Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Suzuki still has a hard time getting respect. Like Play-Doh mashed into carpet by a 3-year-old, the Consumer Reports/Suzuki Samurai rollover taint hasn't ever quite left the American consciousness. Given the chance, I have no doubt Suzuki would pay gazillions of dollars to get its hands on the memory-washing wand Will Smith had in "Men In Black," using it to blank out consumer memory from, say, 1988 onward.
But wait, Suzuki actually has a decent vehicle for sale right now. And no, we're not talking about the Grand Vitara. We're talking about the Esteem. Yes, Suzuki makes a car called the Esteem. It has been around since 1995. Kind of hard to believe, huh? The Esteem has never been a big seller due to a standard-size price, an undersized engine and wallflower styling. Competing in the same market as the Dodge Neon and Honda Civic certainly hasn't helped, either.
In 1999, Suzuki made two changes that improved the Esteem's prospects: it added a more powerful engine and revised the styling. These changes carry into 2000. There are currently two body styles sedan and wagon. Each comes in three different trim levels. GL is the base trim, GLX is mid-level, and GLX+ is the most well-equipped version. There are very few options, so getting the features you want is pretty much a matter of picking a trim level. Suzuki still sells a GL Sedan with the older 1.6-liter engine. But trust us, paying the $500 extra dollars for the 1.8-liter GL Sedan is well worth it. Every other 2000 Esteem model comes with the 1.8-liter engine.
For our road test, we obtained a GLX Sedan fitted with the sport package. The $600 sport package (Suzuki doesn't sell this as an option; the extra money is included in the GLX Sport's MSRP) isn't really concerned with sport. It's more of an appearance package. It includes a rear spoiler, front fog lights, and a Black Pearl exterior paint. The total price for our test car was $14,949.
All Esteems come with air conditioning and dual front airbags. Over the base 1.8-liter GL Sedan, the GLX Sedan gets more equipment like power side mirrors, 15-inch wheels with bigger tires, power door locks, remote keyless entry, power windows, a 60/40 split-fold rear seat, and a tachometer.
Notably missing from the GLX's equipment list are cruise control and antilock brakes. The only way to obtain these features is to order the GLX+ model. However, the GLX+ also comes standard with an automatic transmission. So, if you want a manual transmission Esteem with cruise control or ABS, you're out of luck.
The styling of the 2000 Esteem sedan is certainly better than it was in 1998. It's an attractive car, and the rear spoiler and front foglights spice things up a bit. But other than the large grille, it still doesn't have any defining characteristic to separate it from other Japanese or Korean subcompacts. Off the top of your head, could you tell me how the Esteem differs visually from the Mazda Protege or Kia Sephia?
The Esteem's interior is similar in that it's functional, but not exactly memorable. Controls are easy to use and the gauges are legible. Both front- and rear-seat passengers will find acceptable leg and foot room. Seat comfort is fine with good side bolstering, but the seatbacks don't adjust far enough in a vertical position to satisfy people who like to sit upright. There's also no provision for height adjustment, exacerbated by a lack of tilt or telescope adjustment on the steering wheel. Cargo capacity (12 cubic feet) is average for this class, though the rear seatbacks do not fold completely flat.
Like you would expect, the main interior materials used on the Esteem are plastic and cloth. We didn't find them to be cheap, but we weren't impressed, either. The sound system is the same one found in the Grand Vitara, with small radio preset buttons. There's a slot underneath the radio that could be used to hold CDs. But our test car didn't have a CD player. In fact, Suzuki doesn't offer a CD player as a factory option. Another problem we have with the interior is a lack of nighttime illumination for some of the climate controls.
We enjoyed the Esteem more when we focused on the way it drove. Thanks to the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, the Esteem now has the legs to match anything else in its class. Suzuki lists output at 122 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 117 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. For comparison, the 1.6-liter Honda Civic EX makes 127 horsepower and 107 foot-pounds of torque, and the 2.0-liter Dodge Neon makes 130 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds of torque. The Esteem's maximum torque arrives fairly early in the rev band, allowing for good acceleration. Fuel economy is also good, with EPA fuel mileage ratings at 28 mpg for the city cycle and 35 mpg for the highway cycle. Our main complaint concerns noise. From 4,000 to 6,800 rpm, the Esteem's engine is noticeably louder than the ones found in the Civic or Protege. It's not an obnoxious noise; it's just more audible. Wind and road noise during highway driving is also slightly more than those cars.
Ride quality is generally good on both the highway and city streets. But the Esteem can't quite absorb sharp road irregularities (such as potholes or freeway expansion joints) as well as the competitors. This might have to do with the rather low-tech suspension setup consisting of MacPherson struts at all four corners and a single front antiroll bar.
During spirited driving, the Esteem makes up considerable ground thanks to its wheel and tire package. The attractive 15-inch wheels are fitted with 195/55VR15 Yokohama A460 Advan tires. These tires are not only large for this size and weight of vehicle, but they are also biased towards performance rather than economy. Consequently, the Esteem offers surprisingly good grip going around corners.
Trying to get around the competition is a more difficult proposition. The more powerful engine and freshened styling have certainly helped, as the Esteem is a lot better than it was before. It has finally escaped its own shadow. Is it enough to justify a purchase? From Edmunds.com's point of view, the answer is still an unfortunate no. Pricing is competitive with cars in this class, but there's no facet about the Esteem that says, "Buy me!" The feeling here is more like the Mazda Protege or Mitsubishi Mirage a good Japanese car that can't quite match up to the almighty Civic. One more shadow to overcome, Suzuki.
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