The Chevrolet Equinox is all new for 2010, a marked imp... The Chevrolet Equinox is all new for 2010, a marked improvement from the outgoing model (GM photo).

Oh, man. There aren't cars like this quite often. These are the sorts of things that you remember for a long, long time. We're not talking life-changing, but this is definitely in the category of significantly memorable. Sitting in that row at the ballgame where they hand the free hot dogs out. Hauling in the biggest fish on the boat. Winning the 50/50 raffle at the basketball game.

We've just returned from a week with the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox and we're happy to go on record as putting it up there with all that good stuff. You might think we're crazy, but it's not difficult for us to get excited about a vehicle like a crossover (that strange union of an SUV and a car). Since nearly every manufacturer makes one these days, they tend to get a lot of attention. But the reality is that most haven't been that inspiring. In fact, GM has been in the crossover game for years, too, but nothing they produced ever came this close.

The Equinox changes all of that.

Not Their Time Of Dying
For all the quantum leaps that GM claimed over the last ten or so years, most of it was simply hot air: products that were incremental improvements relative to the rest of the industry (even if, internally, they were massive improvements over GM's previous model). All of these, save the Corvette and its various performance-enhanced versions, could be described as adequate but never exceptional.

It sounds obvious, but: one secret to building great products is actually, first, knowing what great means. After years of GM's insistence that, say, the Pontiac G6 was a great product, a lot of people stopped believing them. Even if they had the tools, could they actually create a product that was, in all honesty, "great?" Many had their doubts.

The answer is, in fact: Yes They Can.

The Chevrolet Equinox is the first vehicle we've driven from GM outside of the Corvette that we dare to label as great. We believe there's actually no room for argument. Some things are just universally trusted without much debate: Heidi Klum's beauty, late-summer sunsets, a glazed donut. Damn near perfection. The Equinox is right there.

What Great Feels Like
This is the second generation of the Equinox, but we'll forgive you if you didn't pay much attention to the first generation model. That one, sold from 2004 to 2009, lacked character and didn't delight the user on the inside or outside; it had the soul of a rental car. The market was rife with better alternatives, too, from the Honda CR-V to the Ford Escape, to say nothing of the more sophisticated models from Lexus and the other luxury marques.

Given that as a starting point, it's remarkable that a sophomore effort on the Equinox name delivers so highly. Key to Equinox's success is a thoughtful collection of the following:

  • Actual fuel economy improvement: The Equinox gets 32 miles per gallon and up to 600 miles from a tank of gas. For a long time the notion of a crossover was nice in theory but in practice never materialized much in the way of saving money for the user; now an Equinox buyer can have an SUV shape and cargo space with sedan-like efficiency. This is big.
  • Use of higher-grade components: Direct-injection engines and six-speed transmissions cost a lot more money but allow for significant gains in fuel economy. The fact that Chevy is willing to spend the money to invest in these technologies at the Equinox price point is telling. (Cheat sheet: direct injection is an improvement from older engines as the fuel and air are directly injected into the cylinder, closer to where combustion happens and in a manner that's much smarter; six speed transmissions are more efficient because having more gears allow you to run the vehicle at lower engine speeds -- remember your bicycle?)
  • Design that's actually leading the market: It's difficult to pull off a contemporary design that finds universal appeal, but the new Equinox is at once handsome and proud without being fussy. GM's design impresario, Ed Welburn, is a cheerleader of simple, thoughtful designs and the Equinox is a shining example. Notice the lack of low-grade tacked-on plastic strips, strange design cut lines and other flourishes that we, sadly, became used to from GM throughout the 1990s and beyond.
  • An interior to be proud of: While GM's exterior design started coming on stream in the middle of the decade, its interiors did not. The new Equinox is perhaps the first interior we've seen from GM that delivers on its promise. This could be the best execution in the entire lineup, better even than GM's new-in-2008 Cadillac CTS, which many lauded for its interior (but we felt was artificially luxurious, with fits of chrome and vacant plastic touch spots). It feels perfect for the Equinox.

When you open up the door (which, by the way, feels like it's certainly heavy enough -- a very solid door tightly attached to its hinges, something that you won't actually find everywhere in the industry) and step inside, the first thing you'll notice is a very attractive waterfall center console, tightly organized between two long, trapezoidal air ducts. We could stand for fewer buttons (a dorm room boombox could be one analogy to the layout of the buttons on the radio and navigation system), but it is pleasing to look at. A nice, calming, liquid blue color is seen throughout the center console and instrument panel. It's a very sophisticated look and, for the half dozen passengers we carried around during our week, was without question the first cause for comment. The interior is a hit aesthetically.

Functionally, some parts of the interior could use some revisions, however. While there are available steering-wheel-mounted controls (the 2LT and LTZ models come standard with them), those who opt for using their elongated arm to control the radio will find those knobs just barely out of reach, something that's confounding at best and a bit of a safety hazard at worst. Instead of placing the audio knobs closer to hand, Chevy put the temperature controls closest to the driver. All operations of the radio are just about an inch or two out of our reach, making us lean forward and hunt and peck for the knob while barreling down the freeway. This is something worth changing.

In addition to the ergonomics of the audio controls, we picked up on a few nagging quality issues that reminded us of "old GM," but they are so minor that we trust the company will see to a rapid fix. For example, the plastic piece surrounding the gear shift lever feels loosey-goosey and cheap. We hope this gets another look during the next model year.

It's perhaps a tribute to the Equinox's interior that the extent of our complaint is contained in the above notes. Every other aspect of the Equinox's interior -- from the comfortable seats (the rear sear seats have eight inches of travel, a nice touch for long rides) to the visibility (more than adequate, although like every car today we wish the front A-pillars were thinner) to the optional one-touch remote rear lift gate -- will surprise an unsuspecting Chevy shopper. It's packed with the sorts of things drivers expect from much pricier cars. The Equinox, however, starts at $22,440. While our test vehicle broke $30,000 (it was the LTZ package with nearly every option), you can easily find an all-wheel-drive model to your liking in the mid 20s.

The part we love most about the Equinox is its inherent value promise: economy of price and economy of fuel. The secret to the Equinox's fuel-sipping success is the use of a new direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder model. Given the Equinox's length (it's only about three inches shorter than the larger, truck-based Trailblazer that was discontinued in 2009), you might think that a four-cylinder wouldn't have enough oomph for the job. But this one does -- in a week of driving in all sorts of different conditions with various amount of cargo and passenger loads, we fell in love with the little engine.

And if the competition is any indication, the Honda CR-V has been sold with only a four cylinder for years with nary a complaint (and plenty of awards). These crossovers really only make sense when they deliver on the fuel economy of a sedan with the inherent goodness of a sport-utility vehicle (higher ride height, expanded cargo volume). Even though a V-6 (with direct injection) is available on the Equinox, we would recommend going for the smaller engine to take advantage of fuel economy savings.

Why Pay More?
With a navigation system that's as crystal clear as any in the industry, an exterior design that's simple and beautiful, an interior that can stand and fight with anyone, fuel economy that would make a Honda Civic blush and enough space to replace a mid-size SUV, the Equinox really asks a powerful question: can you, in all honesty, justify buying anything else?

The class of the field in the crossover genre has long been the Honda CR-V at the low end and the Lexus RX at the high end. With the Equinox doing the job of both of those, we wonder how a buyer of either -- brand loyalties aside -- would justify their purchase. We certainly couldn't.

Research the 2010 Chevy Equinox:

- Chevy Equinox Overview
- Chevy Equinox Photos
- Free Chevy Equinox Quote

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