Pros: Exterior styling, rear seat room, ride comfort
Cons: Torque steer (FWD), numb steering, interior materials, price in absence of rebates
When the party is a hot new vehicle market segment, being late is never fashionable. Rather, the manufacturers who arrive earliest enjoy healthy profit margins and establish images as the class leaders.
In the compact car-based SUV segment, among the hottest in recent years, Toyota and especially Honda have enjoyed these benefits. Toyotas RAV4 arrived a little earlier, in the 1996 model year, but the Honda CR-V was larger and generally more in line with American consumers needs.
Of course, if you bring something new you can arrive late and still become a segment leader. Fords Escape didnt arrive until the 2001 model year, but with more rugged styling than the imports, a V6 engine, and a more solid feel it soon became the segments best seller.
GM, the worlds largest automaker, has been very late to enter this segment. Its first entry, the 2002 VUE, didnt bring anything new to the party aside from plastic body panels, and has failed to make much of an impact. As with any GM product, derivatives can be expected from other marketing divisions sooner or later. Make that later. Only in the spring of 2004 with an early 2005 model, is Chevrolet, GMs largest marketing division, finally introducing a compact car-based SUV. (Tune in next year for Pontiacs first entry.)
Chevrolets new SUV, the Equinox, arrives nine years after the Toyota RAV4 and four years after the Ford Escape. To sell well it will have to have some major advantages over the established competition. Does it? Did GM spend the last nine years learning how to improve on the competition? I took a couple of test drives to find out.
Chevrolet Equinox Reliability
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Exterior styling is critical in this image-driven segment. Although car-based SUVs arent designed for serious off-road use, they must still look capable of it. Yet at the same time a little cuteness doesnt hurt, as many are purchased by women. The Equinox might achieve the difficult combination of rugged and cute better than any SUV to date. (For a failure check out the bloated-looking 2004 Dodge Durango.) The Chevrolets bold front end and flared fenders handle the rugged bit. But these and the other bits, including a smoothly arched roofline, contain just enough roundness that it is also quite cute, even, well, pretty.
Though based on the same platform as the VUE, the Equinox manages to appear both less quirky and more attractive. Two differences contribute. First, with the Equinox the various styling details and curves are much better integrated. Few designs are more refined in this regard. Second, the Chevrolet has a half-foot more wheelbase and length than the VUE, yielding tighter proportions. Honda needs to take notes here. The equally long bodies of its Pilot and MDX ride on a half-foot shorter wheelbase, lending them an ungainly appearance. Rarely do I see a vehicle and not want to move or even remove this or that line, but Chevrolets latecomer is one such case. So at least some of its long incubation period was well-spent.
The Equinox looks very good even in LS form, with gray bumpers and 16-inch wheels (you'll want the optional alloys, though). But add body-color bumpers (optional on LS, standard on LT) and 17-inch alloys (optional on LT) and it becomes downright striking.
The Equinox looks so good that I wonder how the blocky, poorly proportioned Malibu managed to emerge from the same marketing division. Id hypothesize that the two design teams had no contact, but a look inside both vehicles reveals many similarities and even a few shared parts (steering wheel, radio, and Maxx-like sliding rear seat and multi-level cargo tray). Call me baffled.
The exterior styling is not entirely flawless. The clear-lens silver tail lamps, which are quickly becoming yesterdays in thing, dont fit the styling of this vehicle. Second, the chrome bar and especially the Chevrolet emblem on it are at least a size or two too large.
Like the Malibus, the Equinoxs interior is an improvement over those of past Chevrolets, but not to as large a degree. The styling is okay, but not nearly as striking or distinctive as the exterior. After my second Equinox test drive I took a Malibu Maxx for a spin. The latters interior looks and feels much less cheap. The Equinox interiors materials, though better than those in the VUE are not quite equal those in the 2004 Escape and are no match for Toyotas, Hondas, or Subarus. There are still too many hard plastic pieces about. The hard black plastic dash top and the trim plate around the shifter could especially benefit from a more upscale look and feel.
Both the LS and the LT I drove had cloth upholstery which, like that in the Malibu, looks and feels durable but far from rich. It wouldnt be out of place in the $9,455 Chevrolet Aveo. Uneven seams and widespread puckering dont help. The LTs optional leather isnt fitted any better, but does lend a considerably more upscale atmosphere to the interior. You want it, especially since its only $525. Not surprisingly, Equinoxes with this option are currently in short supply.
The Equinoxs driving position feels more car-like than that in most compact car-based SUVs. An Escape, with a higher chair closer to a more upright windshield, feels significantly truckier from the inside. Even with the lower seat and deeper dash the view forward is still very good, very important for a segment where many buyers are well under six feet in height. The LSs standard seat is manually adjustable for height. I felt no need to raise it above its lowest setting.
I've test driven the Equinox twice. The first time around, in a cloth LS, the driver's seat felt adequately comfortable at first, but by the end of the test drive my lower back felt a bit sore. Lumbar support is not adjustable. The second time around, in a cloth LT, I HATED the seat. The seatback felt terribly overstuffed in the mid-back region, such that the seat was actually convex rather than concave. Oddly, the passenger seat in the same SUV resembled that in the first Equinox I drove, so it's not an LS vs. LT thing. I suspect Chevrolet might have a supplier quality issue here, with unacceptable variation from seat to seat.
I drove a Malibu Maxx a second time the same time I drove the LT. Its far superior driver's seat is larger and much better shaped for both comfort and lateral support in turns. If at all possible Chevrolet should put the Malibu seat in the Equinox.
The Equinoxs rear seat is far superior to that in the VUE. Its a bit higher off the floor, though no Escape in this regard. The critical difference is that it slides over a seven-inch range (like the CR-Vs), so up to forty inches of legroom are available. The seatback reclines for additional comfort. Chalk up rear legroom as a second Equinox strong pointthough the CR-V offers nearly as much.
With so much legroom, why buy a midsize TrailBlazer? The TrailBlazer does offer a bit more shoulder room, but the major reasons would include towing (the Equinox is only rated up to 3,500 pounds) and more off-road capability. On the other hand, if you do not plan to tow anything heavy or venture off the pavement, theres no reason to buy the pricier Chevy.
Despite its class-leading length the Equinox offers only a class-average 69 cubic feet of cargo volume. One reason: unlike in the Toyota and Honda, the spare isnt hanging off the tailgate. Another: the rear strut towers are very intrusive, yielding a narrow cargo area. Chevrolet has at least put these towers to good use, designing them to provide support for a cargo tray that can be set at multiple heights. Like the similar tray in the Malibu, this facilitates carrying two layers of groceries.
The rear seat folds 60/40 without tipping the cushion or removing the headrests. It does not form a completely flat floor, though. To carry very long objects, the front passenger seat also folds forward. (The Malibu and VUE share this feature.)
There are a large number of interior storage compartments and pockets, but none of them are large. The center armrest struck me as odd at first, as there is a foot of air between it and the floor. My wife cleared this one up for me: beneath the armrest is a very well designed storage area for a purse. Apparently women have been seeking one without luck, until now.
Overall, the Equinoxs interior breaks no new ground functionallywith the notable exception of the purse storage areabut keeps pace with the segment leaders.
On the Road
On paper the Equinox picks up its first significant disadvantage in the engine department. The new Malibu offers the latest iteration of Chevrolets small V6, a 3.5-liter good for 200 horsepower and outstanding EPA ratings of 23 city and 32 highway. Though heavier than the Malibu, the Equinox doesnt get this new engine. Instead, it gets the 3.4 that has powered GMs minivans since 1996 (though made in China in this case). With 185 horsepower, this engine would appear outmatched by the Escapes 200-horsepower V6, much less the VUEs Honda-manufactured 250-horsepower V6.
On the road the disadvantage isnt so large. The 3.4 may have less of a top end than the Ford, but it has a stouter midrangeand most compact SUV drivers dont venture over 4,000 RPM often. A fifth gear ratio in the standard slushbox also helps; the Escape makes do with four more widely spaced gears. Id venture that full-throttle acceleration is similar in the two SUVs, with the Chevrolet feeling stronger in casual driving. The Saturns six is noticeably stronger and smoother, so if the powertrain performance is your top priority thats where to go.
Actually, you wont want to dig deep into the Equinoxs throttle often. While the 3.4 feels strong at part throttle, at full throttle it sounds coarse and strained. Worse, in the front-drive SUVs I drove it had a tendency to tug the steering wheel this way and that, and to generally feel squirrelly when pushed hard. The VUE similarly suffered in past years, but with the torquier Honda engine somehow keeps a more even keel. If you plan to drive your compact SUV aggressively, youll at a minimum want the Equinox in all-wheel-drive form. More likely youll want the VUE in Red Line form (actually, you probably won't--for details see my review, link below). I suspect that most compact SUV buyers arent very aggressive drivers, and for them the Equinoxs powertrain will do just fine.
The front-drive Equinox's EPA ratings match the Escape's at 19/25. The much more powerful VUE achieves 20/28. In the Chevy's defense, the Hyundai Santa Fe slurps gas to the tune of 17/21.
Aside from the pricey BMW X3 no compact SUV even approaches a sports sedan in the handling department, and the Equinox is no exception. The electrically-assisted steering system is the weakest part of the Chevys handling. This steering is feather light at parking lot speeds and although effort rises with vehicle speed feedback remains lacking. Especially on center it feels numb.
Over uneven and curvy roads the Chevy feels more composed and solid than the VUE, with significantly better control over body motions and far fewer rubbing noises between bits of interior trim over broken pavement. The longer wheelbase might help here. In hard turns body lean is about average for this sort of vehicle, which is to say borderline excessive for anyone used to a car. You'll find at least as much lean in the VUE and softly sprung Hyundai Santa Fe, but much less in the VUE Red Line. An Escape also leans significantly in hard turns, but has a tauter, more precise feel to it. Put it all together and the Equinoxs handling is confidence-inspiring in normal driving but a bit wooly, if very safe, in aggressive driving. Because of the numb steering alone this is not a sporty-feeling vehicle from behind the wheel.
I noticed no significant difference between the 16-inch wheels/tires on the LS and the 17s on the LT except that the latter look better.
Those who expect their SUVs to have a more trucky flavor will be happier in the Escape or even the CR-V. The Equinoxs exceptionally car-like character cuts both ways.
Many of the above criticisms will lack significance for the many potential buyers who put a low priority on sporty handling. Even for them, though, the Equinoxs turning diameter could be a serious issue. At over 41 feet, U-turns won't come easily. Most competitors do much better. A Ford Escape requires six fewer feet, a Honda CR-V even fewer. The Equinox's long wheelbase is not devoid of tradeoffs.
The composed handling does not come at the expense of ride quality. No doubt aided once again by its long wheelbase, the Equinox rides wellat least over the moderately pocked roads I traversed. Road and wind noise though not luxury-car low remain well within comfortable limits. In past years the Escape was much noisier, but for 2005 is almost as quiet. The Ford does have a considerably firmer ride, though.
All in all, the Equinox does not overwhelm the competition in any one performance area, but is average or better in all but steering feel.
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass.
I found much to like about the Chevrolet Equinox, most notably its exterior styling, rear seat legroom, and ride quality. A stronger V6 might be nice, but for me less torque steer at full throttle, more communicative steering, and nicer interior materials would be higher priorities. Recommended once rebates and dealer discounts bring the price into line for those who prioritize room and comfort. I put a higher priority on sharp handling and good steering feel, and among compact SUVs thus prefer the nicely revised 2005 Ford Escape.
Im wavering between three and four stars on this one. Probably three for me, but four for those who prioritize room, ride quality, and a good place to stick a purse. Just be sure to get the leather.
To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, visit www.truedelta.com.
Links to my reviews of related vehicles:
Chevrolet Malibu Maxx
Hyundai Santa Fe