After years of taking it on the chin from the imports in the slugfest known as the automotive marketplace, Chevrolet is finally getting in a few shots of its own. Its recently revamped Malibu may not be the most handsome sedan around, but it's hard to argue with its combination of performance, versatility and value. Now the company has turned its efforts toward the crossover SUV segment. The new Equinox offers the same core virtues as the Malibu but wrapped up in a more stylish package that we imagine most would be proud to show off to family and friends.
Based on the Saturn Vue platform, the Equinox offers a few advantages over its cousin that are immediately apparent — such as a roomier, classier cabin — as well as a few that may not be as obvious at first glance. Although some folks might assume that the Equinox competes against compact SUVs, such as the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins and Honda CR-V, it's actually sized more like a midsize 'ute. With a generous 112.5-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 188.8 inches, it's virtually the same size as a Toyota 4Runner.
Take a gander at the Equinox's mug and there's no mistaking it for anything but a Chevy. Chevrolet has forged an identity for its trucks and SUV lines with those almost angry-looking headlights, split grille and big horizontal chrome band that bisects them. It works very well on the Equinox, as the proportions seem spot on. The rest of this SUV is attractive as well; a crouching stance and muscled-up wheel arches are complemented by the (optional) sharp alloy wheels that, unlike what we usually see on most Chevys, don't look like plastic wheel covers.
Auto journalists have been griping about Chevy's overly plastic interior décor for decades, and it seems that the company is finally getting the message. Unlike the Vue, the Equinox's cabin boasts an attractive look and feel, for the most part. Metallic accents that are all the rage these days are found on the doors and center stack and, along with soft-touch dash and door trim, give the Equinox's interior a quality look and feel. But although it is near the head of the class for 'utes at this price point, the Equinox still trails the class standard, the Kia Sorento, in this respect.
With firm cushioning and good back support, the front seats proved comfy on a few hours' drive. Still, we had a few complaints: Although we appreciate the lumbar support, the manual-adjustment knob (located in front of the seat) takes way too many turns to affect any change. Additionally, the bottom cushion could use some side bolstering for more support in the turns.
Plenty of legroom, reclining backrests and ideal under-thigh support make the rear seat easy to take should you not shout "shotgun" quick enough. Dubbed the Multi-Flex rear seat, it slides eight inches fore and aft — a great feature that had us thinking, "Why didn't anyone think of this before?" Either legroom or cargo capacity can be optimized by moving the seat up or back, depending on the inseam of those riding in back.
Getting into the spacious cabin is easy, thanks to a relatively low step-in height and large rear door openings that aid ingress and egress. Still, our shorter staffers thought it could've been even better, as they noted the lack of grab handles.
Available in two trim levels, base LS and luxurious LT, the Equinox can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. Most folks would probably be happy with the LS, as it provides plenty of standard niceties such as power everything (except seat adjustments), a CD player, keyless entry and 16-inch wheels. Spring for the LT and antilock brakes (also standard on AWD LS models), upgraded cloth upholstery, deep-tinted glass, cruise control and alloy wheels are thrown into the mix. Pricing starts at $21,560 for the two-wheel-drive LS and goes to $24,900 for the AWD LT. Our tester, an AWD LT, was loaded up with options like leather seating, the OnStar system and XM radio, making the bottom line $27,875.
Regardless of trim level or drive configuration, there is just one powertrain offered in the Equinox — the workhorse "3400" V6 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. Say what you will about "antiquated" pushrod design, this 3.4-liter V6 has plenty of punch and feels more robust than its relatively meager output rating of 185 horsepower might suggest. Yes, the Vue offers Honda's 3.5-liter, 250-horse V6, but the difference in performance between a V6 Vue and the Equinox is much less than you might think, considering the 65 hp and 32 lb-ft advantage that the Vue has. In fact, the hard numbers generated at our test track show the Equinox hitting 60 mph in 8.7 seconds compared to the Vue's 7.9 seconds. We're talking less than a second in that benchmark test. Both SUVs are rated to tow 3,500 pounds, but we'd recommend the Vue for that duty as its additional torque would probably minimize the loss of performance after a heavy trailer is hooked up.
Although the smooth and quick five-speed automatic gearbox can hardly be faulted, we were perplexed by the gear selector. It's pretty much standard fare if you just plunk it into drive, but look at the selector and you'll discover that it doesn't allow you to hold certain gears, such as third. Fortunately, that was a nonissue as the smart gearbox was never found out of step.
Scanning the spec sheet, you may notice that the Equinox is lacking disc brakes all 'round. With drums in back, we expected mediocre stopping performance. But like its acceleration, the Equinox's deceleration surprised us. At the track, our trio of panic stops from 60 mph produced excellent numbers — 123, 125 and 131 feet. Yes, there was some fade, but overall, the brakes turned in a top-notch performance and felt good doing it.
Tuned more for ride comfort than twisty road acrobatics, the Equinox's all-independent suspension should please most folks shopping this segment. Putting some serious miles on the Equinox is relaxing, as the suspension swallows up the bumps, and the lack of intrusive wind and road noise makes for a tranquil cabin. Running the Equinox through the curves reveals some, but not excessive or off-putting body roll. The electric power steering is the chief fun-sapping culprit, as it's too light and a little slow. Although we don't expect Corvette-like reflexes from an SUV, we do think that Chevrolet's engineers could beef up the steering feel and perhaps give it a slightly faster ratio.
At the end of the day, the Equinox scores high on most counts; it's peppy, rides nice and quiet, has a spacious cabin with a few trick features and is reasonably priced. So the handling may not paste a grin on an enthusiast's face. But really, do people buy SUVs so they can strafe apexes on canyon roads or do they want them for more practical reasons? If the answer is the latter, then Chevrolet should be happy with its latest creation.
Road Test Editor Dan Kahn says: In the past, I've not been a huge fan of the crossover SUVs that have been slowly gaining popularity lately. Not quite as solid as a truck-based full-size SUV, yet not as low-slung and utilitarian as a station wagon, these niche market vehicles are essentially passenger car platforms stretched and lifted to look like something they're not. Being a died-in-the-wool pickup fan, I like my trucks to be big, rear-wheel drive and heavy-duty. Therefore, I wasn't prepared to enjoy my drive down the California coast in our latest test vehicle. After all, like most of my Edmunds compatriots, I was less than impressed with the Saturn Vue, which shares much of its platform with the Equinox.
With that said, it came as a huge surprise when I found myself wearing an ear-to-ear grin as I cruised along in Chevy's newest midsize sport-ute. A combination of factors makes the Equinox a far better car than its Saturn stablemate. First and foremost, a longer wheelbase contributes increased legroom and a more solid, stable ride. The front suspension seemed well set up, and large aluminum wheels not only looked cool, they also provided plenty of lateral grip in sweeping turns.
Under the hood, GM's venerable old workhorse 3400 V6 may not be high-tech or cutting-edge, but it gets the job done admirably. With plenty of bottom-end torque on tap, squirting through gaps in traffic was effortless and fun. Finally, I was quite impressed with the Equinox interior. While some low- and midpriced GM vehicles tend to lack the fit and finish of their Japanese competitors, the Equinox seemed quite well put together considering its entry-level price. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and while the leather wasn't exactly fit for a British touring car, it was definitely a step up from standard cloth trim. The shifter layout is a little weird, and I didn't like the fact that it doesn't have detents for all the gears, but otherwise the controls were easy to access and operate. I also thoroughly enjoyed the optional XM radio, which is quickly working its way onto my "must-have" list.
Overall, I was more than impressed by this stylish little SUV. Classy looks, a comfortable interior and a well-proven engine all make the Equinox a definite contender in the burgeoning midsize SUV wars, and the price is right in line for first-time new car buyers.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says: One quick familiarizing drive with the Chevrolet Equinox, and I realized I had just discovered my younger sister's next car. Never mind the fact that she recently bought a Chevrolet Malibu for her three-member family, I already had designs on talking her out of the sedan, and into an Equinox. To me, it seemed that this new midsize SUV would perfectly suit her small family's needs.
Jodie is in her mid-20s and works for the local school district, and her husband, Mike, is an elementary teacher/high school football and basketball coach. They have one three-year-old child, plan to have a second soon and have little money. These few identifiers drive the Equinox right up their alley.
First, it's an SUV, not a minivan, which scores immediate points with the Hotchkiss family. As an SUV, it kills the "minivan mom" image Jodie is trying to avoid, and makes Mike look like a cool dude to his high school teams. The trendy two-tone interior is suitably attractive and the clean center stack looks sporty in all silver, while functional additions like side net pockets provide fashionable extra storage space. Unfortunately, like the Saturn Vue, the window switches are on the center console (which is annoying until you become familiar with the Equinox) and are strangely labeled much like stove burner controls, using graphics to describe which switch controls each window. Also, the deep, flat dash looks like it could become a major dust bowl, and the rear pull-out cupholder is just begging to be stepped on by my mischievous niece (a breakaway setup as in the Ford Freestar would have been advisable).
But unlike most SUVs, the Equinox is easy to climb in and out of, and doesn't swill gas to the tune of 14 miles per gallon, the EPA's city rating for a Ford Explorer, but instead sips at 19 mpg in the city and cuts back to 25 mpg on the highway. It's big enough to haul the current Hotchkiss kid and all her accoutrements, plus allows room for the future little one. It has a high beltline which may not offer children an easy outside view, but it does help protect against flooding extra sunlight onto their faces. The wide, flat second-row seat is ideal for mounting child safety seats, with no excessive bolstering to make them rock from side to side. There's also plenty of legroom, even behind a six-foot-plus driver, so little seat-kicking feet won't be an issue. The cargo bay, although somewhat narrowed by intrusive shock towers, has enough space to load a couple of strollers, plus removable shelves to transport the more fragile items on top.
So it's easy to see why Jodie and Mike would want an Equinox. But the best part is at a starting price of around $22,000, even on a school teacher's salary, they could actually afford one as well.
"I bought this vehicle about 2 weeks ago, and I really love it. I wasn't really thinking about getting an SUV until I came across a picture of this vehicle on GM's Web site and instantly liked the exterior design. The price range was affordable so I test-drove it and was on my way to becoming a new 'nox owner. I enjoy the quiet highway ride, the sliding rear seat and the extra power outlets. I would suggest smaller rear headrests, darker interior cloth, power window buttons on the driver's door." — caleros, June 9, 2004
"I absolutely adore this little SUV — it drives like a car — handles great and is perfectly designed with comfort in mind! I love the radio, it tells you who's singing the song that's playing, and the fold-down seats and the shelf in the back for extra storage! I wouldn't change a thing!" — Sexieblueyes25, June 3, 2004
"I traded in my 2002 Jeep Liberty Renegade for the Equinox. I saw the Equinox at the car show in Philly and I absolutely fell in love with it. The ride is smooth especially for me, who recently had back surgery. My kids love the legroom. It's an awesome car & is very stylish. The one thing I don't like is the light interior; it's easy to get stains & see the stains." — Edith Lugo, May 25, 2004
System Score: 8
Components: This optional 180-watt system has seven speakers. A pair of tweeters nests next to the A-pillars, while each door contains a midrange driver. A subwoofer resides in the right-hand corner of the cargo area.
The head unit is located within easy reach on the center stack and contains the expected tuner as well as an mp3-compatible CD player. Our vehicle also had the option of XM Satellite Radio. Seven preset equalizer settings ranging from "talk" to "jazz" tailor the settings to the type of music being listened to. Of course, manual adjustment of bass, treble and midrange is also offered.
Operating the system reveals a mixed bag in terms of ergonomics. Although we're happy to see that it has traditional, intuitive knobs for volume and tuning, there are a number of similar buttons that take time to become familiar with. Offsetting this minor gripe are steering wheel-mounted controls that, in addition to the standard volume, seek and audio source functions, offer fingertip selection of station presets and a mute switch.
Performance: This system should satisfy most casual listeners. Generous power and a fairly broad range at low to midrange volume settings mean most music, be it classical or hard rock, is reproduced pretty accurately. Tweak the volume knob, however, and that powerful bass gets a little muddy, in spite of the subwoofer.
Garnering universal praise was the XM Satellite Radio that offers over 100 channels of crystal-clear reception from coast to coast. Most stations are thematic, ranging from individual decades of the '40s through the '90s to bluegrass, sports and comedy stations. In addition to the initial cost of the XM hardware, there is a monthly fee of about $10. To sweeten the deal, the first three months are free, and although a few staffers initially said they'd never pay for radio stations, they were singing a different tune after thoroughly enjoying this great advance in audio technology.
Best Feature: XM satellite stations.
Worst Feature: Loses composure at high volume settings.
Conclusion: For most people most of the time, this is all the audio they will need. Serious audiophiles will want to go to the aftermarket. — John DiPietro
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