Review: 2010 Chevrolet Equinox sets the tone for New GM

2010 Chevrolet Equinox – Click above for high-res image gallery

It's fitting that General Motors has a vehicle named after an astronomical phenomenon that marks the seasons. The first Equinox came from the "old" GM during the autumn of its long slide. Since then, the General has emerged from a government-funded chrysalis, and the Equinox has followed suit with a redesign. Hopefully, the freshening signifies a springtime in GM's fortunes; a future desperately in need of a green infusion of the cash variety. Its products need to not only compete – but exceed – what's available from the competition. That figures to be a tall order, because the opposition is in rare form.

Just across town, Ford isn't sitting around – the Escape gets tweaks and updates seemingly every year. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 also crowd the top of the family CUV class, with the Mazda CX-7 and Hyundai Santa Fe playing supporting roles. Into this company of A-students wades the Equinox, fresh from reform school. Have the model's rough edges and troublesome behavior been smoothed out enough by remedial study? Follow the jump to find out.

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Photos copyright ©2009 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
The Equinox is certainly better dressed than its predecessor. While the outgoing model wasn't offensively styled, it erred on the side of the anonymous. For 2010, the Equinox benefits from sharper creases in its sheetmetal and the familial Chevrolet nose ties the crossover to its Traverse and Malibu cousins. The looks are attractive and garnered compliments, something we don't remember happening with other mainstream Chevys.

There's just enough brightwork on the Equinox to make it seem almost bejeweled, though the quality of some of those shiny bits comes across as plasticky. More sculpting in form, especially in the terraced contours of the hood, brings shape to what was once slabby. There's a strong line down the flanks and the wheelarches are newly emboldened. The front airdam comes down quite low, a necessary concession to fuel economy, and it may be prone to damage from big speed bumps or the first inkling of off-road terrain.

Large 19-inch chrome-laden wheels are available with the V6 model, so what the spiffy body giveth, the costume jewelery in the fenders may taketh away. There are chrome-free wheels available for the less blingy among us: our front-wheel-drive 1LT tester came with the smallest set of handsome 17-inch aluminum wheels, and there are 18-inchers, still sans chrome, also available.

Inside the Equinox, an even bigger upgrade has taken place than what was wrought on the outside. The interior is handsomely styled and makes a strong first impression. Fit and finish quality is high, particularly considering it's been a traditional trouble spot for GM. Unfortunately, while the materials impress on first inspection, that perception fades away after time. Too many textures and colors of plastic fill the inside of the Equinox, and much of it doesn't feel as luxurious as it looks. The glossy silver finish on the center stack is particularly off putting, but despite the entire interior's lack of plush, soft-touch padding, most of the competition feels and looks cheaper, and the overall design makes up for materials' shortcomings.

The whole vehicle carries the sheen of detail-sweating.
The cockpit styling of the dashboard cocoons driver and front seat passenger, and rear seat riders get plenty of travel on comfortable seats that slide and recline. The mission of the Equinox is to become a kind of minivan replacement, and on that front it gives up some space and practicality to those family haulers, but for a neo-non-wagon, it's roomy. Storage compartments and cupholders seemingly spring eternal – there's lots of places to stash things, from a center bin that's on the larger side of medium to net pockets on the seatbacks. The standard seat upholstery on our tester is a wetsuit-like mesh, while optional leather brings a touch of class and feels much more upscale. The seats are comfortable and oddly well bolstered; better than what you might find in a run-of-the-mill Camaro.

Operation of the controls brings some challenges. There's just enough buttons on the center stack for it to feel like too many. Radio and HVAC controls were backward from where our hand expected to find them, so we kept jacking up the fan speed instead of turning up the volume. Loading a disc into the audio system feels a little strange; the slot is just above a large, handy cubby at the bottom of the center stack. It's kind of an island unto itself and makes us wonder how an aftermarket audio install would go (remember those?).

Our staff tried models with and without the Bose uplevel Pioneer audio system that bundles navigation into the mix and found the uprated electronics somewhat frustrating to use. It's not labyrinthine like the systems in German luxury cars, but the navigation system wasn't good enough in practice to justify the price, and using the screen for adjusting secondary functions is that much more confusing. Other secondary controls are well-located and free from slop, though windows that have auto-down without auto-up are as maddenning as mirrors that point at the pavement when you shift into reverse (there is an option to turn them off). More acclimation time would mitigate these few ergonomic gripes, but for a vehicle this important, it shouldn't be a "good enough" situation.

Visibility out of the Equinox is good, aided by the relatively high crossover stance. GM has equipped the Equinox with healthy-sized rear view mirrors just in case that sloping C-pillar creates a null in rearward vision. Dropping the shifter into Drive – hard to miss with such giant markings – sends the 182 horsepower from the standard 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder through a six-speed automatic and either front- or all-wheel-drive. The direct-injected four cylinder is smooth and refined, one of the best in the segment.

The automatic, while polished, is reluctant to respond when asked to do anything but jump for sixth gear as quickly as possible. There's a manual position on the shifter, where a driver can call for gears with the toggle switch on the side of the shifter handle, but we waited an eternity for our desired ratio. The way it's programmed, this six-speed auto does essentially whatever it wants regardless of driver input. It's set up to maximize fuel economy, and that apparently extracts a cost in terms of sporting responsiveness.

Pushing the Eco mode button in front of the shifter attempts to maximize every drop of fuel even more. The idle speed is lowered, control inputs are filtered, and the transmission becomes even more aggressive about getting into sixth and locked up. The extra syrup in the gas pedal is acceptable in normal driving, as is the transmission's obsession with high gear. For city driving, Eco mode strikes us as a good idea. Putting a switch inside to control it is an even better idea. The most noticeable tradeoff to Eco mode is more vibration at idle due to the lower engine speed. It's not offensive, but it is apparent.

GM also offers a 3.0-liter version of its so-called "high feature" V6 in all but the LS trim level Equinox. Smoother and more powerful, the six is also hungrier. Equipped with the four-cylinder, 32 miles per gallon on the highway from a roomy crossover that weighs more than 3,500 pounds is quite frankly astounding, and performance is satisfying enough. Those MPG figures are attainable in the real world, too. While the six delivers 264 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque, the two engines have divergent characters. Where the four has low-down grunt, the six has a desire to rev. Coupled to the recalcitrant transmission, the four is the appropriate and more pleasing engine choice.

When it's time to bring the party to a halt, the brakes feel up to the task and work as well as they felt. A minor quibble, however, is that the pressure doesn't seem to match up with retardation, requiring more initial digging-in than expected when bringing the 'Nox to a stop.

Taking off for any destination in the Equinox, it becomes obvious that chassis development was important this time around. Body motions are tightly controlled and bumps are soaked up without drama through the steering wheel or shuddering from the structure. The Equinox feels solid going down the road, and it plies highways in an almost Germanic fashion, locking on to the horizon and propelling forward.

The electric power steering doesn't have much feel, lending a slight whiff of minivan dynamics at the helm. Ignoring the current cultural backlash against vans, one of their biggest selling points has been a carlike demeanor, so to say that the Equinox drives like a minivan isn't necessarily a negative. Hit a twisty road with the Equinox, and it does, in fact, play along – up to a point – which is surprising for a vehicle whose corporate progenitors included the Pontiac Aztek.

With its latest revisions to the Equinox, General Motors shows a newfound seriousness about making good vehicles. This is a crossover that can be mentioned in the same breath as the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 without any qualifiers. In terms of styling and interior, only premium CUVs start looking better. The whole vehicle carries the sheen of detail-sweating, and that's exactly what GM needs to be obsessive about in order to win over new buyers.

The Equinox drives right for its mission and is a good value starting under $23,000. A full-boat loaded Equinox feels luxurious and nudges $33,000 – that's still a good deal, as it's loaded up with rear seat DVD screens, all-wheel drive, a power liftgate, leather, nav and more at a price point where some others are just getting started. By lavishing attention on its ever-important mainstream cars, GM could well pull off its latest plan for a renaissance, and the Equinox emerges in its second-generation as a butterfly, not a moth.

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