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LAKE FOREST, Illinois — To that ultrashort list of roomy station wagons available with downright cheap price tags, add the name of Suzuki's Esteem Wagon.
With somewhat stylish sheet metal outside and a lot of comfort and convenience features installed within, the five-person Suzuki wagon, riding on a sure-footed platform borrowed from the subcompact Esteem sedan, lists for less than $13,000 for a base GL edition. Load up the top model GLX SE with all kinds of trimmings, including an automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes, and the price still looks good at less than $16,000.
Look beyond these low price tags and everything
else about the new wagon also looks good, which begs the question: What's wrong
with this deal?
1999 Suzuki Esteem Wagon interior
Petite dimensions don’t mean the Esteem is lacking in room.
The Esteem Wagon first caught our eye in a Suzuki display at the New York International Auto Show, which showcases new products bound for the North American car market. Glimmering in spotlights as it twirled on a turntable, the exterior design revealed a series of horizontal forms accented by beefy rocker-panel cladding and a unique spoiler capping the roof at its trailing edge.
The front A pillar raked rearward to set up a
progressive slant to the windshield, while the C pillar at the back of the rear
doors jutted forward in opposition, forming lines that vaguely conform to the
shape of Esteem's sedan. In back, the tailgate cascaded from that roof spoiler,
and when accessed, the door would swing high overhead so you could stand beneath
it without stooping.
Reasonable space inside
Inside, Suzuki's designers managed to extract reasonable space for riders from the essentially cramped confines of a subcompact shell. Then a lot of perks were installed for a feel-good interior environment.
But how does it drive? Well, variations of Suzuki's little wagon showed up in suburbs of Chicago for a series of road tests conducted over freeways and back streets of tony residential communities like Highland Park and Lake Forest. So strap a seat belt in place and settle in, because we're rolling up Sheridan Avenue toward Lake Forest, catching glimpses now and then of Lake Michigan and checking out the manners of the Suzuki Esteem Wagon.
It rides smoothly, gliding over pavement rumples with hardly a vertical ripple, and from the driver's vantage feels firm and controllable. That’s because a lot of serious mechanical systems come together inside this Esteem and set up respectable driving traits.
The Esteem's chassis and suspension components compare with parts of Suzuki's three-door subcompact Swift hatchback. It served as the point of origin for developing Suzuki's Esteem sedan from which the station wagon derives. The four-wheel independent suspension features MacPherson-strut design in front with rear stabilizer bar and crisp power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.
For the Esteem, Swift's wheelbase was extended by 4.5 inches, an increase in length that shows up in cabin space added and more back-seat room for passengers' legs. This wheelbase stretch for the Esteem affects more than cabin space, since it also results in a smoother and more stable ride quality that's notable when tackling inevitable road bumps like those experienced during the Chicago tests.
Safety elements built into the Esteem include dual
airbags, front-seat head restraints, laminated safety glass for the windshield,
and breakaway dual exterior side mirrors. In addition, perhaps the most
important of all safety items, anti-lock control for brakes, becomes an option
on the top model, Esteem GLX SE.
Decent thrust from a modest engine
Check out numbers in the powertrain, and you could be fooled into thinking a station wagon charged by a four-pack engine that only nets 95 horsepower may leave you stalled at stoplight derbies, but that's not the case.
In fact, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder powerplant, equipped with an overhead cam and electronic fuel injection, delivers a nice kick. When paired with the standard five-speed manual transmission, the wagon leaps off the line and acts aggressively when racking higher revs.
As an option, Suzuki's four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive behaves in an efficient and relatively quiet manner. At the least, it doesn't intrude, and in our street tests, we could not feel any significant loss of power over the manual. Suzuki's powertrain also produces impressive fuel figures, rising as high as 37 mpg with the manual shifter.
Where designers succeeded in creating the most pleasing features concerns the way Esteem's interior was outfitted — so many thoughtful details inside add up to comfort and convenience for less money. Twin bucket seats sit in front of a rear bench that fits up to three riders. Despite the confines of subcompact space, riders don't feel sandwiched together because Esteem provides a fair amount of elbowroom. Shoulder space inside measures to 51.8 inches in front and even more (52.1 inches) in back.
Three trim levels, GL, GLX and GLX SE, ratchet up the mobility ladder with an increasing array of features. Standard to all is air conditioning and a four-speaker stereo audio system, reclining front bucket seats with center console and rear slit-folding seatback, remote fuel door and trunk releases, intermittent wipers, and daytime running lights.
Prices for the base GL wagon begin at $12,699 plus $430 in destination charges and top out at $16,299 (destination also not included).