As most Americans continue to shy away from traditional station wagons, so-called compact crossovers have been gaining in popularity. Chevrolet's first-generation Equinox never really made a significant dent in the segment, but the automaker is taking advantage of its second chance with the all-new 2010 Equinox.
What is it?
The Equinox stands as Chevrolet's entry-level crossover, replacing the previous model of the same name. However, the 2010 model is essentially related to the previous Equinox in name only, featuring vast improvements in virtually every category imaginable.
What's it up against?
The Equinox is actually on the large side for a compact crossover, but GM sees the CUV's key competitors as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4 and Ford Escape. Although not part of the CUV crowd, we could also see the Volkswagen Jetta Sport Wagon getting thrown into the cross-shopping mix, especially given its similar price and interior dimensions.
GM may not like to admit it, but potential Equinox buyers will likely at least take a look at its platform mate, the GMC Terrain.
The Equinox doesn't introduce the world's first engine to run on hopes and dreams, but it certainly delivers some firsts for the compact CUV segment. Thanks to a 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine, the front-wheel drive version of the Equinox delivers a class-leading 32 mpg highway. That figure not only bests the Ford Escape Hybrid, but also the Toyota Matrix and VW Jetta Sport Wagon 2.5.
How does it look?
Like a marshmallowly version of the previous Equinox. The overall look isn't radically different from the old design, but the 2010 model eschews the last gen's flat lines and sharp edges for a much more Rubenesque look, highlighted by pronounced wheel arches and an updated version of Chevy's signature grille.
Given the Equinox's need to appeal to a wide audience, its overall styling is on the plain vanilla side, albeit with much more refinement than before.
The Equinox's styling won't exactly stand out in a crowd, but it also won't put you to sleep.
And on the inside?
Overall, the Equinox's interior design is pretty well done, but we liked it much better the first time we saw it at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Unique at the time, GM has since installed the Equinox's center stack and steering wheel in pretty much every new car it has released in the subsequent months, giving us that unsettling feeling that GM is returning to its badge engineering ways.
From an aesthetics point of view, the Equinox's interior is quite pleasing with varying shapes, colors and designs. Though now repeated, the center stack looks thoroughly modern, ditching the days of an ubiquitous AC Delco radio stuffed above all-too-familiar HVAC controls.
However, we must say we miss some of the simplicity of the old GM. Although attractive, the forward-slanting center stack often made it difficult to reach radio controls. Moreover, the sheer number of buttons and a questionable layout (a rear-door child lock just below the Bluetooth button?) made it difficult to hit your intended button without taking your eyes off the road.
We might get used to the layout overtime, but it certainly didn't happen in our week with the Equinox.
But our biggest gripe with the Equinox - by a mile - was the with gauge cluster. The two large pods and curved glass may look nice under ideal viewing conditions, but get the Equinox on the road between the hours of dawn and dusk and the reflection of the sun becomes almost unbearable. The entire cluster becomes washed out with the sun's rays, not only making the gauges difficult to read, but also providing an unnecessary distraction for the driver. A redesign is probably in order.
We're still on the fence about the Equinox's mesh-like cloth treatment, but we could see how some buyers might like the material for its uniqueness.
But simply as a CUV, the Equinox does its job very well. We took the Equinox on a 500 mile road trip with four people and had no complaints about passenger or cargo room. The Equinox's steering wheel mounted cruise and radio controls were a welcome addition, more than making up for their $495 package price.
But does it go?
The 182 horsepower 2.4-liter in our Equinox tester proved powerful enough for around town duties, but did make merging into freeway traffic a bit nerve racking. Most people would be perfectly satisfied with the 2.4-liter, but for those that need more power, a 3.0-liter V6 is also on offer. However, preview drives have indicated that the V6 doesn't necessarily provide a lot more grunt than the four-banger.
But the real point of the four-cylinder Equinox is economy, and it delivered in spades. We managed to go through nearly three tanks of city and highway driving, returning a very respectable 28 mpg.
Our final figure was a little surprising considering we failed to see the EPA's suggested 32 mpg during highway cruising. We never saw the dial cross the 30 mpg mark, but the Equinox made up for that shortcoming with impressive city numbers, besting its 26 mpg claimed average.
The Equinox's steering is typically overboosted, but the 17-inch alloy wheels gave our test car a reasonably compliant ride. Sporty it is not, but it did prove comfortable and quiet over a long highway trip.
Why you would buy it:
Like most Americans, you're embarrassed to be seen in a station wagon but still need a vehicle to haul around the kids with good fuel economy.
Why you wouldn't:
Unlike most Americans, you're not embarrassed to be seen in a station wagon and would gladly trade a higher ride height for a better driving experience.
Leftlane's bottom line
Although not quite a home run in our books, Chevrolet has vastly improved on the Equinox for the 2010 model year. Few vehicles on the market offer the Equinox's level of price, economy, cargo room and styling, with customers obviously taking notice - the Equinox's Canadian plant will be running on overtime indefinitely to keep up with market demand.
There are certainly a few things we'd change about the Equinox, but if you're shopping this class of vehicle, you owe it to yourself to put the Equinox on your list.
2010 Chevrolet Equinox 1LT FWD base price, $23,360. As tested, $24,600.
Vehicle interface package, $495; Destination, $745.
Words and photos by Drew Johnson