Larger in both scale and scope than the entry-level Tracker it replaces, Chevy's new Equinox represents the division's first foray into the car-based sport/utility category. Sharing a Theta platform unit-body with the Saturn
Vue, the steel-skinned Equinox has distinctive interior and exterior styling cues and boasts a 112.5-inch wheelbase, 5.9 inches longer than its plastic-paneled cousin and barely half an inch less than the truck-based Trailblazer. Both the base Equinox LS and upline LT come with a V-6 engine, roomy passenger compartment, and a generous roster of comfort and convenience touches. Each offers a choice of front- or optional on-demand all-wheel drive. Our test vehicle was a modestly optioned front-drive LS variant.
Although the Equinox maintains traditional SUV cues, the smartly raked back glass adds a bit of contemporary flair aimed at enticing youthful buyers. A broad horizontal chrome bar splits the front grill to reinforce its Chevy truck heritage and further distance the Equinox from the Vue. Standard 16-inch steel wheels wrapped in 235/65SR16 M+S tires can be upgraded to 16- or 17-inch alloy rims, the latter wearing 235/60SR17 rubber.
A relatively low step-in height and large, wide-opening doors ensure easy entry and exit. Inside, standard cloth or optional leather upholstery is set off by argent trim on the doors and center stack. Panel-to-panel gaps on some of the plastic trim bits remain below world class, but the overall look is clean and contemporary. While the firm yet comfortable front seats are seriously lacking in lateral support, drivers will appreciate a height-adjustable seat cushion and manual-tilt steering column. The equally-firm rear bench has a two-position seatback recline that greatly enhances its long-distance appeal. Main controls and switchgear are well positioned, and the instruments easy-to-read. However, diminutive LCD displays for the clock and radio simply disappear in bright sunlight. The standard audio system has an AM/FM/CD head unit and six speakers, and our tester had the upgrade option with a six-disc in-dash changer and MP3-playback capability. LT buyers can opt for a premium seven-speaker system that also brings an amplified subwoofer. Covered storage areas include a non-locking glovebox and a relatively petite center console bin/armrest that flips up to create a large, open area between the front seats. Smaller items can be stowed in expandable mesh pockets on either side of the forward center console, or in narrow pockets in each door. Other vital stats include five modestly scaled but questionably positioned cupholders plus a trio of 12V power points, located in the front, rear, and cargo bay areas. Space is the big story here; lots of it and with mix-and-match possibilities that make the Equinox equally adept at carrying up to five onboard or just loads of their belongings. The single standout element is the 60/40 split-folding rear seat. It offers eight inches of fore/aft travel to accommodate even the longest-legged passengers or expand the cargo capacity from 35.2 to 68.6 cu ft. The large, one-piece liftgate has a bumper-level cutout for easy loading and unloading, but the seatbacks don't fold completely flat and prominent shock towers compromise usable space. On the plus side, there's a slick multi-position rear parcel shelf, and the passenger-side front seatback flips forward to create a mini work surface--or allow the Equinox to swallow objects up to eight feet in length.
Dual front airbags and three-point seatbelts at all seat positions are standard in all Equinox models, with side curtain airbags optional. The Equinox boasts NHTSA's top, five-star rating in both front and side impact tests.
The Equinox is motivated by 185-hp version of GM's veteran 3.4-liter OHV V-6, which is made in China, at Shanghai GM. Turning out a respectable 210 lb-ft of torque at a somewhat elevated 3,800 rpm, it's mated to a new, and commendably smooth-shifting, five-speed automatic transmission. This duo propels the Equinox from 0-60 mph in under nine seconds and allows it to tow up to 3,500 lbs when fitted with the optional trailering kit. As with most soft-roaders, AWD models do not offer a dual-range transfer case.
Behind the Wheel
The Equinox is decidedly most at home in cruise mode--although cruise control itself is optional. A strong central structure and fully independent suspension matched with a long wheelbase and wide track make it feel solid and stable. Pressing the Equinox hard into a corner does evoke a fair amount of body roll and predictable push, but there's little sensation of tippiness. Save for some low-speed impact harshness and tire drone on certain road surfaces, overall comfort and isolation levels also are quite good. A command seating position affords excellent forward visibility, but wide roof pillars impinge upon sightlines and make the large, power-adjustable side-view mirrors invaluable. GM's MagnaSteer electric power steering helps trim fuel consumption--both FWD and AWD models earn solid 19/25 mpg EPA ratings--but is remarkably devoid of real feel. The Equinox also has a large 41.8-foot turning circle, nearly equal to Chevy's full-size Suburban. In town and on the freeway, the Equinox can easily pace the pack. Its limits only move to the fore on extended uphill pulls or high-intensity passing moves. While all variants are fitted with disc/drum brakes, ABS (optional on LS, standard on LT) also brings driver-selectable traction control. The on-demand all-wheel-drive system only ships power to the front wheels until slippage is sensed. It's a great confidence enhancer in inclement weather conditions, but it does little to expand the vehicle's modest off-roading potential.
The Equinox emphasizes flexibility and interior space. Its effortlessly reconfigurable passenger compartment will please owners who want an SUV as capable of taking the family to a Little League game as it is toting bags of peat moss back from the local DIY center. Fun-to-drive fanatics would be advised to steer clear, but if room and livability are your top priorities, the Equinox merits a serious look. Its toughest challenge is playing in a segment currently awash in first-rate competitors, many with equally compelling value stories and attractive pricepoints.
Light on sport but long on utility, the attractively priced Equinox has the kind of features, flexibility, and interior room that will impress buyers who value practicality over performance.
Introduced for the 2005 model year, the all-new Equinox is a major step up for Chevrolet in the entry-level SUV arena. Larger inside and out than many of its peers, this midsize sport/utility combines comfort with versatility and standard V-6 power.
Leather upholstery adds a premium touch to LT models and allows buyers to opt for heated front seats and a power-adjustable driver's seat. A variety of OnStar services and XM satellite radio are also available at the LT trim level.
Others to Consider
Saturn Vue, Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Santa Fe