(first posted 11/15/2015) Were it not for its role in AMC’s 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.
Curbside Classic: 1997-99 Daihatsu Applause
Curbside Classic: 1989 Daihatsu Charade
Curbside Capsule: 2002-06 Suzuki Aerio
The Suzuki “Low Self” Esteem….
In America, the name of the car killed it. Any talk of “esteem” immediately brings to mind all sorts of touchy-feely, liberal, mandatory over-caring, and any other emotion that someone who drives a decently horsepowered sedan, much less a truck, runs away from. There was something about that car that just screamed “loser” to the American audience. Camrys and Corollas got their owners more respect.
To be contrary, I think a person would have to have plenty of SELF esteem to drive this car as in, “I’m happy with myself; I don’t need to try to impress anyone with the car I drive.” said the man who has owned 8 Mercedes-Benz. Yeah, I know, I should practice what I preach but I like the way a Benz rides.
The Esteem and the Aerio looked like the original designs called for cars quite a bit longer and/or wider, but something required these ungainly dimensions to be adopted. In addition, the wheels and tires look at least 2 sizes too small for the designs.
To it’s….credit (?), the Aerio was available in colors that, for better or worse “caught your eye”.
Actually, that 3 door Esteem looks fairly attractive. You can almost see it as the basis for a “pocket rocket” of sorts.
Mr. Suzuki is VERY adamant that his company remains independent. One way or another that may be what eventually kills the company.
The irony is that Suzuki’s hookups have been the things that have most damaged the company. GM and then VW. The GM designs that were pushed on them were largely flops and the VW tie-up, Mr. Suzuki had to pay to get out of.
“the wheels and tires look at least 2 sizes too small for the designs.”
We’ve become accustomed to over-size wheels & tires, and so, I admire Suzuki for not following a foolish trend. Not long ago, 13-inch wheels were the adequate standard for compact cars.
In my opinion, the shift toward large wheels on simple drivers, and the insistence on mag-style wheels for everyone is a $-grab
I know a woman who used to drive an Aerio. The wheels always looked too small. Great way to get more interior space – think Alec Issigonis and the original Mini – but here it plays havoc with the car’s proportions.
I always found it funny how in Better Call Saul, which is set in 2002, Saul’s Esteem is supposed to be a 4-year-old car, yet it is smashed up like a 20-year-old car.
(Good show, but that’s only one of its automotive anachronisms. A Chevy Uplander, a four-door Wrangler, and a facelifted Jeep Liberty all appear. In one scene, some of the Crown Victoria police cars have the 2003+ positive-offset steel wheels. I don’t usually let such things take away from my enjoyment, but I couldn’t help but notice when the Uplander and Liberty appeared in the same scene.)
I agree, they dropped the ball there. There’s no way that ar would be in the shape it is. Couldn’t they just have found a real 15-20 year old beat up econobox? Shouldn’t be hard.
I don’t know. The old drag racer’s axiom of the technique to go as fast as possible, “Drive it like you’re mad at it”, seems to apply to the lives of a lot of these dirt-cheap, bottom-feeder cars. The owners seem like they’re either very indifferent or very angry in how they treat their vehicles. As such, the shape of Jimmy/Saul’s POS Esteem, even at only four years, doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Regardless, like the cars of Breaking Bad, a beat-up, old Esteem seems like a memorable choice for Better Call Saul.
I saw dozens of these Baleno in Tassie in 98, they seemed to be rental of choice, a mate did a tour of Tas in one said it went ok for what it was with 3 adults aboard, NZ is littered with Suzukis some badged as Chevrolets it appears the Cruz name was in use by GM from about 03 onwards on Suzukis, the second generation Swift is a best selling used import people love them though having had one as a loaner for a week I wonder why but I guess good economy reasonable performance and handling and great reliability are enough. Balenos are very cheap Ive noticed some dont even make four figures at auction.
We bought a 1998 used Esteem wagon with about 50K miles on it in 2001. It served us very well until we sold it with 190K on it. It handled well, had great A/C and heat, had loads of room, and got 33 mpg all it’s life. I would prefer more power, but there is much to be said for a car that’s efficient, solid, and comfortable. I enjoy having a car that not everyone has.
The thing I noticed the most about Suzuki car sales was the lack of marketing in my area. For the longest time I didn’t even know Suzuki even sold cars in the USA due to the lack of marketing. Then of course when I did finally start to notice Suzuki cars, they were simply uninspiring, not bad looking, just didn’t distinguish themselves from the crowd.
Right, the Suzuki Bolero / Balalaika. Reasonably popular in its days, although Suzuki is best known for its A- and B-segment cars. The Suzuki Alto and the Swift, two of their most renowned and long-lasting model names.
I checked the Suzuki website to see what they’ve got these days. Their smallest model is now called the Celerio, and to my surprise an entirely new (and different) Baleno will be introduced next year. The good old little Jimny 4×4 is also still present.
There is also a new Vitara and SX-Cross.
In my mind, SX-Cross is really ugly but Vitara looks OK and the price is very competitive – the only crossover that is cheaper on our market is Dacia Duster.
I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I always quite liked the styling of these. Something about it reminded me of a shrunken version of the original Infiniti Q45 (but without the belt buckle).
They were neat-looking, true, but as William said, there was absolutely nothing to set them apart. No matter what country you lived in, you’d have to ignore some truly excellent small cars to buy one of these. Plus you’d have to find the dealer first – not easy around here, where I had to drive down a cobbled back lane and into an unmarked shed for service for my Swift.
Being different is fun, sure, but driving a better car is even more fun. 🙂
From a time when Japan could no longer do entry level in USA. Had happened before to Germany, when the Rabbit way outpriced the Beetle, and in the USA when the Chevette was replaced by captive imports. The Forenza that really replaced these was Korean, as you could no longer make a profitable small car in Japan, unless a premium could be charged. Tough luck for Suzuki. Also for Mazda 2 or Honda Fit, both of which were quickly Mexico bound. Wonder where Hyundai will make the next Accent, now Korea is probably looking expensive. Thailand? or Mexico?
Both the Baleno and the Liana were Big hits in Norway due to being the cheapest AWD cars on the market, and some really effective commercials declaring them the official Norwegian peoples car!
i think the Baleno was the best selling car in the country for a while.
Almost none left now though, due to rust and uncaring owners.
My family had an Impreza, so i always loathed the Baleno 😉
Another possibility for Hyundai is India. It could kill 2 birds with 1 stone: they break into a heretofore untapped market and find a huge source for inexpensive labor. Indonesia is another possibility, as that country is keen to develop the kinds of industries that are needed to get your “name on the map” and Indonesia is starting to supply Japan and Korea.
India would have been a good place to source these Esteems. Suzuki has and already had then a large presence there mainly making what we know as the Chevy Sprint. I believe it is fairly complex to get operations set up there, so it might be difficult for Hyundai. Indonesia might be easier for them, Indonesia and South Korea have done a number of military deals, and I believe there is some car manufacturing already happening through Ford and Mazda.
I saw a fairly good number of these back in the day; the wagon sold decently well at retail because none of the Japanese Big 3 did a compact wagon between when Toyota dropped the Corolla wagon toward the end of the E90 series and launched the Matrix as an early ’03 model. In the late ’90s your compact wagon choices were a Hyundai Elantra (the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time second generation, a Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer,, a Subaru Impreza or this.
Forgot to add, sedans were common for a while but mostly because Thrifty Car Rental made them a backbone of their fleet for a few years. They must’ve sold them out of the area, they faded fast but I still see the occasional wagon.
I know a couple who owned a pair of late-model Esteem sedans. They must have bought them at the same time, or nearly so.
I drive a Baleno as a hire car in Minorca once. Other than noting that it was named after a whale, it left no impression whatsoever.
Here in South Florida, I used to see more Esteem wagons than I did sedans. Two toning was fairly popular.
Looks like a 9/10 Subaru Outback….
A relative owns one of these, a 1.6 manual in white with hubcups. It´s the blandest car I´ve ever driven (and I´ve driven some…). But it has given sixteeen years of totally trouble-free service. And, after all, a car is a device to go from A to B…
My folks thought about buying a Suzuki Aerio Estate in the early 2000s to give their 95 Voyager a break and use it for mainly long hauls as well as cargo duty. Never did materialize that plan.
These cars were pretty forgettable, even for a Suzuki. One of my best friend’s dad’s owned one as a second car to his pickup. Rode in it once and predictably wasn’t impressed.
The good point about the Esteem, was that it was a REAL Japanese Suzuki… Not a rebadged Korean Daewoo POS, like the Suzuki Forenza or Verona.
The Esteem was also pretty reliable… I see quite a few driving around, and the wagon is especially attractive, reminds me of a small Nissan Wingroad.
I wish the US got the Baleno two door hatchback… It looks like an 86-89 Mazda 323.
The red one in the pic, almost looks like an 88-89 Mazda 323 GTX.
“I wish the US got the Baleno two door hatchback… It looks like an 86-89 Mazda 323”
The resemblance of the 3 door to the 1990-1995 Toyota Starlet is even more apparent:
Namewise, I always thought the Suzuki Esteem sounded like the Daihatsu Applause’s cousin. When the Liana was launched in New Zealand, the accompanying advertising said ‘Liana’ was an acronym for ‘Life In A New Age’…
Fun fact: red Baleno wagons were Coca-Cola NZ’s default rep wagon in the late 90s. Then they switched to the gen1 Kia Sportage and gen 2 and 3 Suzuki Grand Vitara, all red, natch. Nowadays they mostly drive diesel VWs, in various colours. I worked for Coke’s opposition through the 00s, and our reps laughed at the Balenos etc from the comfort of their Mazda6 wagons (and more recently Mazda CX5s).
One of my former employees drove an ex-Coke Baleno, and I actually thought it was a neat-looking little thing. It was apparently very reliable.
A family friend had a ’98 Esteem 4 door sedan automatic. I doubt the transmission ever had a fluid change, but still worked well. Engine oil changes were a rare treat as well. These cars do seem to be as durable as a Tercel or Corolla of the period. The car was at around 200k and was still running well, despite being poorly maintained. Once time the trunk lid would not shut so I took a look at it. The metal was so thin and soft there were finder indentations in the lid. The lid was out of alignment with the striker pin on the body, and I easily by hand bent it back in shape so it was lined back up and would close. It wasn’t in a collision, it just bent out of shape from use. The whole body structure felt very flimsy, but in fact was a very durable and reliable car. Her’s was an ex rental which she got quite cheaply. It was a sight to see her get in and out of the little cars, she was at least 300 lbs.
Suzuki made uncompetetive cars for so long, like the Esteem and Aerio, that it seemed like a foregone conclusion they would pull out of the US market–but just before they did, they actually fielded a couple of (somewhat) serious contenders in the SX4 and the Kizashi. I thought the Kizashi in particular was a very attractive car, shame it was only sold here for a year or two before they pulled the plug.
As William says, not an exciting car but perhaps a sound secondhand buy. I hired one in Sacramento in 1998 and can remember little of it, except to uncomplainingly took a damn god thrashing, and started with 7 miles on the clock.
And the Liana was the first Top Gear “Star in a reasonably priced car” car in 2002
My dad test drove the 1.6 GLX model in 1995 before settling on a Daewoo Cielo from the same dealer. The Daewoo was a bigger and better equipped car and a few thousand dollars cheaper as well. When I wanted to replace my first car in 1999, I drove the 1.3 liter base model with an automatic; I have seen snails move faster than that one! Later I drove in a station wagon model with the 1.8 liter engine and a manual transmission, and “that was more like it!” There are still a lot of them around, but owners complained about reliability issues when they first came to market in the mid-’90s.
I had a 1999 Esteem Wagon. I thought it was a very reliable and good looking car that served me well. It looked very sharp with the blue metallic paint. The dealership (Oldsmobile) wasn’t as impressive and driving for months with a clunking noise (loose front strut) distracted from a “nice” car. No advertising of this car didn’t help.
Fast forward to 2021 and Suzuki offers the Swace which is really the (hybrid) E210 Corolla with some different trim. I know they sell them here in Austria but have not seen any yet. Or maybe I did but assumed it to be a Corolla (itself a hardly memorable vehicle)…
One thing I do love about living in Pueblo is I always seem to get the CC effect as I have seen it called here. I either see the cars and then find a write up later or vice versa. I have seen at least 2 of these in the flesh putting around town. One a burgundy Sedan like the car in the top picture and a dark blue wagon. Both look well worn but they soldier on. I have seen the wagon a few times over the past year around town. And of course, for me, it gets points just for being a wagon and being on the road. Our county does not do emissions testing (How long that will last at this point with everyone moving around is anyone’s guess) and it does tend to help keep the older and obscure models on the road.
A few others I have seen lately doing daily driver duty include:
Circa 1985 Olds Firenza Sedan in faded red
At least three Cavalier wagons, 2 of which I believe to be 1986 or older
Mercury Monarch coupe
A very beaten Ford Fairmont Sedan
1988 Taurus GL Sedan being driven like a Ferrari on CO-47
1990 Taurus GL Wagon white, see often
1987 Sable GS Sedan White, see often
2 very early El Caminos
Circa 1971 Ford LTD Sedan
1988 Mercury Tracer 5 door hatch
1985 Reliant K Coupe
1989 Aries K Sedan White with red cloth
1982-86 Sentra 2 door coupe and a door hatchback, exact years of each unknown but see both often. and know they are both from that generation of Sentra.
1987 or ’88 Cutlass Ciera Sedan burgundy. See often.
There’s a few others that are even more obscure than these. Most of these were once hugely mainstream models that were fairly thick on the ground in their day. Bigger cities dont see as many older models in use as Daily drivers these days. Cars like this always catch my eye in town.
Of course I have seen some extremely battered cars in this town as well. Cars that look like they were driven off a cliff and are still in use. Not uncommon for people to drive around with no Hood or quarter panels here. Pueblo is funny in its weird ways.