What's New for 2001
In an effort to ply prospective Esteem buyers, Suzuki has equipped every model with an in-dash CD player. Stereo head units also get larger controls. Elsewhere, you will find gentle cosmetic changes: The front grille has been restyled, the seats are wrapped in a new fabric and floor mats are standard. Sky Blue Metallic is no longer available as an exterior color.
There is nothing really objectionable about the Esteem sedan and wagon, but the economy car segment is not what it used to be -- at least not since a Focus and a fresh batch of Sentras, Proteges and Elantras arrived. Now, it seems that customers are looking for value (!), socially acceptable aesthetics and a bit of driving amusement. The Esteem has been around since 1995, and it has never been able to deliver all three, though advertising (that ideally, would get people into the dealerships) has not been especially heavy-handed, either. Slowly, Suzuki has enhanced the Esteem, but we're not sure that the company is moving expediently enough to rescue the car from the cellar of the segment in sales.
One of these improvements came last year when Suzuki made the 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine standard on all models. This engine makes 122 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 117 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. These numbers are competitive for this class, but we've observed more engine roar in the Esteem from 4,000 to 6,800 rpm than we have in its peers. The noise isn't obnoxious -- there is simply more of it.
We've found ride quality acceptable on highways and city streets, at least until the Esteem encounters a pothole or an expansion joint. We suspect that its inability to soak these up has to do with its low-tech suspension setup -- MacPherson struts at each corner and a single antiroll bar in the front. Wagons get a second antiroll bar in the rear.
You can buy a sedan or a wagon in one of three trim levels. Base-level GL cars are outfitted with air conditioning, power steering, rear window defogger, fold-down rear seat, breakaway mirrors -- and for 2001, floor mats and an in-dash CD player. The addition of this audio essential could help move more Esteems off the lot -- among its peers, only the Focus offers this nicety in base models. In comparison, Mazda offers only stereo pre-wiring in the Protege DX. The only option for base models is an automatic transmission. GLX trim offers the most desirable content package: Besides the GL bits, you get upgraded upholstery; remote keyless entry; power windows, mirrors and locks; split-folding rear seat and cool alloy wheels. You can option the sedan with a Sport package (rear spoiler, foglights, chrome-tipped exhausts and blue or silver body color).
Now, if only Suzuki would revise its option packages or allow buyers to purchase certain features a la carte. You see, you have to splurge on top-line GLX+ trim to get "extras" like ABS and cruise control. Or perhaps you want all the goodies of GLX+ trim, except the mandatory automatic transmission. Given this requirement, a bigger engine should be part of the package, as well. Despite this rather serious packaging flaw, you can build yourself a rather stunning small wagon if you opt for the two-tone paint (available on GLX+ wagons) -- silver under-cladding with a Deep Space Blue or Polar White upper body. GLX+ models also have cassette players along with the in-dash CD.
Esteem interiors are user-friendly and solidly constructed, but they don't make you forget how little you paid. Occupants will find the expected amount of plastic and seats that are reasonably comfortable but lack height adjustment and adequate seatback tilt. Nor does the steering wheel have a tilt or telescoping adjustment.
The Esteem's exterior styling might not gouge the sensibilities (in the way that the Focus does), but the mild-mannered may find it pleasant. Suzuki has retouched the grille slightly for 2001 -- the additional horizontal slats give the hood a slightly flatter appearance, which we like. GLX and GLX+ models come with trendy 15-inch wheels, which have 195/55VR15 Yokohama tires wrapped around them. The tires are an unexpected treat in the economy car class, because they are large for the size and weight of the vehicle, and they are biased toward performance rather than fuel economy. We've observed the payoff in grip when pushing this car around corners.
Our chief concern about the Suzuki Esteem is the lack of value -- pricing is high, the trim packaging makes it difficult to tailor a car to your needs, and the warranty is weak. Still, the Esteem is an attractive car with no serious faults, so if you negotiate an extra nice deal on one, you might enjoy it. We encourage you to compare it with similarly equipped peers, though, before you buy.