Unequaled Equinox

Friday, May 14, 2004

STEVE ROBERTSON * photos@semissourian.com

It's easy to spot the new Equinox -- it looks like a baby Chevy Trailblazer with its muscular flared wheel openings and chromed horizontal grill bar. The new compact SUV features front-wheel-drive or all-wheel drive, and it the longest vehicle in its class. A V6 engine and automatic transmission are standard.Chevy's new compact SUV offers smooth ride and plenty of gadgetry.

I don't know which is harder -- learning to spell Chevy's newest vehicle, Equinox, or remembering what the word means. My earth science was a bit hazy, so I looked it up. There are two equinoxes each year, vernal and autumnal, that occur around March 21 and September 22, when the day and night are of equal length. But, according to Chevy, there's nothing equal about the new Equinox and the other SUVs in its class.

For one thing, the newest Chevy is the largest vehicle, about 10 inches longer than most of the competition in its class of compact SUVs. It also has a longer wheelbase, greater luggage capacity, and a more sophisticated transmission than the competition. Although the Equinox shares its basic structure with Saturn Vue, reviewed here earlier, it uses a longer wheelbase and wider track to open up even more interior room. An unusual sliding rear seat with 8 inches of travel gives you a choice of maximum cargo space or passenger comfort. With the seat pushed back as far as it will go the rear leg room is more spacious than most mid-size SUVs.

I first laid eyes on the Equinox at the St. Louis Auto Show this January, and it was attracting a lot of attention. It is a stylish vehicle that borrows cues from the Chevy truck line, with its chrome horizontal bar and bold Chevy bow tie occupying center stage in the grill. Chevy fans have been waiting a long time for it, too. Chevy has been without a "real" compact SUV, but has been rebadging Suzuki's little SUV, calling it the Geo Tracker. When the Tracker was last redesigned for 1999, brands like Jeep, Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda didn't have small SUV offerings, so the truck-based Tracker was one of a few viable alternatives. The all-new Equinox will be built at GM's plant in Ontario through a joint venture with Suzuki.

A sharp-looking SUV like the new Equinox needs an interior that is just as stylish and comfortable, and I don't think you will be disappointed. "It's very well done," says one of my co-test drivers, Bob Adams. He liked the instrument panel, dashboard, headliner and seats. Chevy selected a black, pebbled finish for the dashboard, which eliminates reflections in the windshield even on a sunny day. The driver's seat can be "pumped" up and down with a manual lever, the steering wheel tilts, and a handy drink holder pops out of the center armrest. The rear seat back is split 60/40, reclines in two positions, and also folds flat to expand the cargo area. And in the cargo area is a handy shelf that can be mounted in several positions, adding to the flexibility.

Speaking of flexibility, the Equinox's automatic transmission deserves a paragraph of its own. It's a far cry from the two-speed "slushbox" that Chevy pushed on us back in the 1950s and 1960s. My 1966 Chevy II had one of those, and when I wanted to pass another car I needed a half-mile straightaway. The Equinox has not three or four gears, but five, and when combined with the 3.4-liter V-6 engine, they provide exciting performance. The vehicle is rated to tow 3,500 pounds, and the peppy engine felt like it could pull much more. Several times during testing, while stopped, we thought the engine had died. But a glance at the standard tachometer showed the engine was still alive.

This Chevy engine is that smooth and quiet! The vehicle was equipped with on-demand all-wheel-drive.

Driving the Equinox

The Equinox has sprightly performance, and is equipped with one of the more powerful engines in a compact SUV. The V-6 engine is rated at 185 horsepower, compared to the Ford Escape's base four-cylinder 153-horsepower engine. The Kia Sorento's V-6 produces 192 horsepower while the Hyundai Santa Fe's standard 2.7 liter V-6 produces 173 horsepower. Handling was acceptable, with only slight body lean in the curves thanks to the four-wheel independent suspension, and front and rear sway bars. The ride was quiet and composed for a vehicle in this class. I was surprised, in fact, how well the Equinox smoothed out the rough spots in the pavement. The electrically boosted power steering, however, seemed a bit light at highway speeds, with slight movements of the wheel causing unwanted course deviations. But the unusually quiet ride and the superb sound system compensated. The Equinox is suitable for long-distance travel, as well as exploring back roads and trails, and should get 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Like most Chevrolet trucks, the Equinox is offered in LS and LT trims, both of which are available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Standard equipment on my test vehicle, an LS, included 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat, a six-speaker CD stereo, automatic headlights, power windows, mirrors and locks, an alarm system and a rear-window wiper. The LT version adds more popular options. My test vehicle carried a competitive price of $24,445, but numerous financial incentives are available that help equalize the Equinox's asking price.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at srobertson@semissourian. com.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: