By Mark Elias
Wednesday, Jun 24th, 2009 @ 1:07 pm
 
As we make our way through Southeastern Michigan's picturesque countryside in the freshly redesigned 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, the gorgeous farms and homes - both large and small - dot the landscape and remind us why many people from Michigan, never leave Michigan. But despite the pleasant surroundings just far enough from Detroit, a question lingers.



Why is General Motors, attempting to progress through Chapter 11 reorganization due to an excessive glut of vehicle choices, among other factors, introducing yet another choice for buyers?

Just a few minutes in the Equinox, which replaces the less-than-stimulating old version with a new, more stylish follow-up, makes it obvious that after all these years, GM is finally in tune with the times. Let's start with the 'ute's fuel economy to answer queries from Congress.

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The Equinox comes standard with a new version of GM's seemingly ubiquitous 2.4-liter Ecotec engine. The architecture has been in place for a few years, but this one is direct injected and manages 182-horsepower and 172 lb-ft. of torque while getting a class-leading 22-mpg city and 32-mpg highway in front-wheel-drive configuration. The EPA estimates 20 mpg city / 29 mpg highway for the AWD version. Chevrolet says to expect up to a 600-mile range of highway driving on a tank of gas.

That 32 mpg highway figure is 1 mpg ahead of the Ford Escape Hybrid, 7 mpg more than the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and, perhaps most impressively, 1 mpg better than a four-cylinder Honda Accord.

But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.

Tightened and toned
The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is a five-place crossover that carries forward with the new corporate identity by way of a split grille. A crisply creased one-piece side stamping makes the boldest statement while a C-pillar channels Mercedes-Benz's M-Class. Clean, sleek curves wrap around the rear with a spoiler on the top of the liftback to aid with the aerodynamics. Wide wheel flares impart a bulldog-like stance that in all honesty, could accommodate up to 22-inch wheels instead of the 19-inchers that are offered as the largest factory option.

The interior is nicely appointed, whether in monotone or contrasting colors. Either way, it follows the pod-style design that was first seen in the latest Malibu. A binnacle with speedometer and tachometer, fuel and temperature gauges outlined in contrasting silver trim are reminiscent of the gauge housings in the new Camaro. A vertical stack houses the navi and audio controls and offers a good overhang that cuts down dramatically on the glare that shows up on other screens.

The layout is optimized to provide ample room throughout. Even with six-foot passengers in the rear, there was plenty of room to stretch without touching your knees to the back of the driver and passenger seats. The width may be another story: to our eyes, the rear bench seat seems fit for two-and-a-half men rather than three full-size occupants.

One of the test vehicles featured very handsomely stitched leather seats, while another one came equipped with fabric surfaces. Trust us: go for the leather option. The cloth seats had an unusual two-tone color scheme with a rather unattractive layered mesh appearance. Single color cloth seats would be fine, but these might even make vegans opt for the leather.

Extra attention to details really pays off in this new Equinox. The ride is exceedingly quiet, thanks to details like triple sealing on the doors and moving the windshield forward about three inches to cut the wind. Rocker panels are now part of the doors, which is an assist to those who repeatedly find themselves swiping dirt on their pant legs. Above the Equinox's beltline, chrome strips surround the windows, and add contrast to the roof rack helping to dress this Chevy up.

On the road again
The four-banger and six-speed automatic is similar to the package found in the entry-level Malibu - and that's not a bad thing, as we recently discovered. This Equinox can be optioned with the direct injection 3.0-liter DOHC V6 that puts out to the tune of 264-horsepower and 222 lb-ft. of torque. That engine, in FWD configuration coupled with the Hydra-Matic six-speed, is good enough to bring in mileage figures, according to EPA estimates, of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. In AWD, expect 17 / city, 24 / highway. Not quite as impressive as the four-cylinder, but still towards the top of the class.

The V6 provided plenty of power for the Equinox to cruise comfortably all day on the interstates and would be the better package if all-wheel-drive were a must-have on your CUV shopping list. Despite the availability, the General expects that about three in four Equinox buyers will opt for the 2.4-liter, front-wheel-drive package.

The Michigan roads we rumbled our way through in the Equinox had enough tar patches and pothole fixes to cause the suspension to almost hum along at a 60 MHz frequency. But the reality was that this crossover displayed great road-handling abilities and was firm without being jarring. Pushing it through a cloverleaf-style interstate on-ramp showed little sway or wallowing while gaining speed to merge into high-speed traffic. But at this point, the four-banger is letting you know the engine room is at full throttle. Once at speed, it will cruise comfortably all day long.

A strut-type front suspension with tuned coilovers, stabilizer bar and hydraulic bushings in front, and multi-link setup with coil springs, trailing arms and stabilizer bar help to keep the Equinox sorted. My driving partner thought it felt a little truck-like. This writer? I liked it just fine for its combination of firmness, and lack of skittishness while negotiating the lower-Michigan highways and backroads.

I suppose it's not that the manufacturers based here pay to keep these roads in the pockmarked condition they are in, as much as the state has no money to repair them. But on the other hand, perhaps the state government can turn it into a positive by having the convention and visitors bureau market it to enthusiasts ("Come to Michigan, Where Every Road is a Thrill Ride!").

Leftlane's bottom line
By combining utility and style with top-notch fuel economy and impressive attention to detail, GM has the makings of a hit on its hands. Let's hope that the automaker's perilous financial situation, which wasn't quite as public when the Equinox was under development, doesn't overshadow this thoroughly impressive redesign.

2010 Chevrolet Equinox LS base price range, $23,185-$28,790.


Words and photos by Mark Elias.