2002 Suzuki Esteem wagon
2002 Suzuki Esteem wagon. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Find this vehicle in Autos’s Classified Ads

Despite Suzuki’s long history – the company has existed since 1909 – it’s only been known as a builder of motor vehicles since the early 1950s, when it sold its first motorcycle (though that term is used loosely here, as the 1952 Suzuki Power Free was little more than a motorized bicycle).

The LJ80 four-wheel drive of 1980 was Suzuki Canada’s first four-wheeled road vehicle, and would evolve into the Samurai, which was sold until its replacement by the Sidekick in 1988. But Canadians would have to wait until 1984 for their first Suzuki car, the tiny, 48-horsepower Forsa hatchback. While the company was well known by this time for its motorcycles, the LJ80/Samurai and Forsa established Suzuki as a builder of decent, if basic, small vehicles.

With the early 1990s came the Forsa’s replacement, the Swift, a car that arguably established Suzuki in Canada, even if most people didn’t know it: General Motors sold many rebadged Swifts as Chevrolet Sprints, Geo Metros and Pontiac Fireflys until those models were discontinued after the 2000 model year.

In 1996, Suzuki expanded its presence in the small car market with the launch of the Esteem, a four-door sedan sold in Europe as the Baleno and Japan as the Cultus. The Esteem was powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine (98 horsepower in 1996 and 1997 and 95 hp in later models). In 1998, a station wagon version was introduced, sporting attractive bodywork that, from the rear anyway, could have been mistaken for a 7/8ths scale Subaru Legacy wagon. Station wagon versions from 1999 and up got a more powerful 1.8-litre engine making 122 horsepower.

Generally-speaking, the Esteem was a basic car, with few standard features in GL form. Uplevel GLX models, though, got niceties like air conditioning, cruise and a stereo (!) as standard equipment. Safety equipment, however, was limited to the requisite front airbags for driver and passenger, with ABS not becoming available until 2001 and 2002, when it was an option on GLX models. Take what comfort you can in the safety equipment the Esteem (didn’t) have, as neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tested it.

2002 Suzuki Esteem wagon
2002 Suzuki Esteem wagon. Click image to enlarge

Much easier to gauge is the Esteem’s frugal fuel consumption, borne out by the numbers it produced in Natural Resources Canada testing. Consumption ranges from 7.5 L/100 km city (38 mpg Imp) and 5.5 L/100 km highway (51 mpg Imp) for an Esteem sedan with the 1.6-litre engine and five-speed manual transmission, to 9 L/100 km city (31 mpg Imp) and 6.5 L/100 km highway (43 mpg Imp) for a wagon with the larger engine and four-speed automatic transmission (GL models got a five-speed manual as standard equipment; GLX models all came standard with the automatic).

The general vibe is that the Esteem is a dependable little car, but reliability is tough to gauge accurately due to the Esteem’s fairly low sales volume. Even fully-loaded Esteems are quite simple machines, though, so as long as parts are available (and they should be), an Esteem should be easy to repair and maintain.

Low values on the used-car market can make these little cars attractive to budget shoppers. At the low end of the spectrum, a 1996 Esteem GL is worth $2,625, according to Canadian Red Book, with a 2002 GLX wagon holding up the high end, at $9,825.

The Esteem’s availability in a station wagon body style is a definite selling point, but it’s worth noting that there are other small cars that are better bets. The Ford Escort was available as a sedan and wagon until 1999 (after which it was replaced by the Focus), and so could a Hyundai Elantra until 2000, and a five-door hatchback appeared in 2002. Both have proven reliable, and either can be found at used car dealers for prices similar to those of the Esteem. For all that the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire are the ultimate in throwaway motoring, they might even be preferable in this case; used ones are dirt cheap and the sheer number sold ensures that parts will available until close to the end of time, not to mention that anyone with a wrench can fix them.

If what you’re after is a disposable beater for running around town, an older Esteem might be worth considering, but if you need a car with more predictable reliability at a similarly low price, we’d recommend looking elsewhere.

Online resources

www.suzuki-forums.com – Despite having more than 8,250 members (as of July 2006), this site is fairly quiet. There’s a forum dedicated to the Esteem and the Baleno, the mechanically identical version of the car sold in overseas markets.

http://www.suzukiforum.com/ – There are fewer than 700 members here, but it’s a moot point for Esteem owners, as there’s no Esteem forum here. If you’re willing to dig, you might find something relevant in the General Auto Tech section.

Manufacturer’s Website


Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998252; Units affected: 9,731

1996-1998: Vehicles equipped with a Suzuki accessory engine block heater. Certain vehicles may experience a high temperature condition in the silicone connector plug and/or electrical extension cord. Prolonged high temperatures in the plug and cord can result in material degradation and an electrical short circuit. Arcing from a short circuit in the presence of combustible materials could result in an engine compartment fire. Correction: Block heaters will be replaced/refurbished with new units or components incorporating an improved design.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003155; Units affected: 867

2002: On certain vehicles, the windshield may not be properly secured to the vehicle body due to insufficient adhesion between paint applied during the second-stage painting process and paint applied during final-stage painting. If the windshield is not properly secured to the vehicle body, it may separate from the vehicle during a collision resulting in ejection of unbelted occupants and severe injury or death. Correction: Dealer will affect repairs.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Connect with Autos.ca