Review: 2011 Chevrolet Equinox FWD 2LT

By Charles Krome

If asked to pick the vehicle most responsible for GM’s current run of success, I imagine that most people would end up choosing between a pair of Chevrolet products, the Volt or the Cruze. The former would probably get the nod from voters focusing on the future, while the latter—the second-best-selling car in the country in July—would score points for doing the heavy lifting today. And while those two are fine choices, I think I’d have to go with the Chevrolet Equinox.

Chevy’s small-ish crossover became a fairly impressive hit following its redesign for the 2010 model year and gave GM a powerful player in one of the most significant segments in the marketplace. More importantly, it garnered just shy of 150,000 sales last year, delivering a huge lift to GM as it was transitioning its way out of bankruptcy before its new-generation vehicles could launch.

And while the press hasn’t exactly loved the Equinox, its spec sheet makes it seem almost too good to be true. The ’Nox is generally lumped in with crossovers like the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, but it’s actually a much larger vehicle. The CR-V is 179.3 inches; the Escape is only 174.7 inches; and the RAV4 stretches all of 181.9 inches. In fact, the Chevy, at 187.8 inches, is closer in size to the Ford Explorer than it is to the Escape. Yet at the same time, those smaller crossovers only manage 28 mpg highway, and their best city performer is the Escape, at 23 mpg. The Equinox puts up an EPA line of 22/32/26, with that highway mark being the segment’s high point.

But of course, people don’t drive spec sheets, which is why I was glad to be able to test an Equinox out in the real world recently, thanks as always to the beneficence of the automaker involved and a complimentary full tank of gas.

Speaking of which, I’ll cut to the chase and start by reporting I managed 26.8 mpg over a couple hundred miles of mixed driving in the Equinox, right in line with its EPA numbers. That was a pleasant surprise right off the bat, but what was more unexpected was how I achieved that number. Like many vehicles nowadays, the Equinox offers an ECO driving mode that adjusts gear changes and whatnot for improved efficiency, but unlike many vehicles nowadays, using it doesn’t destroy every last vestige of driving enjoyment in the Equinox.

After spending some time watching the Chevy’s instant fuel-efficiency feedback gauge, it seemed like the best route was to leave the Equinox in ECO mode most of the time and then keep the gas pedal as close to the floor as possible. This resulted in truly adequate acceleration in most scenarios, as well as the aforementioned fuel-efficiency marks. I didn’t feel like I was missing much. Driving the Equinox in its “normal” mode, as I did for about a third of the time, provided a bit more oomph, but we’re still looking at a four-cylinder engine using 182 hp and 172 lb.-ft. of torque to tug around 3,770 lbs. worth of crossover.

The Equinox’s relatively large dimensions also made themselves known when it came to handling. Compared to a vehicle the size of the Escape, the Chevy felt less car-like while cornering, with a noticeable amount of body roll that muted any urge to push the vehicle to its limits. But that’s okay, because the Equinox makes no pretensions of being a performance crossover: this is a vehicle that delivers the sort of new-generation near-premium experience one finds in an I4 Buick LaCrosse or Regal. That means a high level of craftsmanship and style and near-premium amenities, and a powertrain that trades horsepower for fuel efficiency.

Well, even though the Equinox was a bit rougher than that—certainly its engine noise was intrusive enough to catch my attention—the overall driving experience was competitive, and the rest of the vehicle was more than that, even at a “Total Vehicle Price” of $29,305. The breakdown here started with a “Standard Vehicle Price” of $25,970, which included remote keyless entry, six months of OnStar “Directions & Connections” service, a rearview camera system, heated outside mirrors, 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, an eight-speaker Pioneer audio setup, premium cloth seats, heated front seats, Bluetooth phone connectivity and the proverbial much, much more. Options then included $1,295 for a rear-seat dvd entertainment system, an upgrade to a leather interior for $800, and a power programmable rear liftgate. Tack one $745 in destination charges, and there you go.

(The rearview camera system deserves a quick comment: The Equinox routes the video for this system through the rearview mirror, showing it in a space that takes up about one third of the mirror. That’s not much of a screen for an old man like me, and it was well-nigh impossible for me to see what was going on there on some occasions.)

All that being said, I need to point out a major problem with interior before I get much further. Chevrolet generally does an excellent job with designing the intersection of the front doors and the dashboard assembly, with a nice subtle transition from one to the other I find quite attractive. And while they do that in the Equinox, as you can see in the pictures that the trim accents in this particular unit don’t match.

Now, this was an exceedingly disappointing flaw and does raise some questions about the general level of craftsmanship at Chevy. But because the rest of the vehicle was so impressive, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that this was only a fluke, and that finding a better example on a dealer’s lot would be a simple matter. If I’m wrong, however, this is a deal-breaker.

Putting that aside, there was a lot to like about the Equinox’s interior. There was plenty of room in both rows, courtesy of both the vehicle’s relatively long length and seats with a surprising amount of travel. The fronts can move fore and aft 10 inches, and the second-row seating has an additional eight inches to play with; they also split 60/40 but don’t quite fold flat. Another drawback is that the rear speaker housing and side storage area did impinge on the rear cargo space, somewhat narrowing the range of what could fit back there. It’s an example of a slightly style-over-substance approach that can be seen elsewhere, too. Take the Equinox cabin’s dimensions. Though it felt roomy enough to meet my needs, the cold hard truth of the matter is that even though the Equinox is significantly bigger than the Toyota and Honda on the outside, it’s significantly smaller on the inside in terms of both cargo volume and passenger volume.

The passenger volume, cargo volume behind second row and cargo volume behind first row (in cubic feet) for the four vehicles I mentioned above: Equinox, 99.7, 31.4, 63.7; Escape, 99.4, 31.4, 67.2; RAV4, 108.2, 36.4, 73; and CR-V, 103.8, 35.7, 72.9.

Where there’s no deficiency is the area of interior style. Chevrolet interiors have gone appreciably up-market in recent model years, and the Equinox is no exception. The front row is distinguished by Chevy’s dual-cockpit design, implemented here by using an interesting bevel-like accent across the passenger side of the dash, flowing right out of the air outlet that flanks the center control pod. Oddly, that same accent is missing from the driver’s side between the outlet and the gauge hood, yet picks up again as part of the door transition. And speaking of the gauges, the treatment of the tach and speedometer is worth noting for its aggressive, muscle-car look.

Chevrolet’s work with molded plastic continues to impress, and I don’t mean that as a joke. The trim pieces on the center control pod and those aforementioned gauges, along with the accents on the outboard air outlets and interior door handles, look (and feel) pretty sophisticated at this price point. So, too, is the treatment of the Equinox’s top-of-dash storage space, which needs a specific mention. In many vehicles, this is a cheap bit of business that seems to be the automaker’s way of punishing you for not laying out the cash to get the model with the premium touchscreen (and associated hardware that would otherwise go in the storage space). But not so in the Equinox, in which it felt as if the console storage had been given just as much attention (a lot) as the rest of the interior.

The same can be said of the Equinox’s exterior. The new sheet metal that debuted with the second-gen model in 2009 is still fresh, with an aerodynamic, athletic shape that’s set off by a judicious use of chrome highlights. The shiny stuff is used for trim around the side windows, as the front fog-lamp housing with its especially striking horizontal bar, above the license plate at the rear and as the grille surround. It’s just enough to get your attention without taking away from the fast-forward stance and chiseled good looks of the Equinox. The largest contributors to which are the vehicle’s tinted glass, high beltline and acutely angled C-pillar, which integrate well with each other in a nearly custom appearance.

And check out some of the other intricate exterior details, including the sharp creases that flow up from the C-pillars, the honeycomb pattern of the grille, the faux “diamond plate” running boards, the sculptured insets for the door handles, and, yes, appropriately finished roof-rail seals. Chevy designers clearly earned their salaries on the Equinox, and I can find really only one nit worth picking: the derivative double character-line cues on the side of the Equinox.

On the other hand, as you might have suspected from the short-ish daylight openings, there’s not much in the way of rear visibility. The view forward—metaphorically speaking—is a tad better, albeit not by much. The key here is product timing, as the next-generation models of the CR-V, RAV4 and Escape all will debut before the Equinox gets its next full make over, and the new Escape should be a particularly huge leap ahead of its current iteration.

Until then, however, the Equinox will remain a formidable entry in a high-volume segment of the marketplace.

GM provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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5 Comments

  1. I have always liked this crossover, great lines.

  2. Stephane, we don’t have any plans to review the Orlando. We weren’t invited to the launch and lost our Canadian corespondent a year or two ago. I’d be happy to publish a well-written piece covering this (if you know anyone who wants to drive one and write about it for Autosavant). 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing and I’m gonna have to agree. I’ve never been big on the SUV’s- I don’t necessarily need the size. But after reading a review on the Johnny Londoff Chevrolet blog, I wanted to look closer at the Equinox. I jsut can’t believe the MPGs!

  4. I’m having my first experience with an Equinox this week as a rental car. My Equinox LT is very nicely equipped with touchscreen infotainment system with integral backup camera, sunroof, and it seems solidly assembled with nice-looking materials. I’m quite impressed; well-done, GM.

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