Chevrolet Equinox designed for comeback

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Scott Burgess: Auto review

Chevrolet Equinox designed for comeback

As a taxpayer, I want General Motors Co. to do well. I own a piece of it, too.

As a consumer, I want GM to build competitive vehicles: It raises everyone’s game.

As an employee in Detroit, I want GM to stay around: No one wants to eat at Lafayette Coney Island alone.

Thank goodness Chevrolet introduced the 2010 Equinox. This compact crossover has "comeback" written all over it. Well priced, fuel efficient and nicely appointed, the Equinox sets a new benchmark for every automaker.

It’s high tech and tough with some ingenious engineering that shows how GM is thinking more like a consumer-friendly company and less like the big corporation that entered bankruptcy earlier this year and emerged a leaner company in July.

Let me give you just one example.

You know those Bose noise-canceling headphones people wear on the plane? Well, Chevy used a similar technology to add 1 mile per gallon to its mileage, and it doesn’t look as dorky.

See, when Chevy retuned the direct injection four-cylinder engine, engineers found they could raise the gas mileage by lowering the idle and recalibrating a few other pieces. The downside was a very annoying low-frequency noise. So they mounted two microphones inside the cabin’s headliner to listen for that particular sound. When it registers, the Equinox pushes out a canceling noise through its stereo to make it disappear — or at least not let the driver hear it. It’s downright ingenious.

Engineers have not considered programming this system to work on passengers.

This is among the many cool steps Chevy took with the Equinox. No hubcap was left unturned to make this vehicle better.

They shaped the front end again and again in the wind tunnel to eke out another 1 mpg. They evaluated everything possible and found new ways never considered. That’s innovation.

All those steps add up and the Equinox can boast 32 mpg on the highway and 22 mpg in the city. No other nonhybrid compact crossover can top those numbers. The closest is the Toyota RAV4 with 22 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. The Honda CR-V and Ford Escape are even farther behind.

Shift in GM’s views reflected

But the Equinox is not armed with a peashooter of a powertrain. Its direct injection 2.4-liter four boasts 182 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. Both numbers best its competition.

Then there is the optional 3-liter direct injection V-6 that provides power (264 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque) and still manages 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Better yet, Chevrolet will build what consumers want instead of what it thinks people want. The higher mileage four-cylinder engine is available at all three trim levels, including the top-of-the-line LTZ. In the past, GM assumed people who want the most luxurious model also wanted the most powerful engine.

Perhaps GM learned what happens when you assume too much: You file for bankruptcy.

This is a change in thinking as vast as the sea. Create a stylish vehicle with high mileage numbers that draws people to dealerships and then let it sell itself.

Here’s why: The Equinox is really nice.

Outside, the Equinox’s sheetmetal is cut in strong, angular lines. It’s muscular but not over the top. The front end looks powerful and the tiered hood and steep windshield give it a strong profile. The wheels push out to the ends of the body, making it look longer, even though its wheelbase is 112.5 inches. At 187.8 inches in overall length, the Equinox stretches 6 inches more than the RAV4 and 13 more inches than the Escape.

Chevy designers said they tried to toughen up the Equinox’s look with the oversized wheel wells. That may be one of the few marks that’s a little off target. It makes its tires look too small and out of proportion.

Still, there’s a lot of ingenuity and thought placed into the design. The rocker panel is attached to the bottom of the door, instead of the body. This means you have the cosmetic appearance of a running board, but with a much easier step into the Equinox.

Innovation brings quiet ride

Once inside the Equinox, you won’t mind staying for a while.

First of all, the seats are very comfortable. Instead of squishy, flat seats, Chevy used a firmer foam for its bolsters, which provides a much snugger and more comfortable feel. The seat can move 10 inches fore or aft.

There are lots of innovative features inside. The comfortable second row includes a 60/40 fold flat seat, and the entire row can push forward or aft 8 inches.

There are a slew of driver-friendly features, such as Bluetooth connectivity for your phone, a USB for MP3 players, optional dual DVD sets mounted in the back of the front seats with screens that fold up to eye level. People flying business class don’t live this good.

The programmable rear liftgate allows you to set the height it opens to — a very friendly feature for the height-impaired or owners of low-hanging garage doors.

For those still on the fence about the Equinox, test drive it at night. The blue lighting accents transform the cabin.

There were a few bits and pieces I would liked to see improved, such as the plastic hood at the top of the dash. It’s too thin, but it’s a minor point compared with the overall look and feel inside the curvy and spacious cabin.

It’s also a very quiet cabin on the road. GM has added a number of noise-dampening materials to smother sound. You can hear yourself think at 80 mph.

The fully independent suspension provides the base to a smooth ride and the six-speed automatic transmission handles the load very quietly. Even at top speeds, the Equinox remained quiet. Around town, it feels quick and handles itself well.

Chevy enjoys pointing out that the Equinox on the highway has a 600-mile range — a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. You could fill up in Detroit and make it all the way to Des Moines, Iowa, before you need gas again.

But vehicles are not just about high mileage. They are about style and comfort and enjoying the ride, not just getting there on the least amount of gas. The Equinox shows you just might be able to have it all.

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