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Equinox gives Chevy a versatile compact SUV

September 24, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

In an SUV market where big trucks are getting smaller, Chevy has a new wrinkle: make a small truck bigger. That's the theory behind the Equinox, Chevy's new compact sport-utility vehicle for 2005.

Sustained, higher gas prices and simple convenience have driven buyers away from "XXL" size SUVs, in favor of more manageably sized vehicles.

Chevy's latest sport truck up-sizes the traditional boundaries of its class, to arrive at an SUV that it hopes many will find to be the right size.

Equinox is a four-door SUV, available in LS or LT trim levels, with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Base sticker prices start at $21,560 (LS with FWD), and range up to $24,900 (LT with AWD). Most SUV owners don't venture off-road, and the car-based, all-wheel system found on the Equinox is not intended for trail busting. However, light off-road is well within its capabilities. The optional AWD is an on-demand system, where power is transferred to the rear wheels as needed, to maintain traction. The process of distributing power among all four wheels is transparent to the driver, requiring no input to switch on or off.

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Chevy claims that the Equinox 112.5-inch wheelbase is the longest in its class. It is fitted with a four-wheel independent suspension, with MacPherson struts up front and a four-link coil layout in back. Longer wheelbases are normally associated with smoother rides and true to form,

Equinox rides comfortably. There is little of the pitch and roll found in bigger sport-utilities, and highway travel is easy passage.

Brakes are front disc, rear drum; and ABS is standard on all-wheel-drive models, optional elsewhere. Front-wheel drive models are all equipped with traction control. Equinox has an electric power steering system. Like a conventional power steering system, the unit is variable ratio, adding more boost at low speeds where there is more resistance, and progressively less as you get rolling. In practice, the system has a too-light, over-boosted feel at low speeds, but this dissipates as you reach normal driving speeds.

Most SUVs have two engine choices: a V-8, with good performance and bad gas mileage, and a V-6 that does slightly better on gas, but is performance challenged. With prices hovering around the $1.90 per gallon level in many parts of the country, everyone would like to spend a little less on gas. However, the satisfaction of a smaller engine's better mileage fades quickly if you have to put your foot through the floorboard to get decent acceleration.

Happily, Equinox presents no such dilemmas. The new Chevy is offered with just one powertrain. The 3.4-liter V-6 is rated at 185 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 210 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3,800 rpm. It is connected to a five-speed automatic transmission. The motor has a lively feel, with good power on hand at all engine speeds. The five speed transmission matches well with the engine's power band. Gas mileage is EPA rated at 19 city and 25 highway: good numbers for the compact SUV class. Equinox has a maximum trailer towing rating of 3,500 pounds.

Inside, the Equinox offers a surprising amount of room for a compact class SUV, and a flexible floor plan. Up front, controls and switchgear are truck-simple and easy to reach. Visibility is good in all directions save the straight back view, where the rear seat headrests block a portion of your sight lines. The back seats recline (no third row seat is offered), and can be moved up to 8" fore or aft. That means there's adult-size room in back regardless of how tall the people up front are.

Open the rear lift gate and you find a shelf that allows two levels of storage, or can be removed entirely. It's reversible, with carpet on one side and washable plastic on the other, handy if your cargo is messy. An attached leg also allows you to use the shelf as a table. The rear seats split and fold forward and cargo capacity ranges from 32.2 to 68.6 cubic feet - lots of room, for a compact class vehicle. The front-passenger seat also folds flat forward, so you can carry long items inside under cover, or use the seatback as a desk.

Equinox is a strong, new entry for Chevy. It combines not-too-big size, a lively motor and a comfortable, flexible interior. The compact SUV segment is fairly crowded, but Chevy's new entry should have no trouble making a place for itself at the table.

© Motor Matters, 2004

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