1998 Suzuki Esteem
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
Small station wagons make a lot of sense: you get the
undeniable advantages of a small car — fuel economy,
parkability, nimbleness — while the major drawback, lack of
space inside, is largely alleviated.
But logic doesn't have a lot to do with the new car (or,
especially, truck) market these days. As a result, only a
handful of carmakers even those who specialize in small cars
offer a wagon. The selection is pretty much limited to the Ford
Escort, Hyundai Elantra, and Saturn.
Add to this list the Suzuki Esteem wagon, which shares
platform, mechanical bits and most of the bodywork with the
Wagons don't score high on the image scale; I guess
practicality isn't sexy. Yet I find the Esteem wagon more
characterful than its sedan sister, which practically defines
In any wagon there's only so much a stylist can do with
fitting a box over the trunk. But Suzuki has added about 150 mm
in overall length wisely, giving the wagon better proportions
than the truncated sedan.
Using what the company calls "hidden rear pillar"
construction, it's added some flair to the side window treatment
by visually wrapping it around to the tailgate glass. The huge
taillights and ducktail roof-extension spoiler (on
range-topping GLX models only) add extra personality.
Practicality is covered off by a reasonably sized cargo area.
The strut towers for the rear suspension intrude somewhat. You
won't fit 4×8-foot sheets of plywood here, but you can hardly
expect more from a little wagon.
A window-shade cover at windowsill height, four tie-down
hooks to keep your stuff from sliding all over the place (bungee
cords not included) and a recessed handle on the bottom edge of
the one-piece liftup tailgate — so you can close it without
getting road grunge all over your hands — are all nice touches
for an inexpensive car.
The rear seatback is a 60/40 splitfolding affair. When either
or both sides are down, the floor is flat without the need to
also tip the seat cushion forward. This reduces load height, but
is more convenient to use.
Often, seats like these have ultra-thin padding, but Esteem's
are comfortable and offer decent leg and headroom for adults.
The convex body sides provide added elbow space, giving the car
an airier feel than its modest dimensions would suggest.
In front, Esteem's seats have better longer seat cushions than
most, and they feel firm yet well padded, at least to my back.
The upholstery in my GLX was a durable-looking cloth, with a
handsome multi-coloured pattern that brightens the interior
The hard plastics — mostly in medium gray — don't look to be
of quite as high quality, but this is a low-priced car, after
all. Fit and finish on my tester were very good.
The instrument panel is attractive, although the gauges are on
the small side. The rear window wiper/washer push buttons might
make more sense on the same (right) side of the steering column
as the front wiper stalk. Push-buttons and slide levers abound
for the heating and ventilation controls, which are not as easy
to work on the road as round dial-type knobs.
The radio may be a Blaupunkt, but it comes from the old
Japanese file-your-fingers-to-a-point teeny-weeny button school
of design. This is too bad, as I thought the industry had moved
beyond this. (Hey, Suzuki, give the Delcosales rep a call.)
Dual air bags are standard on Esteem, and Suzuki has found a
way to include a good-sized glovebox — a feat many carmakers
still haven't figured out.
The Esteem wagon is mechanically identical to the sedan: a
1.6-litre single overhead-camshaft 16-valve four-cylinder
generates 95 hp at 6,000 rpm and 99 lb.ft. of torque at a low
"Peppy" is a word often drawn from the
damning-with-faint-praise thesaurus, but it fits here.
Eager throttle response tends to obscure the fact that this
car isn't really very quick. But as long as you don't carry a
stopwatch around with you, you won't often feel undergunned.
The four does get noisy when revved hard, as you'll have to do
to make vigorous headway — but it settles down at cruising
speeds to a distant thrum.
A 100 km/h speed limit translates into about 2,950 rpm not
exactly loafing along, but acceptable from a noise perspective.
Fuel consumption is rated by Transport Canada at 8.1/8.4 L/100
km (manual/automatic) in the city, 6.0/6.2 on the highway, so
don't plan on a meaningful relationship with the clerk at the
The automatic transmission standard on GLX, optional on GL
is a four-speed, with a thumb button on the floor-mounted shift
lever to lock out overdrive-fourth. Shift quality is about
mid-pack, which will inspire neither paeans of praise nor letters
Handling is typical front-wheel-drive benign. The steering is
light, the car easy to manoeuvre.
Get into a corner too fast, and the nose will plow. Lift off,
and the back end will come around, but not too abruptly.
Suzuki typically doesn't scrimp on tires, and all Esteem
wagons come with sizeable 185/60R14 Bridgestone skins, which
provide good grip even in wet weather.
One of the car's weak points — weak headlights — was
illustrated by the mostly-lousy weather of my test period. They
are halogens, but that doesn't necessarily prove anything these
Ride quality is okay as long as the road surface isn't too
bad. Sharp dips cause the front struts to "top out," (the same
as "bottoming out," but in the opposite direction) which
assaults the ,1,0 ears as much as the backside.
Honda's Civic has a much more sophisticated suspension that
delivers a better ride on a wider variety of road surfaces. But
then, Civic doesn't offer a wagon, and if it did, it wouldn't
come in anywhere near Esteem's price.
Speaking of which, Suzuki Canada is putting its Esteemable
eggs in a well-filled basket. Mike Kurnik, the company's
national advertising manager, says, "This wagon is loaded even
when it's empty."
Dual air bags, power steering, AM/FM stereo cassette
four-speaker sound system, cup holders, digital clock, rear
wiper/washer, variable intermittent wipers, full cargo area
carpeting and even the roof rack are standard even on the base
GL, which lists for an amazing $14,495. Add a grand for the
The GLX adds automatic, power locks, windows and mirrors, air
conditioning and alloy wheels, for just $18,095.
While the Esteem sedan is in tough against a host of excellent
little sedans, the Esteem wagon is a stronger contender in
both absolute and relative senses.
Its appeal is best illustrated by the fact that it has been on
back-order for much of the latter part of 1997. Kurnik agrees
it's great to have a car everybody wants, but if you can't
deliver one, the customer won't wait forever.
New shipments are coming in from Japan as you read this, so if
the logic of a small wagon appeals to you as it does to me, you
may want to visit your local Suzuki store as soon as you recover
from New Year's Eve.
By the way, Happy New Year to all Wheels readers. Freelance
journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving
experiences with an Esteem provided by Suzuki Canada. You can
catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.