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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

sedan.

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

blandness.

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

nicely.

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

3,000 rpm.

"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

local self-serve.

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

of complaint.

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

days.

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

autobox.

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.

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