UPDATE: The first episode Better Call Saul is available to watch for free on , , and (for the next 29 days, at least). So you have no excuse to miss Jimmy McGill's wheezing Suzuki's unusual starring role in the show.
About 15 minutes into the pilot episode of Better Call Saul, hard-luck public defender Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) leaves a courthouse and approaches a Cadillac DeVille in the parking lot.
The gleaming, white ride is the same make and model as the one McGill, then doing business as Saul Goodman, drives in Breaking Bad. But the action in AMC's prequel takes place years before the slick ambulance chaser's fateful first encounter with Walter White; at this point in his personal history, McGill is still so unpolished that he rehearses closing arguments to an audience of urinals, and he drives a vehicle to match: a yellow-mustard four-door sedan that ejects sooty refuse out of its muffler and purrs with all the grace of a terminal calico.
The regal "S" emblem embossed on the grill of the car parked next to the Caddy is hard to make out through the film of dust coating the exterior, but it stands for Suzuki, and McGill's beater, with its incongruously colored rear-passenger door, is a 1998 Suzuki Esteem.
In its sorry state, Jimmy's Esteem (pun very much intended by Saul's producers) is more a reflection of its owner's unrealized potential, and throughout the pilot, this stubborn survivor of Jimmy's tragicomic misfortune, including a smashed windshield thanks to some scheming skateboarders, becomes not only a visual metaphor for McGill/Goodman, but a character of its own.
In putting together the definitive guide to the 98 Esteem, Esquire spoke to individuals involved with the model's initial American release (American Suzuki Motor Corp. and pulled the plug on U.S. auto sales back in 2012), the Saul crew members who scoured the Earth for available models, and a few people who have driven Esteems and lived to tell the tale.
Here are 13 things to know about Better Call Saul's scene-stealing car, the honorably christened 1998 Suzuki Esteem.
1. The Esteem may have been priced too high for the U.S.
Gary Anderson, American Suzuki's VP of Sales and Marketing at the time of the '98 Esteem's release, remembers the "press conference at the L.A. Auto Show when I introduced that car" and that "the Japanese were high" on it, "but it was a tough time yen-wise, and we brought it out [at] a little bit higher price than it should have been."
2. And yet it still undercut the competition
The March 24, 1997 issue of Automotive News identified the Esteem's primary competition as the Ford Escort, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but saw the Suzuki's friendly base price of $12,319 as being its main advantage.
3. Esteem ads inexplicably featured talking giraffes
Hal Asher, then-CEO of Asher/Gould, the agency that headed up the American Esteem's TV and print ad campaign, remembers his team traveling to South Africa to shoot TV spots "because they were so cheap" to film there.
Asher recalls that the ads featured "a giraffe talking to the cameras as the car was going by, and the giraffe saying, 'That's a pretty nice-looking car.'"
He views the campaign as a success, but says Suzuki's ultimate automotive failing in the U.S., aside from not funneling enough money into its car division, was that its vehicles were so well made that they rarely required maintenance.
4. The Esteem may actually be indestructible
Taking Asher's assertion of the 1998 Esteem's quality one step further, Doug Semer, a former director of automotive service and quality at American Suzuki—who worked with Japanese engineers on test drives and improvements a year before the prototype was officially launched— characterizes the model as "bulletproof."
Moreover, Semer insists, "I watched a lot of cars at Suzuki, so to me the Esteem was the best" and claims there wasn't a single recall until after they'd stopped building it.
Marty Haynes, who's worked in various management capacities with American Suzuki and Suzuki Motor of America for nearly 40 years, adds that the company's Brea, California employee parking lot is still "peppered with" '98 Esteems.
5. The ads also featured a baby springbok
Another commercial from those South Africa shoots, remembers Loree McKenna, American Suzuki's national advertising and public-relations manager at the time, featured "a young lady driving [an Esteem], and she was driving rather briskly, and she was taking a baby springbok to safety and a cheetah was chasing her, and the vehicle had this sense of security and confidence."
She adds that the main objective was targeting individuals "secure in their careers [for whom] the Esteem was an extension of their personalities and their place in their career, families and society."
In fact, McKenna drove one herself back then, as it complimented her career being "in the fast lane."
6. And then there was this French-Canadian ad
7. The reviews, however, were meh
In a year 2000 , the Suzuki Esteem tied for 10th place. :
Judging by the snubbed-up ride motions, tight roll angles, and snazzy Speedline mags wearing V-rated tires, this should be the sports sedan of the class. But it rides stiffly and bounds over bumps with more adolescent enthusiasm than poise.
8. A stealth gas-guzzler?
Former Esteem owner Danny Joe Massengill of Four Oaks, North Carolina, who recently sold his 98 wagon (which he bought from his cousin), told Esquire that it's "a very comfortable, reliable car."
But he adds, "It don't get the gas mileage I thought it was gonna get."
9. They remain popular starter cars
At present, a good-condition, trade-to-dealer '98 Esteem GL sedan at $524. And they're still flying off used-car lots.
A dealer from Missoula, Montana (who chose to remain nameless) sold one to an eager teen just last week and describes the Esteem as a get-around-town-car, but advises, "I wouldn't want to get on the highway with it."
(Contrary to Mr. Massengill, he lauds its superior gas mileage.) Let's hope the purchaser of this '98 Esteem haggled on its $2,495 price:
10. The car Jimmy drives is modeled after a 1970s Pinto
Better Call Saul's tranportation boss Dennis W. Milliken told Esquire that he was instructed by series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to "start looking for this vehicle in the mid to late '90s range," and that they'd even toyed with the idea of having the word 'ESTEEM' written along the bottom part of the side of the car."
Milliken adds that "in my almost 40 years in this business, I have never searched so far and wide for multiples of the same vehicle," and that the final design was the "exact color scheme of a college roommate's '70s Pinto, red door and all."
11. Four Esteems are used for the show
They were procured from sellers in Denver, Phoenix, Houston, and Oregon.
12. Better Call Saul could give the Esteem the legacy it currently lacks
David Boldt, a former American Suzuki media-relations manager and journalist who covered the automotive industry in 1998, admits that while popular in Europe upon its release, it's a stretch to suggest that, in this country, Esteems have a legacy.
He says that's a function of how "most of the Suzuki automotive operation had a great potential upside but was never executed."