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2000 Suzuki Esteem

Three revelations occurred to me while testing the Suzuki Esteem station wagon.

Three revelations occurred to me while testing the Suzuki Esteem station wagon.

First, isn't it amazing what you get on cars today? I mean, this is an entry level car. Yet, for $14,695, you get an overhead cam multi-valve engine, electronic multi-point fuel injection, dual airbags, variable intermittent wipers and height adjustable front shoulder belt anchors.

When you choose a fully optioned GLX 1.8 version like my tester, the engine is upgraded to a twin cam 16-valve, you get air conditioning, alloy wheels, a four-speed electronic automatic transmission (instead of the standard five-speed manual), anti-lock brakes, power windows, locks and mirrors and an AM FM stereo cassette sound system (ours had a CD player. too). All for $19,695.

And we complain about the price of cars?

The second revelation was a reinforcement of the importance of taking a thorough test drive before committing yourself to a purchase. Because I have seldom come across a car that generated more controversy among various members of my family.

Well, not about the entire car. We all agreed that it was basically a pleasant little thing to drive.

Peppy performance, smooth revving and reasonable noise from the 1.8 L 122 hp motor.

Decent shifting from the auto box, although occasionally it was a bit harsh and prone to dithering at low speeds, when it didn't seem quite sure which ratio to choose.

Nimble handling, but the light and quick steering was almost a bit too abrupt. Decent ride, too, and it didn't deteriorate much when loaded a common problem in small wagons.

The Esteem wagon is attractive to look at, too, more so, in my view, than the sedan upon which it is based. The interesting rear side window shape and huge taillights running a close second to the Olds Alero's in acreage, are among its unique attributes.

A bit bland inside, perhaps, with acres of gray plastic. But the gauges are large and legible, the ergonomics user friendly.

Even the push-button climate controls weren't hard to figure out and fit and finish were pretty good.

I did wonder about the logic behind the power door locks.

Turning the key in either front door will lock all four doors plus the tailgate, but it will only unlock that one door. You have to reach inside for the unlock button to free the others.

I suppose this is in response to the American fear of being attacked in parking lots. Meanwhile, every time you open the car for other passengers it's a pain in the neck.

There's sufficient cargo room for the luggage of a family of five on its way to the airport for a week in Thunder Bay. With fewer people on board, the rear seat backs can be folded flat in 60/40 proportion to augment carrying capacity. A window shade removable cargo cover is standard.

So, what's the big controversy? In three words: The front seats.

I found them quite good, with better than average thigh and lateral support for a small car and nicely upholstered in what appeared to be a high quality fabric.

But my height disadvantaged family disagreed. Lady Leadfoot, my kids, even my VW Golfowning niece, said their backs got sore almost immediately. They all said the seat back was too concave, that it forced their shoulders to hunch, that the head restraint

forced their necks forward.

This was generally at odds with our experience in Japanese cars, which tend to fit smaller people better.

Lady Leadfoot took to using her Obus Forme backrest, which did the trick.

The third revelation came first, actually, when Mike Kurnik, advertising manager for Suzuki Canada, told me a couple of months ago that Suzuki has had trouble keeping these cars in stock. "Our first shipment from Japan was gone almost immediately and the orders keep pouring in," he said with no small degree of joy.

This suggests to me that small station wagons are finally beginning to get their due. Small cars have so many advantages they are cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, more entertaining to drive, easier to park, vastly kinder to our natural resources,

less threatening to other road users.

Their one drawback is lack of space. Tack a wagon body onto a small sedan platform and, presto, that problem disappears.

Since North Americans, those south of the border in particular, seem loath to buy hatchbacks, the small wagon seems the perfect answer.

Now that Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Saab have joined Volvo in the upscale wagon business, it even appears that some of the sporty lifestyle image that wagons have in Europe is beginning to migrate across the pond and some of that inevitably rubs off onto smaller, less expensive wagons, too.

The shopping cart image of wood grain clad Ford Ranch Wagons of the '50s and the soccer Mom image of today's minivans don't seem to have tainted the smaller wagons.

With Hyundai Elantra, Saturn, Daewoo Nubira and Ford Escort (to be replaced later this fall with the hot new Focus) all working this side of the street now, more smart shoppers are beginning to move toward this most logical alternative to the Stupid Useless Vehicles that continue to be night our byways.

And you know that makes them a big hit with me.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with an Esteem provided by Suzuki Canada.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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