We couldn't wait to get into the 1996 Suzuki Esteem, largely because of its name. After all, is there a person on the planet who doesn't suffer from low self-esteem from time to time? And would the Suzuki subcompact help fill in those gaps on bad days? We were secretly hoping that the Suzuki would herald the beginning of a whole new positive imaging trend in the automotive name game.

Picture it - cars christened "Looks," "Brains," or how about "No Back Fat"?

He: Or, in your case, Off Her Rocker. Come to think of it, Esteem is a strange name for a modest little compact. Maybe the name has something to do with the fact that, at least in this country, Suzuki lives in the shadow of nearly every other auto company. It's a shame, too, because they've engineered some fine vehicles. And Chevrolet's Geo brand gets half its vehicles from Suzuki. But still, this car was a major undertaking for a company that built its reputation in Japan as a minicar specialist.

She: Snore. Here you go off on another pedantic tangent. Let's get right to the important stuff, like the weird cupholder in the instrument panel. You push in a little panel and out pops this strange-looking thing that looks like two rubber bangle bracelets looped together. It seemed to take a few seconds to adjust itself and it's really kind of scary. It reminded me of how Rita Rudner, the comedian, describes eyelash curlers - most men are freaked out by them and think they're actually weapons. You could say the same thing about that cupholder. I can just see punching the panel when some guy in the passenger seat is giving you a hard time. It would sure give him pause.

He: So how did we get from self-esteem to eyelash curlers? I thought we were talking about cars.

She: Hey, as far as I'm concerned, we are covering the important stuff. But if you want me to talk horsepower, I will. Even though you can fit five people in the Esteem, it gets a little sluggish when you're carrying more than one or two because the four-cylinder engine only makes 98 horsepower. If you're a single who's not hauling around many people, that's probably OK.

He: A single with no back fat, you mean. Remember Suzuki's schtick. Economy is their specialty. We averaged more than 30 miles a gallon in the Esteem, which is pretty remarkable. And I seriously doubt if you could squeeze more than two adults in that back seat, even though this is the biggest car Suzuki's ever built. We drove the high-line GLX, which had lots of equipment and a sticker price under $15,000. Now that's an accomplishment. Still, it's a far cry from a Geo Prizm or the new Honda Civic.

She: I would agree. We own a Prizm and just finished a two-week test of the Civic. My overwhelming impression is the Suzuki felt almost primitive next to those two cars, but it's hard to quantify that because all three have updated stuff like dual air bags, antilock brakes, and overhead-cam engines. It's kind of like self-esteem. It's hard to say how much or how little you have. What I found dated on the Esteem were things like the anonymous exterior styling. You'll know a Neon on the street, but you'll have to guess about this car.

He: I think my biggest complaint about the Esteem is its utter lack of personality. If I'm on a limited budget, I'd much prefer to spend my dough on a spunky design like the Hyundai Accent or, as we did in our household, on a sophisticated design with a proven track record like the Prizm. Nearly everything about the Suzuki is middle of the road. The ride is a little choppy, like many of its contemporaries, and handling is no better than average. I think the affordable price tag may be its biggest asset.

She: It's like we don't want to say anything negative about Suzuki because they seem to be attempting to offer consumers a good value at a time when lots of competitors are hiking their prices or offering similarly equipped models for thousands of dollars more. Sure, it's value, but it' ind of like clipping a coupon for a grocery item that you really don't want. I had that experience yesterday in the store with a coupon for 'wet or dry' toilet paper. I studied it and for the life of me couldn't figure out when I'd ever want to wet my toilet paper. So I threw the coupon away. I have the same nagging feeling about the Suzuki.

He: Are you trying to say they should rename it the Suzuki Wet and Dry? I kind of liked the Suzuki No Back Fat.

Anita's rating: (below average)

Paul's rating: (average)

What we liked: Good value (Paul); excellent gas mileage; intriguing name (Anita).

What we didn't like: Harsh ride; bland styling; sluggish engine.

1996 Suzuki Esteem GLX

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger subcompact sedan.

Price: Base, $12,699; as tested, $14,459 (inc. $390 destination charge).

What's new for '96: Carried over with few changes from 1995-1/2.

Standard equipment: Power steering, center console, fold-down rear seat, power windows (GLX), power locks (GLX), power mirrors (GLX).

Safety features: Dual air bags, side-impact door beams, child-proof rear locks, antilock brakes (optional).

Options on test vehicle: GLX package, including cruise control, ABS and air conditioning ($1,700), floor mats ($60).

EPA fuel economy: n/a.

Engine: 1.6-liter I-4; 98-hp at 6000 rpm; 96 lb-ft torque at 3000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Competitors: Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, Mazda Protege, Mitsubishi Mirage, Subaru Impreza, Hyundai Accent, Chrysler Neon, Ford Escort, Geo Prizm, Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire, Saturn SL.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 97.6 inches; overall length, 165.2 inches; curb weight, 2183 pounds; legroom, 42.3 inches front/34.1 inches rear; headroom, 39.1 inches front/37.2 inches rear; shoulder room, 51.8 inches front/52.1 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost*: $1,006

Where built: Kosai, Japan.

* AAA Michigan rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.