Were it not for its role in AMC’s new series, Better Call Saul, the Suzuki Esteem (also known as the Baleno and Cultus Crescent) might have been completely forgotten. The first offering from Suzuki in the compact segment, the Esteem was offered in sedan, hatchback and wagon formats. Suzuki had been successful with its subcompact Swift and SUV Vitara/Sidekick, and the Esteem seemed a natural next step. To Suzuki’s credit, the Esteem was an utterly competent offering that had no major vices. The problem was that, as a second-tier Japanese automaker, Suzuki needed something more compelling to capture attention. The Esteem wasn’t it.
Generally, when an automaker enters a segment for the first time, they try to distinguish themselves. For example, the Lexus LS400 was cheaper than German rivals and was extremely well-built. The Hyundai Excel was aggressively priced. The first Cadillac CTS was styled to look like no other car on the planet. Suzuki needed to either sharply undercut its rivals or offer some kind of unique selling point.
It did neither. Distinctive styling might have helped. While not unattractive, there was nothing terribly original about the Esteem’s styling. Clean to the point of invisibility, the Esteem could be mistaken for a Sentra or perhaps a later Tercel at first glance. Even the three-door hatchback, somewhat of a rarity in the segment by 1994, was rather dull; North America didn’t receive it. A facelift in 1998 failed to make the car look any more interesting.
There was nothing particularly distinctive about the Esteem’s mechanicals, either. There was a choice of 1.6 SOHC or 1.8 DOHC four-cylinder engines and either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Handling and ride were average, although the engines were rather noisy.
It seems no matter which market it was sold in, the pricing was not as sharp as it should have been. But as a used car, the Esteem’s obscurity and weak resale values makes for a solid used buy. Parts might not be as readily available as, say, a Corolla, but these little Suzukis are just as reliable. The person selling this Baleno sedan is probably not going to get as much as a Corolla seller would, but the eventual buyer looks like they will be scoring themselves a very well cared-for small car.
I must say though, it’s really quite hard to talk about something so numbingly competent and utterly dull. Does anybody have a strong opinion about the Suzuki Esteem? At least something like a Daewoo Nubira stirs up some kind of emotion (in my case, anger and frustration at its flimsiness). Perhaps I need to drive an Esteem and try and connect with it. Forgive me, though, if an Esteem is not high on my wish list of cars to drive.
Suzuki would try a decidedly different tack for its Esteem replacement, the 2002 Aerio/Liana. With an eccentric interior and oddball exterior styling, as well as available all-wheel-drive, Suzuki’s new compact was a breath of fresh air in a very homogenous segment. No, it was no class-leader, but clearly this little second-tier brand was realizing it had to try something different to get attention. And it didn’t, as sales were no better than the Esteem. Perhaps Suzuki overcompensated and the Aerio was too distinctive to succeed. It didn’t help that Suzuki’s dealer network has always been smaller than that of other Japanese automakers.
Cars like the Esteem must be the bane of an automotive journalist’s existence, because they’re too competent to savage but too bland to praise. I imagine, though, that owners were pretty pleased with their Esteems. For non-enthusiast buyers, the combination of quality, reliability, power and fuel economy would have made for an excellent A-to-B compact.