Road-tripping in the comfortable, capable Chevy Equinox

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by By TOM VOELK / Special to KING5.com

NWCN.com

Posted on September 10, 2009 at 12:13 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving NW: The comfortable, capable Chevy Equinox

What did I do on my summer vacation? A 900-mile family road trip in California. A nightmare for some, but I like driving (and, needless to say, my family). Voyages like these are the perfect test for family rigs and for this trip I've chosen Chevy's new 2010 Equinox. Yes, I've already reviewed it but that was just one day at GM's press event. Chevrolet's new take on a compact crossover seems to be a serious rival to Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape. After 10 days and covering a wide swath of The Golden State, we'll all know for sure.

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Two things before you read on: The steaming video gives a great look at where we went and how the Equinox performed. The home video shows how people use crossovers. Second, if you want a clinical by-the-numbers look at this vehicle, go to my The camera work is better on that piece. I don't have the room, patience, or budget for a professional video crew this time around.

What we're driving

This top of the line LTZ model has front drive. Starting at $28,790 with destination, this brand new vehicle with only 300 miles on the clock has these options - 3.0-liter V6 engine ($1,500), sunroof ($795), tow package ($350), and 18-inch aluminum wheels ($250). The total comes to $31,685.

The long list of standard LTZ stuff includes auto climate control, back up camera, power liftgate, Bluetooth, a great Pioneer sound system with iPod integration, heated leather seats with powered memory driver's chair. All-wheel drive would be an extra $1,750. Available but not on our Equinox is satellite navigation and dual screen entertainment system that doesn't block a driver's view rearward. If for some reason there's something else you need in a vehicle feel free to move up to an RV.

Testing begins immediately

Landing in San Francisco we pick up the Equinox and perform the first test - trunk space. Even though there are two teenagers in tow they have packed somewhat reasonably. Four suitcases and carry-on baggage fit easily in the cargo hold. Large strut covers intrude into the cargo space though and cut into room. Space under the load is taken up by a space-saver spare tire. Ultimately, Equinox has a little less usable room in the cargo hold than CR-V and RAV4. Still it's fine for us.

Mariko, queen of trip research, is disappointed the nav system isn't in this car. The kids bemoan the lack of a DVD system. Ahh, modern expectations. I suggest singing "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." The children wince and counter with XM Radio. Agreed. Then the battle for channel selection begins …

First stop Santa Cruz

With rides and delicious healthy California cuisine like deep fried Twinkies, the boardwalk at Santa Cruz has always been a favorite stop for us. Just before we go in, my wife Mariko (who's not so into cars) notices something different about the doors. They completely cover the rocker panels when closed, keeping the sill clean so pant legs don't get dirty. It also pushes the sill inward making entry and exit easier. She likes this. The power liftgate also gets a thumb's up. With the hatch at the height she likes, holding the close button for 5 seconds stores the position in memory. Good for petite women like her or folks with low garage roofs.

We meet up with Mariko's cousin Francis at the boardwalk, and she eyes the Chevy with suspicion. A Toyota loyalist, she's in the crowd that believes GM can't compete. She does admit Equinox looks good inside and out and during the week we hear this from a lot of folks. I'd say the Chevy is best in class when it comes to design but as they say, styling is subjective.

Our OnStar love affair begins

Out of the blue, Mariko's college roommate calls. Surprise! They're also on vacation and staying just 10 miles away at Capitola Beach. We have no map, no nav system and no idea where it is. Neither does Frances or her husband Robert. Eureka moment. Chevys have OnStar and OnStar has turn-by-turn navigation service.

We hop in the Equinox and push the blue button. An OnStar representative answers and we explain our dilemma. Thirty seconds later she has downloaded directions to the beach into the Equinox. Frances and Robert follow. Voice prompts tell us where to turn, and directions with simple graphics appear in both the radio display and gauge cluster between the tach and speedometer. It works perfectly. Get off track and the system asks if you want to resume. Everyone's impressed. BTW, if you haven't been to Capitola Beach it's a little slice of heaven. So is pie from Pizza My Heart if you happen to be hungry when you're there. Hey, road food is VERY important to us.

Next stop? Salinas

We're crashing with Frances, Robert and their two impossibly cute children. They live in the salad bowl of America, Salinas. Import brands have graced their garage for years and sure enough a Lexus ES300 and first generation Highlander are parked there now. Robert is curious about the Chevy so I throw him the keys for a test drive. The short story? He likes it and picks up on things that impress me - good handling and very comfortable seats. Better than his Highlander, he says. Equinox is vault solid and quiet at highway speeds. The very attractive interior shows a lot of quality.

My son Sean gives his cousins a ride in the adjustable rear seat. It reclines and travels fore and aft 8 inches to max out either legroom or cargo. It also allows me to shamelessly show cute kids in my story and give Sean a bit of a workout.

Vacation highpoints

I highly recommend Monterey Bay Aquarium. The sea horse exhibit is outstanding. The women in my life gravitate to the Gilroy Outlet Mall and I suspect you have one just like it wherever you may live. Gap? Bose? Nike? Hanes Underware? Yes, they're all here. How many noise reducing headphones can a nation buy? Gilroy Gardens is an unusual blend of amusement park and majestic topiary monument. Hard to describe but worth checking out.

The evening before heading off to Yosemite, Frances tags along as I head off to buy some flashlights. Over the past few days she's been exposed to the Chevy and seems to be softening a bit. The terrific ice blue lighting all throughout the cabin would be a great sales point if she were in the market. I show her the trick doors and adjustable power hatchback that Mariko likes. Even as she admits it's all impressive her brow furrows. "I'm afraid it will fall apart on me" she says. That's the hole that GM and other American brands have dug for themselves. The quality of Equinox is first rate but the memories linger...

Off to chubby squirrel country

Despite the added load of birthday presents, the outlet shopping spree and a huge packed lunch of Frances' Worlds Best Fried Chicken and Spam musubi (a Hawaiian thing, it's delicious), the trunk is holding up its side of the bargain. The kids are still able to keep the sliding seat's legroom setting at maximum. Heading to Yosemite, we could use a map but we come to rely on OnStar. We use it to find a gas station, the first fill-up finds we're averaging 23 MPG. We push the blue button for a grocery store suggestion to stock up on snacks. OnStar directs us to a Super Wal-Mart that ends up being a few miles out of our way. In the parking lot we scarf down the chicken and musubi. Great food. Lousy scenery.

After 300 miles the personality of the Equinox is clear

Tired of the repeating playlist on XM, I ask the family to critique the Chevy. Gripes first. Mariko finds the thick side pillar near her shoulder blocks her view and the adjustment handles on the front passenger seat feel plasticy. The kids complain there's no switch for the dome light in back and the middle seating position is a little lumpy. They of course are using the fold down arm rest so this isn't an issue for them. And for the most part, that's it for gripes.

The list of likes is much, much longer

Bluetooth handsfree phone pairing is easy. iPod integration works great. XM radio allows us to listen to Mariners games anywhere (too bad they're losing). The leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls tilts and telescopes to fit Mariko's smaller frame just right. A driver's seat with memory makes driver changes much easier. I have to believe the epic legroom in back keeps the kids happy enough to hold bickering to a minimum. Loads of cupholders and cubby holes swallow drinks and snacks. My new fav is Emerald Cocoa Roast almonds - nuts with a light dusting of chocolate powder that makes them taste like Coco Puffs cereal. Yum.

As the miles fly by, even my non-car enthusiast wife notices and compliments the handling of the Equinox. Wind noise is absent under 75 miles an hour. The 6-speed automatic transmission handles the increasingly hilly terrain with authority. The V6 provides plenty of power.

The road to Yosemite twists and turns and the Chevy is somewhat fun to throw into a curve. Ride quality is taut and controlled, excellent for a crossover. During a surprisingly tight curve at, ahem, a higher speed, I hear my family complain and feel the electronic stability control feather in nicely. Spirited driving is kept to a minimum though. Don't want the kids to become car sick.

The grandeur of Yosemite (and good gas mileage)

Once here we pretty much abandon the Chevy for two days. Hybrid buses make getting around the park easy. Beautiful remote spots require hiking or horse. On a trail ride I pondered the whole horsepower thing, being on Ace the horse and all. It's interesting to experience 1 horsepower vs. the 264 for the V6 we're driving. Chevy crows that the 182 horse 4-cylinder I was hoping to test gets a best-in-class 32 miles per gallon on the highway (EPA rating of course). That doesn't appear to be hype. At a steady 70 MPH the trip computer in our V6 equipped Equinox says 26 MPG, exceeding the EPA rating of 25. Stuck behind a truck for 20 miles at a steady 60, the display claims 28 MPG. During the trail ride my kids find Equinox is cleaner than an equine. There's no poop to clean up with a Chevy. Horses have a much better turning radius though. U -turns in Equinox are on the wide side.

Our high-end accommodations consist of a tent cabin. Luxury touches include towels and a fan. It's like being at the Four Seasons … without any of the fancy stuff. Our tent has a metal bear-proof storage box where all food must be kept. Leave potato chips in your car and you'll either get a ticket from Ranger Smith or a new sunroof courtesy of Gentle Ben. Equinox has remote start. It's 93 degrees today and from our hut I can start the vehicle so AC can cool down the interior. It's also good for scaring away large furry animals. That doesn't just mean bear either. Fed by tourists, squirrels are huge here. Big and fat they'll amble up fearlessly looking for food. They love those Cocoa Roast almonds.

On to the City by the Bay

With an OnStar button push, the route to San Francisco is downloaded. It's a four-hour drive. iPods, which sound much better than grainy XM, are plugged into the great Pioneer sound system. We stop in the small town of Groveland for a sandwich. Ignoring all warning signs that a sub shop/video store/shaved ice establishment should do none of these things very well, we place our order. Simply put, the sandwiches at Pine Mountain Video are spectacularly good. Highly recommended. We only wish we had tipped better.

Once in chilly San Francisco, I need to change from shorts to jeans that are at the bottom of the center console (for reasons I won't get into here). To get to them I have to unload snacks, a People magazine, my SLR camera and Mariko's jacket. Yes, it's that big. The Chevy handles San Fran's steep hills with ease, both up and down. The anti-lock brakes are responsive and fade free. Three days bombing around these steep hills lowers the overall MPG average to 21. Pretty good considering I drive hard.

Equinox is physically larger than CR-V and RAV4 but the size still allows us to squeeze into free parking spots. Eliminating parking by Braille is a rear vision camera that's standard on LTZ models. Skip the navigation system and the display shows up in the rearview mirror.

While in town we ask the OnStar people to suggest restaurants, they download directions to get there. The service can also remotely unlock the car should the keys get locked inside. As evening falls, the blue lighting is appreciated once again, contrasting nicely with the rust colored Golden Gate Bridge. Tomorrow it's back to Seattle. In 10 days the family has come to enjoy the comfortable, capable and stylish Equinox. Looking for a compact crossover? The whole family highly suggests a Chevy test drive.

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