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Suzuki Esteem: The Japanese Wagon We Wish We Hadn't Ignored

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author photo by Aaron Gold February 2017

Ah, the Suzuki Esteem wagon. Way back -- gosh, this must have been around Y2K -- I reviewed one of these tarnished little gems for a (now-defunct) website called the Car Judge. The review is now lost to history (probably for the best, as this will save me a lot of embarrassment), but I'm pretty sure I dismissed it (the car, not the review) as a useful but strange-looking oddity.

To be fair to my young writer's sensibilities, it's not the strange-looking-oddity part I now regret; it's the dismissed part. Who could have guessed that such cars would so soon be relegated to the dustbin of history?

So why did I dismiss the Esteem? Let's start with the name, which is incredibly silly. Thing is, it could have been a lot worse. In other markets, the Esteem was known as the Cultus and the Baleno. I can just imagine how this went down: Some employee of American Suzuki employee sits back in relief after spending an hour figuring out how write an email politely telling the Japanese brass that one of their proposed names sounds like a dangerous religious sect and the other like a lunch meat of questionable origin. Just as he thinks he can go home for the night, he gets an email. "Dear Jim, thank you for your candor and honesty. We have taken your comments into consideration and have decided to give the car a new name: Esteem." Poor Jim sighs, takes a moment to question why he didn't follow his parents' advice and become an obstetrician and then fires up his email client -- only to discover the network is down.

To be fair to Suzuki, they did stick with a theme: The name was no less ridiculous than the styling. The sedan version of the Esteem got the bigger beating with the Ugly Stick: It was squared-off and oddly proportioned, with big taillights that seemed to have a pleading look, as if the car was begging to be sent to the crusher and put out of its misery. The wagon was actually a much better-proportioned and arguably more handsome car.

I wish I could recall the driving experience in more detail, but I really can't. I remember that the Esteem Wagon was plasticky, plain and extraordinarily ordinary. Since it was a wagon, it was mind-bogglingly useful, and since it was Japanese, it was incredibly reliable. The interior was as featureless as a summer afternoon in Wichita, but it was straightforward and functional. At the time, the Esteem was just another small wagon; there were others on the market, and I was sure that even better ones would come along.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Today, I'd give my eye teeth for a car like the Esteem Wagon. Because today useful little Japanese wagons are all but extinct, replaced by compact CUVs that hold less stuff and cost more money.

I figured Suzuki would always be around, but I was wrong about that, too. After somehow surviving a dark period of selling rehashed Daewoos and the oddball Aerio, they came out with the brilliant SX4 and the fantastic Kizashi -- and then, just as everything was looking promising, the company imploded.

It seems that no one else held the Esteem in proper esteem, because even in my hometown of Los Angeles -- also known as the Land Where Nothing Rusts and Some Cheap Dude Is Bound to Keep Even the Most Pathetic Car Ever Made on the Road Forever -- we never see them. The Esteem sold for next to nothing, and I'm wishing like crazy I bought one and socked it away in a garage. Opportunity: missed.

Which leads me to believe that maybe I should consider socking away some other loser car I've dismissed. Anyone want to sell an Outlander Sport?

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