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For most carmakers, 1.8-liter engines mark the bottom end of the model line. But at Suzuki, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine powers the largest sedan the company builds. Although it sells the V6-powered Grand Vitara sport-utility, the 2000 Esteem is as big a car as we get from Suzuki.
That said, the Esteem meets the standards of the subcompact class in size and economy. It is offered as both a sedan and wagon. Both are front-drive, four-door, five-passenger cars. The wagon provides substantial cargo-hauling potential, carrying up to 24 cubic feet of cargo, at a base price less than $14,000. You're not getting a Mercedes wagon, in either size or features, but you're paying about one-third of a Mercedes wagon price.
Under the hood, the new-for-2000 1.8-liter twin-cam four makes 122 horsepower at 6300 rpm, a whopping 28-percent increase over last year's 1.6-liter engine. Maximum torque is 117 foot-pounds at 3500 rpm; the relatively low torque peak promises less downshifting and thrashing of the engine to get around town. The 1.8-liter engine uses a timing chain instead of the more common belt.
The Esteem's 1.8-liter idles with a vibration typical of four-cylinder engines, adding a slight but noticeable shake to the steering wheel. It smoothes out under acceleration and in normal driving. Around town, the 1.8 is a willing servant and provides ample, worry-free power. The automatic transmission delivers the same no-worries operation.
Open the throttle fast, however, and the engine announces its presence with a roar, propelling the wagon forward at a brisk clip. The transmission shifts at about 5000 rpm, well below the power peak, if left to its own devices. But hold the automatic in gear by hand (the console-mounted shifter has Drive, 2 and 1 on the quadrant, with an overdrive cutout button on the shift lever) to reach the 6700 rpm redline, and the transmission shifts so slowly that the engine hits the rev limiter. It also seems that the automatic absorbs some of the Esteem's steam. The standard transmission, available in the still-quite-nice GLX, would not only save $1000 in purchase price but also eke out another EPA-estimated 1 mpg in city or highway driving. It will also take full advantage of the engine's power band.
In highway driving, the engine emits a constant hum that's noticeable, if not objectionable, and the windshield pillars and roof rack generate a constant rustle of wind noise. The cargo area amplifies this sound, though it isn't so loud as to annoy or impede conversation. The added torque of the new 1.8-liter engine is appreciated, but the automatic still must downshift often to maintain speed through hilly terrain.
A quick steering ratio and short wheelbase make the Esteem responsive to steering input. Although there's a bias toward comfortable understeer, the Esteem will zip down a twisting road almost as quickly as the motor will pull it. The suspension is generally supple, soaking up bumps and ripples, though longer pavement waves, such as those on older concrete slabs, can induce a rocking-horse motion. Unlike many vehicles, the Esteem wagon uses the same suspension offered in the sedan, with fully independent MacPherson struts at each corner. Typically, this provides a better ride than the beam-type rear axle on many front-drive wagons.
The low-profile tires add to the responsiveness of the chassis, and their extra grip imparts confidence on cloverleaf ramps and curves. The tires are an excellent choice of rubber for an inexpensive car. The brake system uses discs in front and drums in the rear. Four-wheel antilock brakes are offered only on the GLX+.
With the Esteem GLX+ wagon, Suzuki has clearly put a lot of effort into civilizing the small car. There's nothing particularly revolutionary in the resulting automobile, but it does more than what's expected of it in an economical and relatively sporting fashion.
For someone who needs to haul things on a budget, whether commercial deliveries or laundry from college, the Esteem wagon fills the bill. The GLX with a 5-speed is the best choice for economy, performance and a touch of luxury features. We only wish Suzuki offered ABS on models other than the GLX+. That said, the GLX+ is quite a package at $17,049.