Compact SUVs and crossovers don’t set my pulses pounding, but their ubiquity on the roads of America speaks volumes about their popularity. At the heart of this most competitive segment, which alone accounts for 10% of the U.S. automobile market, is the refreshed 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, daring to take on the awesomely successful Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. After spending a week at the wheel of a brand-new Equinox LT2, I would say that it’s time for the Japanese heavyweights to look to their laurels. Chevy has crafted a nearly perfect rival.
The Equinox, like most Chevrolets, comes in LS, 1LT, 2LT, and LTZ trim levels, with front-wheel drive, like mine, or all-wheel drive. All models come with the Ecotec four-cylinder engine, upgraded from the previous generation to provide 182 horses rather than 164, and 172 pound-feet of torque instead of 160. (The four cylinder was not even available in the previous generation Equinox.) A 264-hp 3-liter V6 is available on all trims except the LS. The transmission is a six-speed automatic with an Economy feature that moves shift points down the revs for frugality’s sake but only results in a savings of about 1 mpg; essentially, it’s a cute gimmick that flaunts that all-important prefix “ECO.”
My car was a handsome jet black (“black granite metallic,” per the Monroney) and fresh off the Ontario assembly line, with barely 500 miles on the odometer. It had black leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, all adorned with red Recaro-style stitching. Other amenities abounded, including GM’s brilliant OnStar navigation/alarm system; Sirius XM satellite radio; a back-up camera (invaluable, those things, in cluttered parking lots); power everything, including the rear liftgate; traction control; eight standard airbags and rollover protection; cruise control; ABS; etc. You get the picture-the whole raft, and then some, all for $25K or so. Adding AWD or fripperies like a DVD entertainment system ($1,295) and navigation system ($2,145) can easily lift the sticker price into the $30K realm, where the Equinox is no longer quite as competitive. Keep it at $25K or below and you have a class-beater.
All of this comes in an esthetic package that grew on me. At first sight I said (or yawned), “ah, another small SUV, how thrilling,” but by the end of my tenure I found myself actively admiring the appearance of the Equinox. The swooping cut lines and hefty wheel arches make the vehicle look bigger than it is. Framing Chevrolet’s typical split-level bowtie-adorned grille are the headlights, which sleekly accentuate the front fenders. The 17-in. wheels are aluminum and snazzy-looking without being vulgar. Incorporated in the front bumper are air ducts that, in the 2LT trim, house fog lights in chrome bezels: an elegant touch. The hood has three folds, or “character lines,” and my spies inform me that it’s shorter than the pre-2010 Equinox’s because Chevy moved the base of the windshield forward to allow for more slippery aerodynamics; this pays off on the highway in the cabin’s tranquility, with no wind noise to speak of. The vehicle’s overall look, at both ends, is elegant, compact, and stylish.
Inside, the new-car smell, composed in equal parts of rubberized plastic, leather, and metallic laminate, got pretty strong in the midsummer Texas sun but never unpleasant. On the contrary, it was a reminder that I was driving the newest of the new, with all the toys. The dashboard, although made of not-so-elegant hard plastic, is well laid out, and controls are far more intuitive than in other Chevys I’ve driven. In the dark, an ice-blue glow, reminiscent of an aquarium or the Starship Enterprise, illuminates the gauges, which are housed in oblong cowlings. Cowlings and icy light are retro design cues filched from the new Malibu and evocative of the ancestors of both these Chevys: the Bel-Airs, Impalas, and Chevelles of the ’50s and ’60s. (It’s nice to see some honor paid to the forgotten but gifted designers of the past. ) The seats fore and aft are outstandingly comfortable; indeed, the rear ones can actually scoot forward and backward, just like the front ones, allowing for a realistic human freightload of four in comfort, five at a pinch. I hauled two full passenger loads and heard no complaints-quite the opposite. Everyone seemed surprised at the level of comfort in a vehicle of these smallish dimensions. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds to yield 63.7 cubic feet of cargo space (31.4 cubic feet when upright): competitive, but not the best in its class. The RAV4 has 73.0 cubic feet, the Honda CR-V 72.9.
Where the Equinox is undeniably best in its class is in fuel economy. Chevy claims a very impressive 22/32 mpg (city/hwy) for the 2.4 liter engine with 2WD and 20/29 for the same powerplant with AWD. This beats the CR-V’s 20/27 split and the 4-cylinder RAV4’s 22/28. It even squeezes out the Ford Escape Hybrid’s 31-mpg highway rating. What’s more, judging by my week’s commuting and weekend drives, these figures are genuine; I averaged 27 mpg, with a lot of stop-and-go traffic. Kudos to GM. And all this happens in the most pleasant driving environment imaginable, with no rattles or squeaks even over the bumpiest back roads and worst-maintained level crossings. On the highway, the only noise comes from the tires (Michelins on my car); as mentioned, on the road no wind can be heard, bar one’s own. With triple door seals, acoustic glass in front, and active noise cancellation, this $25K Equinox is as quiet as a $50K Lexus-and it delivers spirited performance, and on four cylinders too. I timed my 0-60 sprint at 8.7 sec., perfectly respectable for an SUV with four cylinders. In fact, this is the first four-cylinder vehicle I’ve driven in a long while that I didn’t think needed another pair of pistons under the hood. The Equinox stops well, too; even after a series of hard stops the brakes on mine showed no signs of fade. The steering, although a trifle numb at center, is responsive, and the fat wheel is a pleasure to hold-and to behold, with its stitched-leather-and-aluminum motif.
GM has produced an excellent small SUV here. Indeed, if I were in the market for such a vehicle, I’d bypass the Jeeps I’ve always had a soft spot for and-perhaps after wavering slightly outside the Honda lot-head to my local Chevy dealer. The Equinox should make a big difference to GM’s fortunes, depending on how they pitch it to the public. If they do it right, they’ll have a well-deserved sales bonanza on their hands. This car’s that good.