Chevrolet has ditched the small and crude Tracker and joined the SUV mainstream with a unibody, front-/all-wheel-drive entry: the Equinox. Based on the Saturn Vue, the Equinox is far removed from the trucklike, off-road-ready Tracker in its construction and also in size. The 189-inch length not only dwarfs the Tracker, but it's 7.5 inches longer than the Vue and bigger than a Blazer as well. In fact, the Equinox casts a shadow nearly as big as the standard-wheelbase TrailBlazer's.
Pricewise, however, it's a different story. A sticker thousands less than a TrailBlazer's instantly makes the Equinox the far better choice for anyone other than heavy-trailer haulers or off-road poseurs. The Equinox also is less expensive than the smaller Vue V-6 (and that's before you and your Chevy salesperson start wheeling and dealing, something that doesn't happen at a Saturn store).
One justification for the Saturn premium-aside from the group hug when you pick up your keys-is that checking the V-6 option box on a Vue now gets you a 250-horsepower, SOHC Honda engine, while the Equinox makes do with GM's OHV 3.4-liter (although it's standard equipment, at least). It eats the dust of the hot-rod Saturn, but the 185-horsepower V-6, working with a five-speed automatic, hustles the Equinox from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, pretty good for an engine that can trace its origins back almost to the dawn of internal combustion. And while the 3.4's engine note isn't likely to be sampled on the next Jamiroquai CD, it's not nearly as raucous as the garage-band sound of the Duratec V-6 in the Ford Escape.
Before the Equinox came along, there really were no compact SUVs that were thrilling to drive, and there still aren't, but the Equinox handles curves as well as the much-vaunted Escape does. Its strut front suspension and multilink rear also deliver a more comfortable ride, at the cost of body roll-a notion exaggerated by poor lateral support from the convex-feeling seats.
About half of the Equinox's parts are shared with the Vue, including its electric power steering. Chevrolet, however, uses a slower steering ratio, which means that, unlike the Vue, the Equinox does not need constant minding to track straight at highway speeds. In fact, the Equinox's steering feels pleasantly hydraulic during most driving. It only gets strange and video-gamey during parking-lot wheel winding (which you'll do a lot of, given the 42-foot turning circle).
Chevrolet has stretched the Equinox's sheetmetal (note that it does not use Saturn-style plastic body panels) over an extra-long, 112-inch wheelbase. The long wheelbase may impinge on maneuverability, but it pays off in interior space, particularly rear-seat room and rear-seat access. The Equinox's back bench slides fore and aft eight inches; it also reclines. In its rearmost setting, it offers enough space for the lankiest teenagers in your car pool. Those ferrying kids at the opposite end of the size spectrum might appreciate that there are three LATCH child-seat anchors.
The Equinox cabin clearly was developed in a different era from that of its platform mate, and it benefits from GM's newfound interest in interior fitments and its increased willingness to spring for decent materials. There's nothing here to send Volkswagen into a cold sweat, but it's far better than we're used to from GM.
"Better than we're used to" describes the Equinox overall, particularly considering the source from which it has sprung. It's not just a Vue with more room; it's a wholesale improvement.