Just when you thought that environmental concerns, Cash for Clunkers, and a general malaise with the "Keep on Truckin'" lifestyle were conspiring to make the world safe to drive plain old cars again, Chevrolet has gone and built an SUV that may make every sedan on the road obsolete. At least the ones in its own showrooms.
Ok, so the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox isn't really an SUV, it’s a "crossover", but so is just about everything that kind of looks like a truck these days. The point is, it is a vehicle that packs full-sized accommodations into a mid-sized footprint, with more cargo carrying ability than cars from either of those classes are capable of delivering. Sure, nothing new there, that's why we got into the whole SUV-as-family-car thing in the first place. The difference with the Equinox is that it gives you all of that good stuff without any of the guilt often associated with it.
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The $22,440, front-wheel-drive Equinox has an EPA rating of 32 mpg highway, 26 mpg combined, by far the best among non-hybrids in its class. No Toyota comes close, and neither do any Hondas. I won't even mention the domestic competition. But the truly remarkable thing is that the best that Chevy's own Malibu mid-size sedan can do is match it, and the model that does it costs $24,705.
The Equinox pulls this off through the use of straightforward, but cutting edge technology. The standard 182 horsepower 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine has direct injection, which is more effective at controlling combustion than a typical fuel injection system, leading to increased power and better efficiency. In the Equinox, the motor is combined with a 6-speed transmission that gives it plenty of gear ratios to work with at any speed.
That’s a start, but to get the most miles per gallon, you need to press the “eco” button located next to the transmission selector. In this mode, the engine idles slower, and cuts off fuel to the cylinders as soon as you take your foot off of the gas pedal. Meanwhile the transmission shifts up through the gears earlier than usual and locks the torque converter at lower speeds, none of which is as noticeable as it sounds like it might be.
Considering that the Equinox weighs 300 lbs more than the similarly-powered Malibu, and its upright body is clearly not as aerodynamically slippery as the sedan’s, the mileage is impressive, and almost hard to believe. Nevertheless, an all wheel-drive Equinox that I tested with the same engine/transmission combination, and an EPA rating of 23 mpg combined, returned 24 mpg over the course of 500 very real world miles at an average speed of 45 mph.
They were enjoyable miles, too. The Equinox is accommodating front and rear, with big comfy seats and room to spare. The rear bench can be slid fore and aft eight inches to maximize either passenger or cargo room to your liking. With it set all the way back, there’s more legroom in the second row than in most full-size sedans, or even the Chevy Suburban enormo-SUV. As an advocate for maximizing space for lower limbs I hereby decree that all crossover-wagon-hatchback-thingies offer this feature. (Please write to email@example.com if you would like to preorder a “Legstrong” ankle bracelet, in the event that they ever become available.)
Up front, the interior style of the Equinox is extremely car-like, and a counterpoint to its trucky exterior. The rounded-off square gauges of the instrument panel look a lot like the ones in the Chevy Camaro, while there’s a little bit of Cadillac in the sharp, silvery lines of the center control stack. Hard plastic abounds, but at least it is high-quality hard plastic.
There are four trim levels available with all of the modern fixin’s to chose from, including a backup camera with the monitor hidden in the rearview mirror, and an audio/navigation system with a 40GB hard drive. General Motors’ OnStar is standard, however, and I’m regularly impressed with how well the turn-by-turn directions feature works. On a trip from New York City to Syracuse for a wedding rehearsal, it literally got me to the church on time, despite several detours for traffic and food of the supposedly fast kind. It’s so effective that it makes the $2,145 in-dash unit a tough sell.
With it, or with the standard stereo, you can order a dual-screen rear entertainment system with remote control and wireless headphones. If that’s not enough to distract the little ones from committing any acts of tomfoolery, a button on the dashboard engages the child locks on the rear doors remotely, keeping forgetful parents like me from ending up with jetti-sons.
So, the Equinox offers efficiency, both in fuel and space, but so does my living room. Fortunately, the Chevy also rides well. The driving position is more tippy-toes than a low-slung sports car, but the electric-assist power steering is light, and body motions well-controlled. SUV acolytes may even find the ride errs too far on the stiff side, as high-frequency bumps like expansion seams and tar strips, send a bit more of a jolt through the cabin than you’d feel in a big puffy truck. Overall, though, the trade-off is well worth it.
Notwithstanding Central New York’s reputation for suffering massive amounts of snowfall many months of the year, I managed to avoid any in late summer. However, I did spend the better part of a day driving through monsoon-quality rainstorms, and the all wheel-drive system never missed a step.
It’s worth noting that the highway fuel economy rating on the all-wheel drive Equinox is also a class-leading 29 mpg. What’s yet to be seen in a market where gasoline remains relatively inexpensive is whether or not that matters much to most buyers. As it is, the 4-cylinder works fine, but works hard to keep things moving along. With a full load, the Equinox is quick enough to confidently merge onto highways, but not so peppy that you don’t think twice before pulling into traffic in the first place. On long, uphill grades with the cruise control set at 65 mph, I found that the transmission often had to dig down and grab fourth gear to maintain the speed, accompanied by the cry of nearly 4000 rpm emanating from the engine bay. Again, the four is fully capable, but stretched to the max in such a sizeable vehicle.
The remedy for those looking for more relaxed power delivery, or the ability to tow, is 264hp V6 engine option that costs just $1,500. At that price, it’s an appealing carrot that may tempt many back to the somewhat more profligate ways of old, but even it manages a respectable 25 mpg highway.
In either case, Chevy has a prime time player on its hands. It’s just too bad that the Equinox could end up stealing some sales from the company’s own cars. Whatever a ‘car’ is these days.
2010 Chevrolet Equinox AWD 2LT
Base price: $27,195
As tested: $31,025
Type: 5-passenger, all-wheel drive, 5-door crossover
Engine: 2.4L inline-4
Power: 182 hp/ 172 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 20 city/29 hwy
What do you think of the Equinox?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.