2000 Suzuki Esteem GLX Sport
Review by AARON GOLD
Cars are rated one (forget it) to four ('bout as good as it gets) James Deans
5-speed is difficult to drive smoothly
Lack of brand image
Style: compact sedan
Engine: 1.8-liter inline four
Transmission: five-speed manual
Horsepower: 122 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 117 ft-lbs @ 3,500 rpm
EPA mileage: 28 city/35 highway
Weight: 2,249 lb.
Base price: $13,899
Price as tested: $14,949
First, the bottom line
Several of you who are reading this will buy a Suzuki Esteem. And of those who do, at least one - maybe more, with any luck - will swear it's the best car they have ever owned. Despite the fact that I gave the car two out of four James Deans, I'd be hard pressed to argue with you.
My job is not just to review the car itself - I have to consider the car in the context of the market. The Esteem is not without merit. It's well-built, efficient, and a surprisingly capable performer when pressed. It's available as a wagon, and it's actually quite a sensible buy in that less-crowded segment. But as a sedan, the four-door Esteem has nothing to make it stand out. Anonymous styling, a dated interior, and a goofy name don't help matters much. (The name could have been worse - in Europe, it's called the Baleno!)
The Esteem has all the passive-safety basics: dual depowered front airbags, crumple zones, height-adjustable front seat belts, and side door beams. But more advanced safety hardware - items like side airbags and three-point seatbelts for the center rear seat - are starting to trickle down to the compacts, and the Suzuki ain't got 'em.
But, like I always say, it's better to avoid an accident in the first place.
Daytime running lights come standard on the Esteem, though many people would argue their usefulness. Few would debate the Esteem's handling as an important safety feature. Most small cars are nimble, but the Esteem is exceptionally well-mannered, and responds quickly and predictably in emergency maneuvers.
Antilock brakes are available only on the top-of-the-line GLX+. But - wait a second - the Sport package only comes on the GLX. In other words, the sportiest Esteem isn't available with antilock brakes. Whoops!
It's the Esteem Sport. You expect sporty handling. Right, sport?
As is too often the case, the $600 "Sport Package" is an appearance group, consisting of black paint, fog lights and a rear spoiler which, mercifully, distracts from the gawky taillamps.
The good news is that, sport or no sport, the Esteem is actually an impressive performer. GLX and GLX+ versions get (relatively) wide 195/55SR15 tires; the entry-level GL gets 185/60SR14's - a definite improvement over the skinny donuts with which so many econoboxes are shod.
The result is impressive cornering grip that far exceeds what you'd expect from such a humble car. And when the tires do let go, the results are predictable - a bit of understeer (front end running wide) and no surprises.
The steering is remarkably precise, with just-right heft. The Esteem's biggest fault shows when you hit a mid-corner bump, and the Esteem jumps sharply to the outside.
This year, the Esteem's 1.6 liter engine is supplemented by a new 1.8 liter 16-valver good for 122HP at 6,300 RPM and 117 ft-lbs of torque (pulling power) at a reasonable 3,500 RPM. Those are decent numbers, comparable to Mazda's sporty ProtÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ© ES.
But how is it in the real world? Rather good, actually, provided you keep the revs up. Like many 16-valvers, the Esteem's 1.8 is not at its best right off the line, but things start looking up as you approach 3,000 RPM. Peak torque comes at 3,500, but the engine pulls consistently through the mid and upper rev ranges. The engine is loud, though the note is not entirely unpleasant, and those who brave the noise will be generously rewarded - at high revs, the Esteem really comes alive. With lofty EPA figures of 28 MPG city and 35 MPG highway for the 5-speed, I wouldn't worry much about the financial consequences of letting the Esteem run.
Also worthy of commendation is the 5-speed manual's shift linkage. With its precise feel, slick action and well-placed throws, rowing through the Esteem's gears is a pleasure. The clutch is light, but it grabs hard, and as a result it can be difficult to drive the Esteem smoothly.
For those who prefer two pedals to three, a four-speed automatic is a $1,000 option on the Esteem GL and the GLX, and standard on the GLX+. It's a bit pokey from a standstill - as are most four-cylinder cars with automatic transmissions - but like the 5-speed version, performance increases as the revs rise, and the Esteem's auto box does a great job keeping the engine in its powerband. Goose the accelerator, it's quick to respond with a downshift. Yet the mileage penalty is slim - just two miles per gallon lower than the 5-speed, with EPA numbers of 26 city and 33 highway.
In terms of actual physical comfort, the Esteem makes the grade. The seats are supportive and the driving position is decent enough - for me, at least. Neither the steering wheel nor the driver's seat are height adjustable, so those of you who are not 5'6" and relatively thin like I am might disagree.
But comfort goes beyond our backs and our butts. It extends to the way the interior feels, and that's the Esteem's weak point. Inside, it just feels dated, with a squared-off dash and old-fashioned sliders on the air conditioner. The dashboard and center console are made of shiny, cheap-looking plastic. Even the steering wheel looks dull.
One doesn't expect much room in the back seat of a compact sedan, though several cars offer a surprising amount of room back there. The Esteem isn't one of them.
Let's talk pricing: Esteems start out at $12,399 for the 1.6 GL, with air conditioning, power steering, and a cassette deck. The $13,899 GLX gets a bigger 1.8 liter engine, along with power windows, mirrors and locks, remote keyless entry, and alloy wheels. Topping out the range is the GLX+, which comes with an automatic transmission, antilock brakes, cruise control, and a $15,699 price tag. Those are decent numbers, but they can't touch the Korean competition for value.
If you're in the market for a compact sedan, I wouldn't overlook the Esteem. But if you decide to skip a test drive, you won't be missing much. Yes, it's entertaining to drive - but so is the Honda Civic LX. Yes, it's well-priced - but the Hyundai Elantra gives you more for your money, plus a longer warranty. Yes, it has a practical, boxy shape - but so does the Mazda ProtÃƒÂ©gÃƒÂ©.
From the Esteem ads that I don't see and don't hear, I take it Suzuki has realistic expectations for it. Suzuki's trucks, the Vitara and the Grand Vitara, are quite good, and I'd hate to see people turned off to the brand. Meantime, the Esteem seems destined for obscurity.
Maybe that's for the best.