Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Executives from the domestic automakers are often asked why they've been getting walloped by the growing popularity of imported brands. They invariably launch into complicated answers involving labor costs, exchange rates and other similarly incomprehensible business-speak.
On the flip side, when consumers are asked why they don't buy domestic vehicles as often as they used to the answers are a little more straightforward. Quality and reliability are still up there along with resale value and customer service, but above and beyond those practical concerns, there's the all-important matter of style. In the eyes of many American consumers the imports have it, the domestics don't.
Chevrolet hasn't done itself any favors over the years with its lineup of tired, uninspiring designs, but the tide is starting to turn, and there's no better example of that than the new 2005 Equinox compact SUV. Its styling is decidedly more L.A. than Detroit, and it boasts a competitive spec sheet that includes a standard V6, numerous standard features and an interior with more room than many midsizers. But are Americans really ready for Chevrolets that don't look like, well Chevrolets?
The Equinox makes for an easy transition. It's not only sharp-looking on the outside, it sports an interior that's equally fresh in its appearance. Silver metallic dash trim, a two-tone color scheme and backlit gauges give the Equinox a more upscale look than most of its competitors while the well-bolstered driver seat offers solid comfort and standard height adjustment. Although the center console houses the stereo, climate controls, central vents and shifter, it cants away from the driver to maintain a comfortable level of personal space. Aside from a few glaring lapses in materials quality on the dash and door panels, the Equinox ranks right up there with the Jeep Liberty for best-in-class interior honors.
As stylish as it is, however, the Equinox doesn't give up much in the way of functionality to attain its polished appearance. The shifter's placement in the middle of the center console keeps it within easy reach while at the same time freeing up space between the seats for bulky purses or briefcases. Designers even carved out some usable space around the shifter itself for smaller items like keys or cell phones a nice touch. The flip-up armrest also provides out-of-sight storage as well as a soft-touch lid for resting your elbow. Additional details like rubberized climate control knobs and an available premium sound system are two more features that contribute to the upscale feel of the Equinox.
Sit in the backseat and you would think you're in a midsize SUV thanks to the generous passenger room in back. Although the Equinox shares its basic structure with the Saturn Vue, it uses a longer wheelbase and wider track to open up even more interior room. A sliding rear seat with eight inches of travel makes the most out of the available room whether you need maximum cargo or passenger space. The cargo area itself is a little on the narrow side, but a multiposition shelf similar to that found in the PT Cruiser gives you a few options as to how the space can be utilized.
There are two trim levels offered, base LS and upscale LT, with either front- or all-wheel drive. Base LS models are well equipped with standard features like a CD stereo; keyless entry; power windows, mirrors and locks; and 16-inch wheels. Upgrading to the LT adds antilock brakes (also standard on AWD LS models), upgraded cloth upholstery, cruise control and alloy wheels. Available options include heated leather seats, a premium sound system, side curtain airbags and 17-inch wheels.
Although it's generally well executed throughout, the Equinox isn't without a few flaws. Not only are the door panels average-looking in appearance, the lack of soft-touch material on the upper portion makes them poor armrests on longer trips. The doors also feature flimsy door handles and slim storage bins with no bottle holders. Up front, we could do without the centrally located window switches, overly busy radio layout and small pop-out cupholders that won't do well with oversized drinks.
Such complaints are admittedly minor, but when you're competing against strong entries from Ford, Honda and Toyota among others, there's not much room for error. Chevrolet figured as much when it stocked the Equinox with a 3.4-liter V6 engine as standard equipment. Delivering 185 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, the six-cylinder power plant offers less horsepower than the Ford Escape (200) but more torque (193), while the Kia Sorento bests the Equinox in both categories with 192 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque.
The trump card for the Equinox, however, is its five-speed automatic. With an extra gear at its disposal, the transmission is able to keep the V6 planted firmly in its sweet spot for solid acceleration at nearly any speed. Its shifts come quickly and smoothly, giving the Equinox a satisfying level of performance on par with most of its peers. The old-tech V6 gets a bit thrashy at high rpm, but it makes up for it in efficiency with mileage estimates of 19 city/25 highway.
When it comes to ride and handling, the Equinox loses a bit of its luster. Although it uses a wider track than its Saturn Vue cousin, the Chevy still exhibits considerable body roll in corners. Its over-the-road comfort is admirable, but it lacks the nimble feel you might expect in a smaller SUV. Much of the problem stems from the electric steering system that's used to allow for more precise tuning and increased efficiency. Unfortunately, it never seems to get it right, as there's a constant feeling of detachment between the steering wheel and the suspension below.
Keep the Equinox pointed straight ahead and the steering deficiencies fall further into the background. There's very little road and engine noise at speed and even the moderate wind buffeting from the tops of the side windows barely disturbs the quiet cabin. It makes for a fine cruiser just don't expect to have much fun if you find a twisty shortcut.
Given that most SUV buyers don't expect sharp handling in the first place, the flaccid underpinnings of the Equinox shouldn't be seen as a fatal flaw. It's got too many other things going for it to get blackballed for wobbly steering, especially given its otherwise competent driving characteristics. Factor in the expansive interior that looks as good as it works and the Equinox doesn't offer much to complain about. It's not likely to go down in history as the vehicle that turned Chevrolet around, but after years of watching one Chevy after another fail to impress, the Equinox is a welcome change of pace.
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