First Drive: 2010 Chevrolet Equinox

Nowhere to go but upThe first-generation Chevrolet Equinox compact crossover might as well have arrived with a 10-mpg supercharged V-12. In a segment that prefers four-cylinder engines to six-cylinder units almost two-to-one, Chevrolet was fighting an uphill battle when it launched a crossover that only offered a V-6 and was burdened with a price of entry $4,000 higher than competitors in 2005.

The 2010 Equinox, though, is a very different crossover. Due to hit showrooms in late June 2009, it's equipped with a four-cylinder direct-injection engine that delivers class-leading fuel economy. In fact, the Equinox has climbed from an also-ran to serious competitor on its spec sheet alone.

All in the familyFrom the side, the Equinox's fender flares, raked C-pillar, and wrap-around rear window recall the Mercedes-Benz M-class. It's a good look, if not particularly original. Although the Equinox shares few styling cues with its bigger sibling, the three-row Traverse, the Chevrolet corporate grille will inevitably lead to comparisons. The Equinox presents a more stylish statement, though, with shapely headlamps, an upward-sweeping crease through the door handles, and thick rocker panels connecting the fender flares between standard 17-inch aluminum wheels.

The new look also improves performance and utility. Aerodynamics are improved, with the drag coefficient dropping from 0.42 to 0.36. The rocker panels have been integrated into the doors, which should keep mud, snow and road grime off your pant legs when you enter or exit the Equinox. An optional power rear liftgate opens to a programmable height to keep you from smacking the roof of your garage with your Equinox.

Bringing style to the segmentThe interior design plays off the dual-cockpit style of the Malibu, with a dash that wraps into the doors and cascades into the center console. The driver will even find a bit of Camaro inspiration in the squircle binnacles that surround the speedometer and tachometer. Tasteful two-tone interiors and soft landings for elbows, hands, and fingers provide interior quality that's on par with the Japanese and shames them with unrivaled style.

Families will appreciate the ability to slide the rear bench seat almost eight inches to optimize space for cargo or passengers. With the seats pushed back as far as possible, legroom is bountiful and there is still ample room in the rear for a weekend's worth of luggage for four people. Rear-seat comfort is also aided by a flat floor and seatbacks that recline at three different angles.

For drivers, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and all models include standard power height and lumbar adjustment. All seats are supportive and comfortable.

To eliminate the droning and buzzing that often plagues four-cylinder engines, Chevrolet has installed an Active Noise Cancellation system. It works much like your over-priced Bose Noise Cancelling headphones, using the stereo speakers to emit waves that cancel out certain frequencies. And like those Bose headphones, the Active Noise Cancellation works incredible well. At idle, the Equinox is so quiet that one journalist on our media test drive tried to start an already-running car. The system also works at higher speeds with laminated front glass and extensive sound-deadening material to achieve luxury-car levels of quiet.

Chevrolet will follow its standard trim level assignments of LS, 1LT, 2LT, and LTZ in order of increasing equipment level (and price). Standard equipment on all cars includes an auxiliary audio input, cruise control, XM satellite radio, OnStar, a compass, and power windows, mirrors, and door locks with keyless entry.

Top-tier technologyThe Equinox offers the full range of techno-goodies. Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port for controlling your iPod are optional on lower models but are standard on 2LT and LTZ trims. Those crossovers also receive an eight-speaker Pioneer audio system and audio controls on the steering wheel.

Chevrolet's new navigation system highlights a new user interface with an ultra-crisp monitor. The display is clear, intuitive, and legible, especially when displaying audio information. Navigation-equipped cars also come with a 40-gigabye hard drive for storing music. The optional back-up camera displays in the rearview mirror on cars without navigation.

A rear-entertainment system is also available. In place of the traditional neck-wrenching monitor mounted on the roof between the front seats, two eight-inch monitors are placed on the rear of the front seatbacks. Remote start can also be equipped and now has control of the HVAC system and available heated seats to automatically warm or cool your car based on the outside temperature.

PowerAll trim levels will come standard with the four-cylinder engine, with the V-6 being optional on LT and LTZ trims. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic unit calibrated for whichever engine it's mated to. All-wheel drive is optional with both engines.

Chevrolet predicts that almost 70 percent of Equinox buyers will opt for the inline four, so we spent most of our time in a front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder 1LT Equinox. The direct-injection four makes 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. With a 3800-pound curb weight, this Chevy isn't a rocket. Both the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 feel a bit quicker, even though they have less horsepower. Much of that is due to those vehicles' throttle calibrations, which give more gas with less application of the pedal. Additionally, the Chevrolet six-speed automatic transmission occasionally seems reluctant to downshift. Drive the Equinox with a heavy foot, though, and you'll have no problem keeping up with the competition.

Powertrain refinement is excellent. The transmission shifts smoothly and the Active Noise Cancellation keeps engine noise intrusion to a minimum.

But the real story of the four-cylinder is in fuel economy. The four-cylinder Equinox leads the class with an EPA-estimated 32 mpg on the highway. That's even better than the Ford Escape Hybrid's 31 mpg on the highway. In the city, Chevrolet shares the crown with Toyota at 22 mpg.

Four-cylinder models also include an "eco" button mounted on the console that alters the throttle mapping and gear selection for improved fuel economy. The driving changes aren't dramatic, but neither are the results. You'll be lucky to earn an extra 1 mpg in the city.

The V-6, which costs an extra $1500, produces 264 hp and 222 lb-ft from the 3.0-liter, direct-injection mill. A brief drive in a V-6 Equinox LTZ was more spirited, but not energizing. Somehow the extra 82 hp feels more like half that. Fuel economy in that car drops to 18/25 mpg or 17/24 mpg when equipped with all-wheel drive.

Road mannersThe Equinox rides on a strut-type suspension up front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear. The ride is comfortable, quelling bumps as well as the Honda and Toyota with the exception of some small, high-frequency oscillations that will mostly go unnoticed. Disc brakes are supplied at all four corners, but the pedal becomes stiff after the first inch of travel, making precise modulation difficult.

Behind the wheelDriving the Equinox is a passive experience. Power delivery is smooth, but slow. The variable-assist electric power steering on four-cylinder models is very light on center, with a bit of weight - but still not enough - coming on at turn in. V-6 models get a hydraulic system that is much more comfortable and reassuring but still lacks feedback. For highway cruising and picking up the kids, it's a very safe bet. But who invented the rule that says family cars can't have feeling in the steering wheel?

A shot at the topEquinox pricing starts at $23,185 for a front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder LS model. That price is $1800 less than last year's Equinox but doesn't undercut the competition. Honda and Toyota both start their small crossovers in the $21,000 range. However, the Chevrolet has more standard equipment than the Honda and the Toyota. Base models from Toyota and Honda come with steel wheels, lack satellite radio, and offer four- and five-speed transmissions, respectively.

Chevrolet's second iteration of the Equinox is a long way removed from last year's model. While it is not particularly exciting to drive, it is more than capable of running with the competition. More important, the Equinox offers style and value with the capabilities and functionality demanded by the class. Impressive fuel economy and smart packaging give the Equinox the opportunity to become a segment leader.

Chevrolet Equinox FWD 1LT

Base price (with destination): $23,360/$25,415Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4 DIHorsepower: 182 @ 6700 rpmTorque: 172 @ 4900 rpmTransmission: 6-speed automaticDrive: Front- or all-wheel


L x W x H: 187.8 x 72.5 x 66.3 inLegroom F/R: 41.2/37.2 inHeadroom F/R: 39.8/39.2 inCargo capacity (seats up/down): 31.4/63.7 cu ftCurb weight: 3770

Estimated EPA Rating (city/highway): 22/32 mpg

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