Chevrolet Equinox takes brand in the right direction

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Chevrolet has introduced some noteworthy new products over the past couple of years. 

One of its best efforts is the 2004 mid-sized Malibu sedan, a definite step up from the previous edition. The all-new Corvette, which will reach showrooms in September, promises to be a home run.

But the bowtie division’s crowning 21st Century achievement to this point is the just-arrived 2005 Equinox sport utility vehicle.

Seldom do we have such high praise for a new vehicle. But the Equinox, the replacement for the offbeat Tracker, is one of those rare instances when we were blown away.

In fact, it does the Equinox an injustice to say it’s the new Tracker. It has nothing in common with the Tracker, which was manufactured by Suzuki as a knock-off of the Suzuki Vitara.

Indeed Equinox is far removed from the rather crude, small and under-powered Suzuki variant. This is not to say we don’t have some minor nitpicks, but overall Chevy has got it just about right.

Chevrolet now has solid competition with its unibody Equinox to go to war with such small SUV stalwarts as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Jeep Liberty.
The first thing that strikes you is a cutting-edge design that rivals the RAV4, which we (at least some of us) consider the best-looking small sport utility on the planet. Perhaps Chevrolet – and General Motors – is finally turning the corner, forsaking generally innocuous and run-of-the-mill designs for contemporary styling that an owner will feel proud to park in his or her driveway.

The Equinox, which shares a platform with the Saturn Vue, has an obvious Chevrolet front end with the distinctive bowtie bar running through the grille and into giant-sized headlights.

The fastback roof design, which originated with the first Lexus RX and has been mimicked repeatedly, and the small curving window behind the C pillar give the new Chevy a streamlined look from the side.

But if styling alone will not get a would-be buyer to write the check the driving experience might do the trick. The Equinox feels good. For one thing, all models come with the lively 3.4-liter 185-horsepower V6 found in numerous other GM products. No four-bangers to bargain around such as in the entry Escape. Purchase the base model and get a V6, unlike the Toyota and Honda, which offer nothing but a 4-cylinder.

While the Equinox is no SUV hotrod, it acquits itself nicely whether jumping from a stoplight or merging into freeway traffic. We carried four adults on one short trip, and the 700 or so pounds represented in our load had little effect on the engine.

Chevrolet measures 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds through the standard 5-speed automatic transmission.

If you are car savvy, you might say the Equinox’s cousin, the Saturn Vue, can be purchased in 2004 with a 250-horsepower Honda V6 engine. Granted, that’s a solid selling point, and the Vue will outperform the Chevy.

But performance comes at a base price premium of about $2,000. The Equinox starts at about $21,000 and the Vue V6 (it also comes with a less-expensive 4-cylinder) begins at around $23,000. Remember too Saturn has no-haggle pricing while Chevy has in recent years featured deep discounts.

But beyond that, we simply like the Chevrolet better than the Vue from its styling to its overall road manners even though the Vue is hands down the star of the rather lackluster Saturn stable. Beyond that the word “small” perhaps does not best describe either vehicle. Although they reside in what is affectionately called the mini-ute segment, they are bigger than the competition and hardly mini in stance.

Equinox’s longer wheelbase makes for a more pleasant ride and creates more space inside than your average compact SUV. For instance, at 112.5 inches the Equinox wheelbase is nine-inches longer than the Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda CR-V,  eight-inches longer than  the Jeep Liberty and a whopping 14 inches longer than the RAV4. The Equinox wheelbase, in fact, is only an inch shorter than the mid-sized
Chevy TrailBlazer.
This size virtually blows the competition away in rear-seat legroom, or perhaps it can best be described as rear-seat stretch out room. The Equinox is unequaled in rear-seat comfort in the segment with rear seats that slide fore and aft up to eight inches, 60-40 folding seatbacks and seatbacks that recline for long-haul comfort. The rear seats also sit occupants up higher than the front. This theater-like seating may be especially appealing to youngsters who will feel less claustrophobic.

And for those folks blessed (or cursed) with a large number of very young kids, the second row will accommodate three child safety seats abreast.

The interior has other interesting features that make traveling life easier including an adjustable rear parcel shelf that can carry groceries or a flat of flowers, a center armrest/storage bin that can be flipped up out of the way to create a large area between the seats to accommodate large purses or a laptop computer, and storage pockets on both sides of the center console good for storing magazines, maps or other large, flat items.

The dashboard area is neatly designed offering a contemporary look that retains a user-friendly nature. Silver metallic trim pieces surround the instrument gauges and the metallic look popular in many vehicles these days, is featured in the center stack. The shifter is in easy reach in the center console and just above it are the PRND indicators, an unusual but effective setup.

A couple of minor nitpicks, the two drink holders, which pop out of the front of the center bin, are rather flimsy. And if the arm rest/bin combination is flipped up to allow for a large object between the seats, the drink holders are made useless.

Although there is a storage area under the dash to the left of the steering wheel, it is the only cubby to be found up front.

The Equinox comes in just two trim levels, LS and LT, and in either 2-wheel or all-wheel drive. The LS 2-wheel drive begins at $21,560.  At the other end of the spectrum is the LT all-wheel at $28,225. We were happy to have the base LS for a test vehicle. It gave us the opportunity to discover that a $22,000 Equinox with a V6 engine can be very comfortable and affordable.

Our tester had only $935 in options including antilock brakes, deep tinted glass, luggage rack and cruise control.  That brought the bottom line to $22,495.

Standard features should be enough to satisfy many buyers. They include power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, XM-ready stereo with CD player and six speakers and power driver’s seat.

Oh, by the way, the Equinox V6 is reasonably easy on gas too, an important consideration these days, rated at 19 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway. Not a world-beater but not bad.