Suzuki has been something like a punching bag for me over the years. It seemed as if every test car I got from the Japanese automaker had some kind of flaw that showed up at precisely the wrong time, leaving me no choice but to report about what went wrong. Then last year I tested the awkward-looking X-90 sport-utility vehicle, which worked fine, was built well and offered a good value. I liked it. Unfortunately, few buyers have warmed up to the X-90, and sales have been embarrassingly slow. The failure of the X-90 has put pressure on Suzuki to succeed. It's the weakest of the Japanese automakers doing business in the United States, and some have opined that the company should pack it in and focus on its successful line of motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and water scooters, while continuing to build vehicles for General Motors' Chevrolet division. (Suzuki builds the Metro subcompact and Tracker sport-utility.) What Suzuki needs is a high-quality mainstream vehicle with wide appeal, something that will put up some decent sales numbers and finally establish the brand among budget-minded import buyers. It may have all that in the new Esteem wagon. This little wagon is a respectable, affordable conveyance that has pleasing styling, plenty of pep, a comfortable interior, sporty handling and decent build quality. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Esteem wagon comes in three models, but all are powered by the same 1.6-liter, 95-horsepower, single overhead-cam four-cylinder engine. This motor is equipped with 16 valves and electronic fuel injection. If you are looking for world class refinement, you won't find it here. But, while the Esteem wagon is no Toyota, it does offer good acceleration from its tame but eager-to-please drivetrain. Our test car was fitted with a four-speed automatic transmission. Again, the shifts weren't the best you'll find, but they were smooth enough for a $16,000 vehicle. From astop, the 2,400-pound wagon pulls away strongly. The engine can get a little noisy when the tachometer needle climbs into the 5,000 range. But generally, the engine is quiet and the transmission civilized in normal driving. The engine has just enough power to pass slower traffic and to merge on to busy highways. Our test car sipped gas, using just a gallon of fuel every 31 miles in city driving with the air conditioner on. Gary Anderson, Suzuki's vice president of sales, says the Esteem wagon is ''the perfect solution for drivers who demand the utility of a sport-utility vehicle but prefer the feel of driving a passenger car.'' That's a bit of a stretch. The wagon is no Subaru Outback. Although the car's nicely tuned four-wheel independent suspension system provides a firm, stable and sporty ride, the car is by no means equipped to handle off-road chores. For one thing, the Esteem is not high enough off the ground to travel over anything more than a dirt road. For another, without all-wheel drive, the front-wheel-drive wagon could easily get stuck in sand. That said, I found the Esteem to be enjoyable to drive. I can't recall a Suzuki vehicle that felt as competent in as many areas as the Esteem. The front disc/rear drum power-assisted brakes are excellent. Although the anti-lock system is a bit noisy, the brakes grab hard and stop the car quickly. I also think Suzuki engineers did a nice job with the car's power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. The car can turn a complete circle in a tight 32 feet, and the wheel has a solid, nicely weighted feel. Over the road, the ride is fairly quiet. You can hear some noise from the suspension system when you drive over large bumps but no more than in other cars in the economy class. Although a Saturn or Escort wagon might offer more refinement and bigger engines for the same price as the Esteem, the Suzuki is a worthy competitor. FIT AND FINISH A Su uki wouldn't be a Suzuki if parts didn't fall off. But this time around, only two min or trim pieces came dislodged during my 230 mile, one-week drive. A small rubber piece from the cupholder came off, and a round rubber part from who knows where shot out of the dash and landed near the handbrake. But nothing seemed affected and everything worked well, so I won't dwell on it. Although the layout of the interior is pretty standard fare as far as economy cars go, I found the attention to detail much greater than in other Suzukis I've tested. In fact, I wondered if Suzuki didn't borrow some engineers and designers from another car company when they were creating the Esteem wagon. The feel of the switches, the placement of the buttons and controls and the quality of the seats, carpet and headliner were better than I've found in other Suzukis. I particularly liked the firm, cloth-covered bucket seats. I took my usual two two-hour trips and found the seats to be comfortable for long periods of time. Our test car came with a set of analog gauges that were plain but easy to read. I found the controls for the air conditioner - three sliding levers - easy to use. The air conditioner blew plenty of cold air and cooled the interior quickly on hot days. There is plenty of room, front and rear. The back seats fold forward and nearly flat. Suzuki says there is 61 cubic feet of storage capacity available with the seats folded forward. The AM/FM cassette radio sounded good, but it was annoying to tune. There is one button on the left of the radio that moves in four directions. Up and down controls the volume, while right and left changes the stations. Although $16,000 and change may seem like a lot for a small wagon, the Esteem GLX won't leave you wanting for equipment. It has everything: remote control power door locks and mirrors, electric windows, cruise control and sunroof, rear windshield wiper, defroster and many other useful items. The most annoying thing about the Esteem Wagon is the awful sound it makes when you lock and unlock the doors with the remote control. When you press the button on the key fob, the car emits a quacking sound, as if someone stepped on a duck. And that's the harshest criticism I can levy at the Esteem wagon. This car demonstrates to me that Suzuki is making real progress designing and building better automobiles. If Suzuki can get enough people to look at this car, it may have a winner on its hands. Specifications: 1998 Suzuki Esteem GLX Wagon LENGTH Overall 171.1 FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 38.8 Leg room 42.3 REAR COMPARTMENT Head room 38.0 Leg room 34.1 WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper to bumper. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Transverse-mounted engine/transaxle, front-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted front disc, rear drum with ABS. Engine: 95-horsepower, 1.6-liter, in-line four cylinder with one overhead cam and 16 valves. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. OTHER MODELS Esteem GL Wagon: $12,499. Esteem GLX+ Wagon: $15,599. Inches unless otherwise specified Truett's tip: The Esteem wagon is Suzuki's most mainstream vehicle yet - and the best car Suzuki has ever made. It could put the company on the map.
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