and change it OFTEN. Plus the turbo lag on these things will kill you in an intersection. I loved mine but succumbed to stockholm syndrome and it became a money pit.

SAABstory
SAABstory
8 months ago

Every time there’s a showdown I ask myself which car is the most like setting a barrel of money on fire. Sometimes it’s close. This isn’t. That VW is like setting your money on fire, then following it up with throwing more money into the barrel. When will you throw that extra money in the barrel? It varies, but you will. Oh, you will.

Dug Deep
Dug Deep
8 months ago

Boring, reliable cars are like daughter’s boring, reliable boyfriends. Easy choice.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

Highfalutin Toyota it is today. Save my headache money for something more distinctive and fun to drive.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
8 months ago

The Super Camry is boring AF, but this Passat doesn’t provide any reason to buy it instead beyond a $700 discount that will almost certainly go back into the car soon. Excitement is overrated when you need to get to work in the morning. For an enthusiast, the Camry Deluxe would also serve as a fine daily whenever your fun car(s) are out of service.

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