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Equinox gives Chevy new leverage in the SUV market

OPEN ROAD -

May 28, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

The dictionary defines "equinox" as that twice-yearly occurrence when the amount of daylight and darkness are equal. It also seems an appropriate name for Chevrolet's boundary-busting vehicle that balances between the traditional sport-utility and minivan camps.

The bold and brash Equinox also represents an important tactical change for General Motors, which has upgraded its entry-level off-roader to become a more viable offering. It means that Chevy can finally duke it out with more contemporary competitors that include the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Saturn Vue and Honda CR-V, to name but a few.

Replacing its more traditional, but rapidly aging Tracker "cute-ute" series this spring, the Equinox is touted by GM's marketing types as having a "crossover-based architecture." We're never quite sure what the term crossover really means, since all manner of transportation devices are being tagged with the "crossover" handle these days. What Chevrolet has produced, though, is an agreeable blend of functional styling, perky power and useful features that represents a major effort in the art of compromise.

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Visually, the Equinox leans heavily on Chevy's truck heritage, with a nose job that would do a Silverado pickup proud and a silhouette that could easily be confused for one of the division's Trailblazer sport-utes. The one-piece van-like rear liftgate is tall and wide enough to easily facilitate cargo loading/unloading. The net result is a ruggedly handsome vehicle that, despite its overall compact dimensions, looks tough and inspires confidence.

The Equinox's cabin is also brimming with good taste and intelligent thought. The gauges are straightforward, the various dials and control knobs are surrounded by metallic-looking trim and the macho shifter is floor-console mounted. But the neatest item has to be the adjustable 60/40 rear seat, which can be pushed back up to eight inches to provide limo-style leg room, or moved forward to maximize stowage space. That kind of exceptional versatility, which is similar to that found on the new Chevrolet Malibu Maxx wagon, was previously available only on luxury-grade sport-utes.

There's also a height-adjustable cargo floor panel that can be left flat or lifted to form a picnic table or a platform for tools.

Getting the Equinox up to speed is a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter OHV V-6 that also sees service with GM's current crop of minivans. The only major difference is that the transmission is of the five-speed automatic variety, while the vans make do with four-speed units.

While front-wheel drive comes standard, the optional on-demand all-wheel drive setup shifts power to the rear wheels whenever the front wheels begin to lose their grip.

Available in base LS or up-level LT trim, all models arrive with air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks, remote keyless entry and a CD-equipped sound system. The LT adds alloy wheels, roof rack, cruise control, premium six-way power driver's seat, anti-lock brakes and traction control (front-wheel-drive only).

Options include heated leather seats, power sunroof, upgraded audio systems, roof-mounted side airbags and OnStar, GM's GPS-based emergency monitoring system and help desk.

By introducing the Equinox, Chevrolet hopes to attract a bigger audience than the tiny old Tracker could ever hope for while at the same time going head to head with all the popular makes. With plenty of people-friendly roominess, enough get-up-and-go to please most drivers and a very reasonable $21,600 base price, this entry-level Jack-of-many-trades should be an easy sell.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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