Chevy Equinox a 'threat to be reckoned with'


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on June 18, 2009 at 12:31 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: GM's new ride

Now that we're all, at least temporarily, part owner of an automotive icon, I'm checking in on our investment.   GM now has a better deal on labor.   Reducing commitments to pension and health care certainly helps the bottom line.   Without great new product though, they're stuck in neutral.   First out of the shoot is Chevrolet's 2010 Equinox.  Targeting the heavy hitters - RAV4, CR-V and Escape - their strategy is sound. This is the kind of vehicle people are buying these days.  If they're buying anything at all that is.

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This is the second generation Equinox and a big step forward from the first.  Think it's a knee jerk reaction to current events?  Remember, it takes two to three years to go from sketch to factory product.  Engineers started work on this Equinox without any hint of the economic Armageddon that was about to descend on the entire automotive world. 

So, how'd they do?

Take a bow Chevy.  Equinox is suddenly a threat to be reckoned with.  The old one was fine; the new one gets what it needs to take on all comers.  That's not to say it's perfect.  In certain aspects it loses out to the competition.  But taken as a whole, Equinox is a very compelling package and one that should surprise those who claim The General can't compete.  Buyers who take the time to compare Equinox to Ford, Honda, and Toyota CUVs could have a tough time walking away without a new set of Chevy keys.

This piece will be longer than most since a lot of shoppers are looking at compact crossovers.  I won't be diving into the political football about saving the domestic brands, nor will I gaze into my crystal ball to foresee the future of the business.  To quote Yoda: "Always in motion is the future" (ya gotta love the internet).  It's my opinion that persistent  perceptions of the auto industry are no longer true.   The old GM is guilty of many things but cars like Malibu, CTS, G8, Aura, Vue, Traverse, Camaro and Enclave are as competitive as anything out there.  But I digress …  

Owners want 5 things

When it comes to interior volume, CR-V, RAV4, Escape and Equinox are all in the same 130-cubic-foot ballpark.  They're similar in exterior width too, but when it comes to length Equinox wins.  Or would that be loses? It's some 10 inches longer than the Honda which is actually slightly larger inside.  It might be about crumple zones but judging on design efficiency alone, Equinox isn't off to the best start. 

Loads of research by GM - done in the garages of living, breathing CUV owners - found they want five things in this order: Fuel economy, value, quality, style, and all-wheel drive.  They also want great taste that's less filling, but that's off topic.  It's in this checklist that Equinox begins to gain ground, making the horse race a lot more interesting.

Fuel economy is #1

Compact crossover owners told Chevy the main reason for buying their vehicle was gas mileage.  Reality check: Not all of these rigs do very well in this department.   One reason the outgoing Equinox didn't snag more shoppers is that it's only engine was a V6.  Now there's a choice.  The smaller one is a 2.4-liter inline 4 that produces 182 horsepower and 172 lbs-ft of torque.  The 3.0-liter V-6 pumps out 264 HP and 222 lbs-ft.  They tow 1,500 and 3,500 pounds respectively.  Both engines are direct injected and both get 6-speed transmission.  Choose between front and all-wheel drive.

The result is this -  the 4-cylinder bags an EPA-estimated 32 mpg highway, 22 city rating when ordered with front-wheel drive.  CR-V in the same configuration trim scores 27/20, RAV4 with a 4-cylinder 28/22.  Expect the Chevy marketing folks to drill this best-in-class rating into your brain with a laser scalpel when the Equinox marketing begins.  I heard it a couple dozen times at the press launch here in the Detroit area.  FYI - AWD 4-cyliner Equinoxes score 29 highway/20 city.  The V-6 Equinox gets 25/18 with front-drive, 25/17 with AWD.

Driving ambition

I spent most time with the V6.  Zero to 60 happens in a brisk 7.8 seconds, according to Chevy.  That's about a second slower than a V6 RAV4.  Using laminated material in the windshield and front side glass, my tester is quiet at speeds over, well … uh, faster than you'll probably be driving.  Ride quality is comfortable but still buttoned down in the corners.  With the much desired raised seating position, the car-like Equinox is a pleasure to pilot.  The turning radius is a little wide but a smidge better than the outgoing model.

A half hour in the 4-cylinder model finds it works harder than the V6.  You'll hear it reach down to lower gears more often in cut and thrust city driving.  Its 0-60 time is 8.7, about a second quicker than CR-V.  In short it's perfectly fine for everyday motoring and GM figures ¾ of those who park one of these in their driveway will go for it.  Four-cylinder models use the stereo speakers for interior noise cancelation, sort of like those fancy Bose headphones.  It seems to work, the 4 sounds pretty good when dodging through traffic. 

All models come with the expected safety electronics like traction and roll stability control plus 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.  In case these can't save your bacon, 6 airbags are your wingman.  OnStar will then pinpoint your location and automatically alert authorities.  Hope you never need all this.   OnStar has many other great features like audible turn-by-turn directions, should you not spring for the navigation system.  To list its many features would require a separate article, and I'm already behind schedule writing this one.

Back to the list.  Value is #2

This one's tough to measure since it can mean many things to different people.  If we're talking price, then Chevy's PR folks are claiming victory here too.  Including destination, prices begin at $23,185.  Like interior size, the prices for all said competitors hover around this same point.  Chevy claims that Equinox comes with nearly $1,000 more equipment than the others.  A quick web check at Brand H and T finds that's pretty much true. Example? Chevy's standard alloy wheels are optional on RAV and CR-V.  Traditionally, resale has been lower on Chevy products so take that into consideration.

More pricing?  $24,105 gets you a 1LT, the model Chevy feels will be most popular. $26,190 bumps a guy up to the 2LT where single zone auto climate control is standard, another $2,600 delivers the high-zoot LTZ.  Add $2,200 for AWD on any of those.  My well equipped V6 AWD tester with leather, DVD entertainment and navigation stickers for $36,525.  It's possible to bump it $1,000 higher with chrome wheels and the tow package. 

Moving on to #3 (quality) and #4 (style)

I like number four better so I'll start with that.  Equinox is arguably the best looking of the bunch.  With Chevrolet's distinctive split grille, it looks a full grade more expensive than it is.  Door handles are placed into the flow of a crease in the sheetmetal, chrome is tastefully sprinkled on even the base models. 

The interior is what owners see the most and a Malibu inspired dual-cockpit design makes this a very nice place to spend time.  Seats are extra comfy, some with a memory feature. Ice-blue lighting looks, well, cool.  Shop at dusk to appreciate the ambience.  There are many storage cubbies including a center console where a laptop computer or small dog could live comfortably (note to PETA, this is what's known as a joke).  Bluetooth handsfree phone connection and a USB interface that accommodates iPods and flash drives full of MP3 tunes is available, even standard on some models. 

The user interface is straightforward.  You may never have to crack the manual if the navigation is ordered.  Skip it and a back up cam is still available with a screen mounted in the rear view mirror.

As for quality, the pre production tester I drove nearly 150 miles was squeak and rattle free.  A close look at interior plastics finds no obvious molding seams or flashing.  Everything lines up perfectly, even a lip that flows from the instrument panel to the doors.  Same goes for the exterior sheetmetal.   My only gripe is that the instrument panel uses hard plastic instead of soft feel material.  That said, it's something that's seldom touched so I can understand wanting to save some money here.

Chevy did their legwork

Getting into Equinox is good clean fun because the doors reach down far enough to cover the sill.  That means no more muddy pant legs.  This design is similar to Toyota Venza and Ford Flex. 

In the backseat there's a good amount of room for three adults, though be warned that the center position's seat back pushes in like an over achieving lumbar adjustment.  I find this position in CR-V to be equally uncomfortable.   To max out cargo or legroom there's almost 8 inches of fore and aft travel to the rear seat.  Seatbacks recline, foot room is good and the kids can plug into a dual source entertainment system.  The screens flip out from the front seatbacks so unlike the ceiling mounted design, they don't block the driver's view from the rearview mirror. 

Normally this is where I'd do the infamous TP Trunk Test but since I'm on a press event my bath tissue supply is far away.  I am a professional with years of experience though and pretty good at guestimating.  Wheel arches with storage cubbies intrude into the cargo hold.  Even though the cubic feet are the about the same on all three, I'd say the usable space in Equinox is less than the Honda and Toyota.  Let's call it a 9-10 packer compared to 12 with RAV and CR-V.  With seatbacks down, the floor is slightly angled.  Just so you know.  Finally, the available power liftgate is easily programmed to raise to a specific height.  Good for smaller people or low garages.  RAV4 uses a side hinged cargo door that opens on the wrong side for urban drivers and doesn't protect people from the elements like a liftgate. 

Finally, #5

All-wheel drive. That's it.  All the competitors have it so let's move on.

If you made it down here, congratulations

Either you're very interested in this vehicle or you have a lot of time on your hands.  I'll assume the first.  Let's dismiss the "rah-rah buy American" attitude because shoppers invest a lot of money in a vehicle and they deserve good value and engineering.  That said, those plunking down $29,000 on a vehicle (the average transaction these days) are cheating themselves if they don't test drive at least three vehicles.  Compact crossovers shoppers should have Equinox on the list.  All the attributes that can be measured and experienced are done very well.   The Chevy engineers have done a terrific job here.  The harder job lays ahead though; convincing shoppers it's worth a serious look. 

No doubt, GM's financial situation will deter a certain percentage of people from even looking at Equinox.  Their loss.   Based solely on its merits, Equinox is quite compelling and exactly the kind of thing GM needs to bounce back. Fellow shareholders, product like this very encouraging.