B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Pick up any newspaper these days and the headlines scream about the disintegration of our society's moral fabric. Violence, substance abuse, philandering, adultery, lying and general misanthropy are a bigger part of our daily lives than the polluted air we breathe. There is a lot of finger pointing that accompanies the sensational news coverage surrounding these unfortunate events. Conservatives blame the breakdown of family and the absence of religion in peoples' lives as the prime causes of our country's problems. Liberals criticize an uncaring society that turns its back on the poor and downtrodden. Suburbanites denounce the seedy underbelly of the city for corrupting their children. Urbanites blame corporate America for fleeing the inner city and leaving an economic wasteland in its wake. While there is truth to all of these claims, I think the answer is much simpler: Our society is falling apart because nobody is buying regular station wagons anymore.
Stop laughing, this is serious stuff. Until 10 years ago, nearly every manufacturer selling cars in the United States had some sort of two-wheel-drive station-wagon on their lots. Buick Centuries, Oldsmobile Cieras, Ford Country Squires, Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords were all available as sturdy, unassuming station wagons. In the late '80s and early '90s, however, sport-utility vehicles rolled onto the scene, began stealing away loyal station- wagon drivers, and essentially turned us into a nation of drug-abusing, gun-toting, bomb-building sociopaths. Think about it. Do you remember hearing that much about gang wars and crack cocaine before the Ford Explorer sucked up more market share than a life insurance salesman on the HMS Titanic?
To drive home this point, let's look at what happened to the wagon market. People stopped buying station wagons because they wanted something more exciting, something with pizzazz. People began feeling that station wagons were beneath them, that station wagons were not cool enough. Instead of wagons, people began buying Jeep Grand Cherokees, GMC Jimmys and Toyota 4Runners. Soon, many manufacturers stopped building wagons altogether and concentrated their efforts on (guess what?) more sport-utility vehicles. A few wagons survived, but most of those that did had to be recast as something ruggedly sexy. This led to the development of sport wagons like the Subaru Outback, Audi A4 Avant and Volvo Cross Country. Are these really wagons? In name only--these cars retain fewer of their family values than a college kid spending a semester abroad in Amsterdam.
Fortunately, a few manufacturers have staved off America's slide into Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like debauchery by continuing to build unpretentious two-wheel-drive wagons. Ford and Saturn are two American companies that have done their part, and recently Suzuki has picked up the station-wagon mantle dropped by Toyota and Honda.
It's almost as if Suzuki is atoning for their previous forays into the sport-utility segment. Suzuki developed one of the first mini-SUVs and continues to produce them in large numbers today. It was not until last year, in fact, that Suzuki actualized a wagon version of their anonymous Esteem Sedan. Despite their late entry into this impoverished segment, Suzuki is making an admirable go of bringing Americans back into the warm, safe arms of wagondom.
The Suzuki Esteem Wagon is available in three trim levels (GL/GLX/GLX+) with two engine choices. The base engine for each trim level is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that makes 95 horsepower and 99 foot-pounds of torque. The optional engine is a 1.8-liter four-banger that increases horsepower and torque output to more respectable levels--122 horsepower @ 6300 rpm and 117 ft-lbs. of torque @ 3500 rpm. This optional engine makes the Esteem one of the most powerful small wagons available in this country.
The model we tested was a GLX+ equipped with an automatic transmission and the 1.8-liter engine. The GLX+ is the highest trim level available for the Esteem Wagon, and comes equipped with a power glass sunroof, antilock brakes, roof rack, air conditioning, power door locks, power windows, power outside mirrors, split-folding rear seats, cargo-area cover, and concealed cargo storage. There are no options on Suzuki models; like many Japanese manufacturers, Suzuki requires purchasers to choose between trim levels to get the type of equipment they want. Unfortunately, this level of luxury and convenience comes at a steep price. Our test car would knock a buyer back nearly $17,000. Only the Saturn SW2 costs more than the Esteem GLX+ when optioned to similar levels; the Daewoo Nubira CDX, Hyundai Elantra GLS, Mercury Tracer LS and Ford Escort SE wagons all cost less. Lower trim levels are available, of course, but selecting one begins to take away some of the Esteem's utility and friendliness.
There is more to the Esteem than a high price tag, however. The Esteem has comfortable accommodations for four (five in a pinch) and 24 cubic feet of cargo area, meaning that it is perfect for average-sized families on the go. The folding rear seats mean that the Esteem is practical for trips to Home Depot as well as to the grocery store. During our week with the vehicle, Edmund's staffers found that the Esteem offered a nice mix of usable interior space and compact exterior design. For trips around town and up the coast, our Los Angeles-based drivers never felt cramped or uncomfortable. Better still, they found the Esteem a breeze to park on crowded streets and easy to maneuver through the clogged parking lots at the hippest mall in Beverly Hills.
Driving a station wagon was never intended to be fun, despite what Audi and Subaru might tell you, and the Esteem holds true to this notion. The engine is powerful enough to keep up in traffic, nothing more. The four-wheel-independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering keep drivers in touch with the road, but not to a degree that would encourage any sort of reckless behavior. The tires are quiet on most surfaces, but howl mercilessly as soon as drivers begin pushing it through the corners. Overall, the Esteem is a vehicle that encourages responsibility over having a good time.
Likewise, the driver's seat is a place for getting from point A to point B. The gauge cluster is functional but unexciting. The climate controls are easy-to-operate but uninspired. The stereo controls are too small for meaty fingers, but the sound quality from the speakers is adequate. The interior fabrics are of a higher quality than is typical of this segment, but some of the interior plastics are too shiny for our tastes.
The Esteem is solid. It has excellent build quality. It goes and stops like a small car should. It holds four adults and a month-load of groceries. It is also totally unexciting. That's OK. Not everyone needs or wants excitement, whereas everyone needs reliability and functionality. Today, there are hardly any station-wagon sellers, and look where we are. Right now, this country may not be an ideal place to raise a child, but if you buy an Esteem, you'll be doing your part to help keep America safe.
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