Review: 2010 Chevrolet Equinox

Up Front

General Motors has done a terrific job of redesigning the Chevy Equinox. The 2010 Equinox is a classy, well-designed compact SUV that actually gets better mileage than such rivals as the Honda (HMC) CR-V, Toyota (TM) Rav4, Ford (F) Escape, and Kia Sorento. That's right: It's a Chevy that beats even the Asian competition in fuel economy. The car is also arguably GM's hottest product right now. Buoyed by the Cash for Clunkers program, Equinox sales nearly tripled in August vs. the same month last year, to 13,157, and then nearly doubled in September (vs. September '08), to 6,840 after the program had ended.

The new Equinox (and its twin, the GMC Terrain) looks better than the old one, has a vastly improved interior, and is reasonably peppy—even if you stick with the standard 2.4-liter, 182-horsepower in-line four-cylinder engine. Like the Buick Enclave, the Equinox has a distinctly, unapologetically American look to it, both inside and out.

Plus—and this is key—the Equinox is rated to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and an astonishing 32 mpg on the highway with front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine. Mileage figures for comparable rival models are all lower: 21/28 for the CR-V, 22/28 for the Rav4, 21/28 for the Ford Escape, 20/25 for the '09 Hyundai Tucson, and 16/22 for the '09 Kia Sorento.

If fuel economy isn't a top priority, for an extra $1,500 the Equinox comes with a 3.6-liter, 264-horsepower V6. Optional all-wheel drive is available with either engine, and both are paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. However, going with the V6 engine lowers fuel economy to 17/25 with front-wheel and 17/24 with all-wheel drive, which is slightly behind the Rav4 and Ford Escape (the CR-V is available in a V6).

The new price for the Equinox is actually down slightly from '09. The entry-level LS, with the four-cylinder engine, starts at $23,185 with front-wheel drive and $24,935 with all-wheel drive. The price rises to $28,790 for the top-of-the-line LTZ with front-wheel drive and $30,540 for an LTZ with AWD.

The new Equinox doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings but comes standard with safety gear that includes antilock brakes with braking assist, stability and traction control, and front, front-seat side, and head-protecting side curtain airbags.

Also standard on even the entry-level LS: air-conditioning, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, full-power accessories, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, OnStar navigation, and a sliding and reclining rear seat that can fold down in a 60/40 pattern.

Many of the options, moreover, are quite inexpensive. For instance, a power sunroof costs $795, an eight-speaker upgraded sound system adds $395, and a backup camera $320.

Behind the Wheel

Despite its excellent fuel economy, the Equinox doesn't feel slow, tinny, or cramped. It's almost exactly the same size as the Toyota Venza—which is to say 13 inches longer than the Ford Escape, 10 inches longer than the Honda CR-V, and nearly six inches longer than the Rav4. At 3,770 lbs, the Equinox weighs nearly 500 lbs more than the Escape, 400 lbs more than the CR-V, and 200 lbs more than the Rav4, which gives it a solid feel on the road.

The Chevy's high mileage rating is achieved partly by giving the four-cylinder engine direct fuel injection and variable valve timing. There's also an Eco mode in models with the small engine that saves gas by altering the shift points in the transmission. However, in this mode the vehicle feels sluggish.

Otherwise, the Equinox is quicker than I expected. I pulled out into traffic several times, floored it, and found even the small engine's oomph adequate for most purposes. The company says the base Equinox will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds, and I clocked it at around 9.2 seconds. The V6-powered Equinox will do 0 to 60 in less than eight seconds, GM says.

The Equinox' cabin is much improved, with the clean, quality look of a scaled-down Buick Enclave, which is a good thing. The instruments and controls have the same attractive, aqua-colored lighting scheme the Enclave has. The front seats have a similar cockpit-style arrangement, with a center console that juts out between driver and passenger slightly. The door handles are surrounded by distinctive trapezoidal design cues, and there are two distinctive vents on either side of the center console shaped like boats stood on end.

A big attraction of the Equinox is its flexible seating. The front and rear seats move fore and aft with nearly 10 inches and eight inches of travel, respectively. Combine that with the standard adjustable steering wheel and there's enormous leeway for fitting tall and plus-sized drivers and passengers into this vehicle. I'm 5 ft. 10, and I had to stretch to reach the pedals with the driver's seat all the way back, yet there was still room for an adult passenger to be comfortable in the seat behind me.

GM also has used insulation and noise-reduction technology in the chassis, engine compartment, and interior to make the Equinox' cabin much quieter than before. Among other things, the four-cylinder model is the first GM vehicle to be equipped with Active Noise Cancellation technology, which uses microphones to detect noise and sends counteracting sound waves through the audio system to cancel it out.

Nonetheless, one of my few complaints about the Equinox is that the four-cylinder engine had an annoying, sewing-machine whine when I pushed it hard. The ride also is a little boaty for my taste.

Keep in mind that, like the CR-V and the Escape, the Equinox seats a maximum of five, while the Rav4 has an optional third row of seats that raises its maximum seating to seven. At 31.4 cu. ft., the Equinox also has less maximum luggage space behind the rear seats than the CR-V (35.7) and the Rav4 (36.4), though more than the Ford Escape (29.2).

Towing capacity is 3,500 lbs, the same as the CR-V and the Escape (and more than double that of the Rav4).

Buy it or Bag It?

The fit and finish of the Equinox now seems very close to that of a Honda or Toyota, but this is a very competitive segment, and there are numerous attractive alternatives in the same price range. The Equinox sells for an average of $24,842, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), which makes it only slightly less expensive than the 2010 CR-V ($25,329) and Rav4 ($25,000), and slightly more expensive than the 2010 Ford Escape ($23,989).

The difference is that for most customers, there are no cash discounts on the Honda and Toyota, while cash rebates of $2,000 or more and $1,500 or more are being offered on the 2010 Escape and Equinox, respectively. So you may be able to get more for your money with one of the Detroit models.

If money is tight, the 2009 Kia Sorento and Hyundai Tucson are being heavily discounted right now and sell for $20,342 and $20,867, respectively. However, both are due to be replaced by redesigned models late this year or early next year.

If all-wheel drive is a priority, be sure to consider the newly redesigned 2010 Subaru Forester, which comes standard with AWD and sells for an average of $23,976, according to PIN. And if fuel economy is your top concern, I really like the diesel-powered Volkswagen (VOWG.DE)

The Jetta TDI SportWagen. It sells for an average of $27,639, but most owners report getting upwards of 50 mpg in Jetta TDIs. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

The bottom line on the new Equinox is that it's a triumph for GM. But it's worth checking out the competition unless the Equinox offers exactly what you want.

Click here to see more of the redesigned 2010 Chevy Equinox.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.