(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
One look is all it takes to explain the weak sales of the first-generation Chevrolet Equinox. It's essentially a scaled-down version of Chevy's other tired workhorse, the Trailblazer, a larger truck that was popular when Circuit City sold CRT monitors. Circuit City subsequently went bankrupt and closed all its stores, but not because sleeker, widescreen LCD monitors became the industry standard. General Motors, it's fair to say, went bankrupt in a huge part by hanging on to outdated products like the Trailblazer and Equinox.
Even in futuristic hydrogen-powered fuel cell trim, the old Equinox was a weak competitor in the compact SUV segment, which had long adopted fresher faces, greater fuel efficiency, and higher-quality interiors.
Buyers have instead gravitated toward the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape. Last year's Equinox sales of 67,447 were about 130,000 below the CR-V. The Escape, an 8-year-old model kept afloat with steady upgrades and a sophisticated hybrid, outsold the Chevy by more than double. If you'd like to be positive, Chevy was only 4,000 cars short of Toyota's SUV in 2008, as long you ignore RAV4 sales for the last six months of the year.
The 2010 Equinox has finally caught up, and in some areas, passed its competitors.
Replacing the 3.4 liter V-6 is a direct-injection 2.4 liter four, which despite lower torque, boosts fuel economy to a best in-class EPA 22/32 on the front-wheel drive model, far above the previous model's 17/24 (the front-wheel drive CR-V and RAV4 four-cylinder return 20/27 and 22/28, respectively).
An optional 3.0 liter V-6 engine makes 79 more horsepower and gets slightly better mileage than the old engine. An "eco" mode on the four-cylinder trim we tested is supposed to soften throttle response and make the transmission shift earlier. If anything changed, we didn't notice.
Being stuck in the city for much of our 258-mile drive kept us from achieving high numbers, and we averaged 21 miles per gallon - unremarkable but competitive - especially given that curb weight increased 178 pounds to 3,838, putting it about 400 pounds above the Japanese 'utes. On a brief highway stretch, we easily saw 32 miles per gallon on the trip computer display.
But the Equinox, while not towering in width or height, is a longer vehicle, with a wheelbase stretched almost a foot beyond the CR-V. That translates into a roomy backseat with generous legroom, and the dual flip-out LCD monitors with RCA inputs integrated into the front seats would be icing on the upscale, two-tone leather atmosphere, were it not for missing rear air vents and center headrest.
Up front is a space-age V-shaped dash laid out like an MP3 player. There's a record button for storing music on the 40 GB hard drive, and even the air-conditioning (single-zone only) has a power button like those found on, well, computer monitors. The gauges are surrounded in silver plastic molds that nod to the Camaro, and the whole dash is filled with high-quality, attractive plastics and easy-to-read buttons.
Outside, the big-mouth split grille proudly shows off its gold bow tie emblem, and the body's high beltline and sloping crease along the side give less of a "truck" appearance and more of a sporty crossover look than before. Optional 18-inch wheels, unlike our tester's 17s, would better fill out those big fender flares.
GM's navigation and infotainment system, which can't match all of Ford's SYNC voice features (nothing else can), is nonetheless a great effort. Maps are rendered in smooth vector images, and the system kindly interrupts your drive to inform of traffic delays and weather advisories. A traffic alert icon on the map of I-93 South indicated a broken-down vehicle ahead, and soon enough, the tow truck with lights flashing came into view in the right lane.
It's all part of XM's satellite service, but no other manufacturer has integrated this data so well. BMW, for example, makes its owners wade through iDrive submenus to find it, and even then, the information isn't specific enough to be helpful. The dashboard's angle on the Equinox, however, made it tough to use the touch-screen without leaning far forward.
With 182 horsepower coming at 6,700 rpm and only 174 pound-feet of torque at a rather peaky 4,800, the engine sweats to push every pound when called upon. Most drivers will enjoy the engine's efficiency, but there's zero fun to be had here. The six-speed automatic is up to task, downshifting quickly when summoned and clicking off smooth upshifts when the smoke clears. At cruise or on city streets, the Equinox shows off its Cadillac side - a quiet cabin combined with a tied-down chassis that ate some large ruts and bumps without any kickback through the steering column. Body roll is relatively minor considering the plush ride.
Mushy brake feel with long pedal travel and loosey-goosey steering disappoint. Granted, it's not competing against the BMW X3, but those two dynamics make the Equinox feel larger and less stable than it really is. Can we get an SS package, pretty please?
All told, the $32,330 sticker on our loaded LTZ, with destination, includes the navigation/infotainment system, rear multimedia displays, heated seats, leather with red stitching, Bluetooth, USB port, hard drive, remote start, and power everything, including the liftgate. It's s a solid deal for something this stylish, roomy, and adorned with fine materials and attention to detail. The base model starts at $23,185 with destination, and all-wheel drive is optional with either four-cylinder or V-6 engines.
Chevy's effort at making refinement and interior quality its top priorities have paid off in the Equinox, similar to what the Malibu achieved in 2008. With the 2011 Cruze replacing the Cobalt and 2011 Spark up against the aging Aveo, Chevy seems committed to changing its substandard reputation against the imports. So long as the money doesn't run out, we're confident they'll have a good shot.
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