GM has a big problem with the Chevrolet Equinox. They just can’t make enough of the things to satisfy consistently strong demand. (I never said it was a bad problem). But not making enough vehicles for the customers who want to buy them frustrates those customers and can send them to your competitors’ products, can frustrate your dealer body, and leave a lot of money on the table that otherwise GM might be able to book as revenue. So, how does a vehicle that traces its lineage to the Geo Tracker consistently do so well for GM? We borrowed one for a week in order to answer this very question.
The Geo Tracker comment may have been a bit unfair, but the fact of the matter is, the Geo Tracker was GM’s first modern cute-ute. It became the Chevrolet Tracker after the Geo sub-brand shuffled off this mortal coil. The replacement for the Suzuki built-and-engineered Tracker was the first-generation Equinox (because, you know, GM had this attention-deficit problem whereby it tried to cause buyers of its re-engineered vehicles to forget about their forgettable differently-named predecessors. Pay no attention to the Nova/Vega/Monza/Cavalier/Cobalt behind the curtain.
The first-generation Equinox did reasonably well in the marketplace, despite having a much-derided Chinese-built 3.4 liter pushrod V6 under its hood. The interior in the first Equinox was not up to snuff, either, but it had a more spacious interior than did many of its cute-ute competitors like the RAV4 and CR-V. Eventually, the Equinox enjoyed some powertrain upgrades which didn’t help fuel economy, but did help its performance quite a bit.
With the launch of the second-generation Equinox for the 2010 model year, GM finally seems to have stumbled upon the formula for success in the compact crossover marketplace. Compared to the original Equinox, the current model has improved powertrains, striking good looks, much better fuel economy, and a far better interior.
It’s unlikely that the Equinox will win a beauty contest, with its attractively conservative shape, but at least it doesn’t push the line too far as its kissing cousin, the excessively-boxy GMC Terrain. Both cute-utes are identical under the skin, but have different interiors and completely different exteriors. The Equinox’s shape works much, much better for me. It has the global Chevrolet face, with a color-matched, chrome-trimmed horizontal bar bisecting upper and lower halves. There’s also chrome around the foglamps in up-rated models like our LTZ-spec tester, but it’s quite obviously chrome-plated plastic.
The profile shot looks a bit like a Mercedes ML (not a bad shape to mimic, if that’s what they did) in the C- and D-pillars, and perhaps goes a bit overboard with over-spec’ed fender flares and under-spec’ed wheels. The chrome-clad 18 inch alloys look a little lost, and lesser Equinoxes have smaller wheels. Also, as in several other vehicles, “chrome clad” means more chrome-plated plastic, covering real aluminum underneath. What is the point of that, aside from hiding the fact that the wheels are actually constructed of aluminum?
At the rear, the three-dimensional tail lamp design seems to fit in with the rest of the ‘Nox’s shape, and LTZs boast a chrome-ish diffuser underneath the bumper to add a bit more visual interest to the rear of the car. The deep-tinted rear windows in our tester keep up the illusion of this being a serious vehicle.
Inside the Mocha Steel Metallic (which, as you can see from the photos, is a grayish/tan hue) tester, there was an almost shocking level of color. Chevy calls the combination Jet Black/Brownstone. I call it black and maroon. It actually works all right with this particular exterior color, but not with every one. Don’t order your Equinox irresponsibly, or you may regret a tacky interior scheme when trade-in time eventually comes.
In a segment that is quickly stepping up its game in terms of interior materials and in-car technology, the Equinox is better than some (i.e., Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4) but behind the newest, such as the 2013 Ford Escape. For instance, the Equinox’s navigation system and dash-mounted touchscreen is reasonably easy-to-use (and far more advanced than the system installed in the $80,000 Cadillac Escalade – go figure!) but still not up to par with Ford’s latest offering. It doesn’t have Bluetooth streaming audio capability, which has been a fairly common feature in upper trim levels of nearly all vehicles for the past several years. There’s a fairly rudimentary trip computer between the speedometer and tachometer, but rather than using a large high-resolution color TFT display like Ford does, Chevy slaps in a green monochrome LCD with pixels only slightly smaller than the ones in my childhood Apple IIe.
In addition to the technology deficit against the Escape, it’s hard not to notice that nearly everything in the upper dash of the Escape is soft to the touch, while the Chevy has hard plastic on nearly every surface but the steering wheel and armrest. The Equinox is well-put-together, but the quantity of interior plastics was a little off-putting at its $32,730 price point.
Just as Chrysler seems to have gotten some serious volume discounts on steering wheels, fitting the same wheel to every car in its lineup, from Dart to Durango, from Charger to Challenger, GM seems to have made a similar deal for steering wheels in its cars and in its trucks. I can’t think of a GM car that I’ve driven over the past three years that does not have a derivative of the steering wheel in the Equinox other than the Corvette. Sonic, Camaro, Regal, Volt, Malibu, Cruze – they all have the same one with different trim applied to it. It’s an OK steering wheel, but could be a bit thicker, and the rocker movement of the front-facing switches is a little annoying. In this Equinox LTZ tester, there’s an additional button crammed onto the same button footprint as in the wheel’s relatives for lane departure warning. Every GM truck, from the Traverse to the Escalade, has the same steering wheel as well, but it’s different from the car one.
Under the Equinox’s hood, buyers have the choice of two direct-injected units: either a 2.4 liter four or a 3.0 liter V6. The 2.4 liter is the volume seller, and it gets stellar highway fuel economy (22 MPG city/32 MPG highway in FWD spec). The 3.0 liter DOHC V6 has been rightfully criticized as being excessively thirsty (17/24, or a full 6 fewer combined MPG vs. the four) and light on torque. How thirsty? The size-and-a-half larger Traverse FWD has identical 17/24 ratings. How torque-weak? The 3.0 liter produces 264 horsepower and just 222 lb-ft of torque. The power deficit is being addressed for 2013 by replacing the 3.0 liter V6 with a 3.6 liter unit. The new engine will produce 301 horsepower and 272 lb-ft of torque – all for the same EPA fuel economy numbers as the weaker V6.
Despite matching the Traverse’s fuel-economy numbers on paper, I found it much easier to get mileage in the mid-20s in the Equinox than I could manage in the Traverse’s cousins, the GMC Acadia Denali and Buick Enclave. In the real world (though obviously not a perfect comparison), my observed mileage was five or six miles per gallon better in the Equniox than in the Acadia/Enclave. Though I’m always happy to have more horsepower on tap, the 3.0 liter V6 felt like it motivated the Equinox sufficiently well. Despite its 222-pound(-feet) weakling torque rating, I was actually able to spin the front tires upon flooring the accelerator while rolling at around 20 miles per hour. That may be an indictment of cold all-season tires and an open differential, but it may also be a sign that it’s not quite as timid as many would have you believe.
First-generation Chevy Equinoxes and Saturn Vues (which shared a platform) were not known for their handling prowess. In fact, Vues had a propensity to break their rear suspension arms during hard cornering, prompting a recall campaign. Don’t expect to win any autocross events in an Equinox, but its relatively compact size makes it much more maneuverable than larger crossovers, and – at least with the four cylinder – much more fuel efficient than full-size models. Braking performance and lane-change maneuvers both inspired more confidence than does piloting a bigger vehicle. Steering feel is a bit numb, thanks to its fuel-saving electric assist in place of the traditional (and increasingly rare) hydraulic setup.
Pricing for the base Equinox is fairly aggressive – starting at $24,355 including destination – but rises quickly. The FWD LTZ model like my tester starts at $29,140. Tack on $1,500 for the 3.0 liter V6, $1,000 for the 18 inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels (plastic chrome clad, I might add), $795 for the 7″ color touchscreen navigation radio, $295 for forward collision alert/lane departure warning, and $810 for destination charge, and you have a final MSRP of $32,730. That is roughly in line with a CR-V’s pricing at invoice, when accounting for equipment differences, according to our pals at TrueDelta.com.
My wife loves driving a minivan and the convenience that it offers to our family of four, but she’s uncomfortable with its size. I have seriously considered trading down to something like an Equinox from time to time to make parking and manueverability easier on her. For folks who don’t need a full-size SUV or crossover (or minivan) or just like the style and size of the Equinox, in its too-big-to-be-called-a-cute-ute size, it might be pushing all of the right buttons for them.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.