Monday, September 21, 2009

2010 Equinox: Good thing, small package

Sacramento, California – Almost lost in the heat over America’s dependence on foreign oil is the production of some practical-size sport-utility vehicles by America’s automakers.

The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is a good example.

Redesigned for the new model year, the Equinox is a compact crossover that gives you not the slightest suggestions of being an oversized, gas-guzzling road hog. It comes off instead as a useful carrier of humans and cargo – and it doesn’t block out the sun.

OK, here’s where we add the disclaimer that, yes, U.S. automakers previously committed the hideous sin of producing behemoth SUVs, seemingly in a race to see which company could produce the champion fuel-waster on the roadways.

That was then. The Equinox is now.

In my week in a smart-looking, Navy blue, front-driving 2010 Equinox LTZ – the second-most-expensive of eight trim levels, starting at $28,045 – driving an SUV never seemed so politically correct. EPA fuel estimates on the sticker were a decidedly tepid 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the open road, but I found my tester doing a good 3 mpg better than that in both categories. Bravo.

The tester’s power plant was the more-macho 3-liter V-6 with 264 horsepower, which certainly drank fuel at a higher rate than the standard 2.4-liter four-banger. Investing in an entry-level Equinox (for a starting price of around $22,500) with a four-cylinder engine raises the projected fuel mileage to 22/32 mpg.

That’s nice, but here in California, I prefer to have some pop in my SUV, lest I get eaten alive on the interstates. The tested Equinox certainly met expectations, with good acceleration from a standing start and strongly rolling down freeway entrance ramps. The vehicle did some serious groaning on steep uphill climbs, and I could feel the gearbox struggling for its comfort level at those times.

But generally speaking, this Equinox will take people and a fair amount of cargo down the road with little complaint. Lots of rear-seat cargo configurations are a plus, too.

Steering was one-hand easy, and independent suspension front and rear maintained a smooth ride even on some of my pothole-ravaged driving routes.

Chevrolet describes the exterior look at “global” in nature, but it’s what I would call modern-day SUV fastback, which is to say the front wedge is nicely sculpted, and the back end slopes down with a nice aerodynamic flair. Other SUVs have the same look. Simply put, this Equinox is easy on the eyes.

Interior comforts are plentiful. Standard, leather-appointed seats on the tester were smooth and cushioning. Myriad controls in the center stack were easy to see, understand and use. The audio system was robust and rocking, courtesy of a standard Pioneer system with eight speakers.

My rearview camera system projected an image into the left side of the interior rearview mirror, a nice feature that enables you to keep your head up while you’re carefully backing up, instead of dropping your head to the center dash and defeating the goal of looking all around you.

The 360-degree visibility from the cockpit was exceptional, especially from the front seats. The view out the front was like having a primo seat at a widescreen movie presentation. My 5-2 wife raved it. I’m 6-4. So if the windshield visibility feels good in those height ranges, you know you have something good.

Safety features are likewise impressive. Air bags are plentiful, but you also get little helpers, like ultrasonic rear parking assist, as standard on the front-drive LTZ.

Systems to monitor tire pressure and oil life are helpful, but I always wonder how accurate they are. Seems like I’m always getting a false-positive on tire pressures on cold days. Bottom line: Back up the technology by eyeballing these things yourself.

And remember, Chevrolet now gives you the 100,000-mile/5-year limited powertrain warranty – a feel-good plus that I’ve long wanted from U.S. automakers.

Overall, this Equinox is a sublime vehicle, a guilt-free SUV that stacks up nicely against some top-selling foreign competitors.

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