Image: Chevy Equinox
AP file
The 2010 Chevy Equinox has a thrifty, modern four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission drivetrain that give it a balance of gas pump-passing efficiency and highway passing acceleration, our reviewer writes.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/7/2009 7:29:44 PM ET 2009-10-07T23:29:44
REVIEW

The autumnal equinox has just passed and those of us in the northern hemisphere are midway between the maximum daylight of the summer solstice and the discouraging dark of winter.

General Motors hopes the new 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is more like the calendar’s vernal equinox, when the seemingly eternal short days are only a memory and conditions are getting sunnier by the day. Summer’s not here yet, but spring holds its promise.

By all indications, the crossover SUV lives up to its name, with a thrifty, modern four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission drivetrain that give the Equinox a superb balance of fuel  efficiency and highway passing acceleration.

In the recent past, consumers typically ignored well-reviewed new models if they did not offer a crucial ingredient: a V6 engine. American consumers, fed up with the coarse, sluggish frugality of four-cylinder engines, wanted the smooth power of a V6 in their next car.

General Motors has one of the industry’s best V6 engines in its 3.0-liter unit, but midsize crossover SUV shoppers can do better by opting for the Chevrolet Equinox with the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

This doesn’t mean a return to austere times, when everyone drove tiny, slow, cramped, unsafe cars in the hope of saving gas. Thanks to modern technology like direct fuel injection, the Equinox boasts a four-cylinder engine that cranks out a useful 182 horsepower while scoring 32 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test. That’s better than the Ford Escape Hybrid’s highway mileage.

It does this while meeting contemporary expectations for quiet, smooth acceleration and idle and treats occupants to a spacious, luxurious cabin bristling with the latest entertainment and safety features. One of those features, which contributes to the placid cabin environment, is an active noise cancellation system — like the headphones favored by professional airline travelers — that uses the car’s stereo system to detect and counteract booming noise from the engine and the road.

For drivers who do not need the extra space of a third row of seats, the five-passenger Equinox is a virtually no-compromise machine that combines style, performance efficiency, comfort and safety into one appealing package. The as-tested bottom line of $26,175 makes this a bargain.

The tested model was all-wheel-drive, the configuration that provides the greatest peace of mind and contributes needed traction in northern climes.

But the base front-wheel-drive configuration is preferable for most buyers. It costs less, it gets better gas mileage, and the inherent traction characteristics of front-drive, combined with the standard traction control and electronic stability control provide more than enough slippery weather capability for all but the most snow-plagued drivers.

The all-wheel drive variant scores 20 mpg on the EPA’s city test and 29 mpg highway. We saw economy in that range, with 22-24 mpg around town and 26 mpg on the highway, fully loaded with a family of five and a weekend’s luggage.

Even fully burdened, the Equinox easily accelerated to highway speeds without any audible complaints from the engine. This drivetrain combination with the 2.4-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission easily rose to best in its class when the Equinox launched this year, considering the four-speed automatic transmissions employed by Toyota's RAV4 and Escape, with consequently lower gas mileage.

For 2010, the Honda CR-V enjoys a more powerful 180-horsepower engine, but its transmission has only five gears and its front-drive fuel economy is still lower than that of the Equinox outfitted with all-wheel drive.

Inside, the Honda has a small edge in material quality, though the Equinox’s cabin does look very nice and matches or tops those of other competitors. The only hint of the bad old days (what, a few months back?) when GM cars were a bastion of cheap plastic interiors is the plastic surrounding the steering column and ignition lock, which looks as though it might be salvaged from a ’79 Chevette.

Other surfaces have a matte finish and many are soft to the touch, conveying an impression of craftsmanship that belies the Equinox’s accessible price and mainstream mission. Soft blue ambient lighting gives the Equinox an appealing nighttime signature appearance. The dashboard instruments and controls are logically arrayed and easily understood following conventions such as putting the radio volume knob on the left side of the device and the tuning knob on the right.

However, there are problems relating to the silvery arch stretching stylishly up the middle of the dashboard in the so-called “center stack” area housing the climate and radio controls. Its foundation resides so far back that a driver slamming the shifter forward into Park risks jamming a thumb straight into its unforgiving surface.

The beautiful arch stretches away. In the process, this pushes the radio controls so far from the driver that even the monkey-limbed 35-inch sleeve test driver could not easily reach the volume knob without leaning forward. Any style feature that causes several-times-a-day owner annoyance by compromising a routine operation is inexcusable. Not a deal-breaker, but inexcusable.

Of course, Chevy would be happy to sell you a higher-level model outfitted with steering wheel-mounted radio controls, but the budget-priced test model was not so equipped. Steering wheel-mounted controls are typically a gadget drivers can live without, but for the Equinox, GM needs to make them standard equipment to soften the annoyance of having to reach for the dashboard controls.

The seats, both front and rear, are worthy of note. The premium cloth seats that are part of the tested 1LT trim level include power height and lumbar adjustment, with manual controls for the other adjustments, providing excellent comfort. Combined with the tilting and telescoping steering column, the driver can easily find a comfortable spot to spend the day on long drives.

In the rear, the seat is not only split to fold 60/40, but it also slides fore and aft, letting passengers adjust it as needed for more legroom ahead or more cargo room behind. The rear seat’s back features three positions of recline, again giving occupants the opportunity to improve their comfort at the expense of payload volume aft.

This is not only critical for long-distance passenger comfort — even kids don’t want to endure the straight-upright seatbacks of some vehicles — but it is an important safety consideration when mounting forward-facing child seats with fixed backs which might not align with a single fixed seat angle. The adjustability in the back seat makes it easier to firmly and safely secure the child’s seat, which is an often-overlooked benefit.

The sole option on the tested Equinox was a nifty rear back-up camera that showed the view behind the car on a tiny display projected on the left-most quarter of the inside rearview mirror, right where someone backing up is looking anyway. This provides a lower-cost solution to a large dash-mounted display and helps keep the driver’s eyes up rather than looking down at a dash-mounted display. Perfect.

It will also be useful for observing the darkness receding behind the Equinox if it helps carry General Motors out of the winter and into the lighter days ahead.

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