When a Lexus Turns into a Lemon

2004 Lexus RX 330

A 2004 Lexus RX 330 should run forever. Especially one that’s well taken care of, undergoes regular oil changes using synthetic oil, gets its scheduled maintenance done, has just 77,000 miles on the clock and was purchased in 2008 as a certified used car with just over 30,000 miles.

The car has performed well, gone on many road trips across most of the Western United States and carried many loads of Costco groceries, football gear and horseback riding equipment. It has never let its owner down. Even amidst all the positives, the car has had certain issues and, now, they’ve reached a point where the owner wonders if she should keep the car or sell it and move on to something newer.

The car still has about $12,000 owed on the bank loan. Based on similar vehicles posted on the CarGurus used listings, this RX 330 is still worth somewhere between $14,000 and $18,000.

Here are the issues facing this RX:

The transmission occasionally shifts hard between second and third gears, or seems to stick on some downshifts. There is often a clunk in the transmission, but the dealer says this is a normal issue for this era Lexus. The front brakes were recently replaced, but there is still a shimmer of vibration on some stops, even though the rotors are in great shape. The tires need to be replaced after just 2 years, because the Lexus chrome wheels are flaking and compromising the seal between them and the tires. As a result, the tires have run up to 20 pounds low and the tread has been obliterated.

After the battery died last week and a new one was installed, the power windows and sunroof work only intermittently.

Aside from the transmission, all these issues can be addressed by pouring some money into the car.

Some research into the Lexus transmission problem has shown that there is a free computer upgrade to the transmission that a dealer can quickly perform that’s supposed to solve the issue. I’ll certainly look into that.

But if the car needs $2,000 in wheels and tires, has an unresolved brake issue and possible electrical problems, is the car worth keeping, or should it be sold for anything over the amount still due? The owner has expressed interest in downsizing to something like a FIAT 500, which would surely save a considerable amount of money.

Would you invest in keeping this Lexus or sell it now and move on?


Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Used Lexus RX 330
Used FIAT 500


  1. I’ll start with a little background. My wife and I bought the 2004 RX330 new and still own it with about 140,000 miles on it. During the first year of ownership we had issues with the sun roof, front wheel axle and transmission. All of which the dealership took care of as they were under warranty. The car performed reasonably well until 2014 when we had issues with the seal around the front headlights and the entire housing had to be replaced. That’s now part of a recall.

    As a reminder to everyone (or perhaps news to some), the 2004 RX330 was the first model to roll off the Lexus assembly line in Canada. That was the first year Toyota manufactured Lexus outside of Japan. I believe they didn’t have all of the kinks worked out of their manufacturing line and for this reason I believe these cars to be substandard Lexus products. I can’t say that we’re out of pocket for any of the defects, but it’s certainly been a major hassle.

  2. I recently purchased a 2005 Lexus rx330. The slip indicator light will come on occasionally when I am on a road with a lot of curves. The roads have been dry every time this has happened. The car will shake like the car is trying to compensate for loss of traction. Any help will be appreciated.

  3. I have this same car! I just purchased a used 04 rx330 – have read great reviews and heard they go for 300,000 miles. I got the exact same lemon but champagne colored. Started when I noticed the passenger side window and rear window only roll up and down sometimes. Then, the transmission is clunking when shifting from 2nd to 3rd gear. Dealership says its transmission failure on an rx330 with 119,000 miles. I took a loan to buy this for a 16 year old as her first car. I can’t believe that this is happening on a Lexus. I’ve driven it only a few hundred miles and I want my money back.

  4. @ Steven
    I need an SUV to run back and forth to work. I have found a 2004 RX330, very well kept not a blemish on exterior, interior is excellent,
    200,000 miles, all service records. $7900 what do you think

  5. Some cars age better than others even between the same make. For instance my father had a 2000 Camry and I had a 2000 4runner. The paint faded badly and the lights got yellow on the Camry. The 4runner has chrome bumpers so they didn’t fade. It also had glass headlights.

  6. To compare a Trailblazer with a RX330 is about the most absurd thing I have read. Check the depreciation figures on that Trailblazer and let us know what it’s worth. Meanwhile, I will keep driving my 2001 RX300 with 353K miles on it. Only mechanical item I have replaced due to being worn out is the alternator.

  7. It’s an SUV, and SUV’s are trucks.

    As for Toyota being a good truck producer, the public doesn’t agree. Especially pickup trucks, Toyota’s sales are almost non-existent when compared to GM, Ford and Chrysler.

  8. I’ve heard of this on these cars! Transmissions are terrible… They work but just aren’t smooth. How’d they get away with these in a $40k vehicle? And chrome wheels, yeah they look good for a few years but I’d never get them again.

  9. I agree with the other comment that people think Toyota is good when really it’s just expensive shit on wheels. I had a celiac I was regularly checking and servicing. I was pretty paranoid about it giving out and I was right to be. Only 170k and the pistons were knocking against the head despite precautions. Ever since Toyota starting manufacturing in Indonesia and china plants quality has gone south and price has gone north. Best buy a true nap car like a Nissan. Look up Toyota in Japan. You will be surprised but no one drives a Toyota over there at all.

  10. 1: Any used vehicle is going to have problems.
    2: “Certified” doesn’t mean its been inspected and deemed awesome, only that there is a limited warranty attached to it.
    3: $2,000 of wheels/tires is an absurd number. Check eBay for wheel/tire combinations in the $800-$1100 range. Skip the chrome.
    4: If there’s a transmission program upgrade, get it! Also, change the fluid. Forget what the factory service interval is, do it every 50k. 5: If your dealer is telling you poor transmission performance is normal, it’s only to get you to drive it until the warranty has expired. Same with the windows and other issues. Take it elsewhere.

    Bottom line: There’s no reason why a well-maintained Lexus should hit 250k reasonably trouble free. Insist the dealer fix it ASAP. Dealers can get into trouble for poor customer service so start hounding Lexus USA headquarters.

  11. “Toyota isn’t noted as a great truck producer.”
    I’m going to have to disagree there. It’s important to note that the RX330 isn’t a truck, it’s a front wheel drive car (all wheel optional) with a lift kit. But as far as Toyota trucks go I’d like to enter the Land Cruiser (up to the FZJ-80 at least), 4Runner, and Tacoma as evidence. Toyota is specifically known for their outstanding trucks!!

  12. Typical “Toyota Quality” everyone thinks these things are so great but they do not hold up well over time. The reason most people think Japanese cars are so reliable is that they trade them in every few years before the problems crop up. I have yet to see one go more than 70,000 miles without some issues. My sister thinks Camrys are great, yet her 86, bought new was a total lemon. At 60,000 miles, the head gasket blew. They had it fixed and shortly thereafter, the timing belt let go and turned the tip end of the engine to scrap metal. At this pint, the car was 5 yrs old and the body looked like swiss cheese from midwest road salt, so it was junked. My 86 Chevy El Camino is still on the road….

  13. Wow, somebody has a nine year old car with a $12,000 loan balance? Perhaps the owner should have bought a newer Chevy Trailblazer like my 2006, which was paid off many years ago. Aside from the peeling wheels, which happens with all alloy wheels exposed year after year to salt, I’ve had zero major issues and only routine maintenance and the kinds of things you expect as mileage nears 100,000. I’ve always maintained these “luxury” vehicles offer no real value for the much higher cost, and this Lexus is a good example. Underneath it’s still a Toyota, and Toyota isn’t noted as a great truck producer. I suspect the large bank balance on the Lexus has a lot to do with the bloated luxo price when new, although there’s some substance for why luxury vehicles depreciate so much. As they get old, nobody wants to get stuck with a rolling money pit that costs megabucks to maintain.

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