Last fall Suzuki brought out a station wagon version of its four-door Esteem to give buyers a small wagon with the versatility of a sport-utility vehicle.While its 61 cubic feet of cargo space doesn't match that of an SUV, the Esteem wagon is big enough to carry a couple of big dogs, a bicycle or your bounty from an antique shopping trip. It is big enough to be useful and small enough to be thrifty. Its four-cylinder engine is miserly with fuel and prices start as low as $12,929. There are two trim levels, GL and GLX. The top-of-the-line GLX with anti-lock brakes and two-tone paint stickers at $16,229, and that is the model I drove. Small station wagons are relatively plentiful -- Hyundai Elantra, Ford Escort, Mercury Tracer and Saturn are the others -- while mid- and full-size wagons have essentially been overshadowed by the popularity of minivans and SUVs. Suzuki's wagon rides on a 97.6-inch wheelbase, the same as the sedan. The rear cargo hatch, with a spoiler to help keep the rear window clean, is attractively shaped and gives the Esteem a jaunty look, especially from the back. For a car with such a short wheelbase, the ride quality is above average. It feels comfortable on its feet and doesn't bounce around on rough roads, thanks to the independent front and rear suspension. Folding down the seats is a two-second operation, which is how it should be. The longer one has to fiddle with folding down the second row of seats the less often it will be done, and that is a problem that plaques a number of SUVs. The only problem I encountered was that the shock absorber towers limited the width of objects that will fit inside. Otherwise, hauling was a breeze. Under the cargo floor there are three compartments for keeping small items out of sight. A soft, window-shade cover, which hides your luggage from prying eyes, comes out easily. Nicely-styled gauges dot the instrument panel, whose function is marred by a radio with cryptic markings and infuriatingly tiny buttons. The 1.6-liter engine has 99 horsepower. This single-overhead-cam (SOHC) unit has four valves per cylinder and a generally spunky personality, aid in part by the wagon's 2,359-pound weight. Our test car was equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission, and performance was certainly adequate. The engine gets pretty noisy at full throttle, but in moderate driving it is quite civilized. A button on the shift lever gives a quick shift out of overdrive when you need a extra power for merging onto the freeway or pulling up a hill. The EPA gives the automatic a rating of 27 mpg city and 33 highway. The five-speed manual is not only quicker, but it is rated at 30 mpg city and 37 on the highway. At freeway speeds the noise level rises moderately as the tires transmit road sound throughout the body. Suzuki is probably best known for its small SUV, the Sidekick (also sold by Chevrolet as the Tracker), but its E steem wagon is a welcome addition to the field of sub-compact wagons. Price The base price of our GLX test car with automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes was $16,229, including freight. Standard equipment included power windows, power locks with remote keyless entry, power mirrors, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo cassette with four speakers, split-fold-down rear seat, rear wiper an power steering. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Small wagons are as utilitarian as they are economical, and that applies to the Esteem from Suzuki. Even the fully loaded GLX with anti-lock brakes and automatic transmission is reasonably priced. Counterpoint: In back, the shock absorber towers limit the width of items you can carry, and the radio's cryptic controls are frustrating. SPECIFICATIONS: GINE: 1.6-liter, 4-cyl. TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 97.6 inches CURB WEIGHT: 2,480 lbs. BASE PRICE: $15,799 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $16,229 MPG RATING: 27 city, 33 hwy
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