Chevrolet's sport utility vehicle named for the first day of spring had a rebirth this year, and the resulting 2010 Equinox is the best ever.
A crossover SUV that's based on a car-like chassis, the Equinox has stylish new looks, a refined ride, handsome interior and new, more fuel efficient engines.
The face borrows from the attractive front styling of the Chevy Malibu sedan and Chevy Traverse SUV. A two-tier grille and prominent hood, plus graceful side lines, create an attractive-looking SUV that makes even the Honda CR-V look a bit dowdy.
A compact SUV since it debuted in 2005, the Equinox also grew an inch here and there this year and looks on the outside larger and more substantial than before.
Best of all, the addition of a fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine gives it a better fuel economy rating _ 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway _ than the top-selling Toyota RAV4 and the CR-V.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $23,185 is lower than last year because of the smaller, base engine. But it's a tad higher than the starting retail prices for the new CR-V, at $22,255, and the new RAV4, at $22,300. All prices are for base models with four-cylinder engines, automatic transmissions and two-wheel drive.
The lowest-priced, 2010 Equinox with all-wheel drive starts at $24,935.
The interior is new, with nicely styled center stack of controls, comfortable seats and ice blue ambient lighting. Sure, there's a lot of hard plastic in there but fit and finish on the tester were excellent, and controls were ergonomically designed and easy to operate.
The ride was what impressed me most. Compared with the clumsy-feeling suspension of the old Equinox, the ride in the new model is downright refined.
The suspension _ independent front struts and independent four link at the back _ managed road bumps well, with just a few ba-boom sounds on rough stuff.
The Equinox had to manage both the road bumps and the considerable weight of the vehicle, which starts at 3,770 pounds with four-cylinder engine and goes to 4,000-plus pounds with V-6.
Despite the weight, which is more than that of the CR-V and RAV4, passengers rode above the road fray and felt only slight vibrations now and then. In fact, the Equinox provides quite a substantial, safe feeling to everyone inside. Some of this is due to the widened front track of the vehicle, which gives it a strong road presence.
That presence is backed up by government crash tests, which give the new model across-the-board five-out-of-five stars in laboratory front and side crashes.
The interior was surprisingly quiet, even though the test model was the uplevel Equinox LTZ with 264-horsepower, 3-liter, direct-injection V-6. I heard low, confident engine sounds while accelerating _ never anything loud or raucous.
Understandably, the V-6 drinks unleaded gasoline at an average rate for a heavy SUV, resulting in a government fuel economy rating of 17 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. This is the same fuel mileage rating as several other six-cylinder-powered smaller SUVs, such as the sporty BMW X3.
But the ride and handling of the Equinox isn't so much sporty as it is poised and comfortable.
The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and tries its best to deliver top mileage. And powered by the V-6, the still-compact SUV can tow a healthy 3,500 pounds.
In contrast, the 2010 Honda CR-V, which comes with only a 180-horsepower four cylinder, can tow a maximum 1,500 pounds.
Neither the RAV-4 nor the CR-V comes with a six-speed automatic transmission.
But Chevy also puts the six-speed tranny in the Equinox with the 182-horsepower, 2.4-liter, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine. This helps explain the noteworthy 32 mpg in highway driving for the four-cylinder model.
In comparison, the lighter weight RAV4 has top government mileage of 22/28 mpg, while the lighter weight CR-V tops out at 21/28 mpg.
Of course, no one goes from garage at home directly onto the freeway, so the everyday reality isn't going to be 32 mpg.
But with an 18.8-gallon gas tank in the four-cylinder model, the Equinox can travel a combined city/highway route of some 375 miles on a single fill-up, according to government figures.
There's even a first-ever noise cancellation technology for Chevrolet in the four-cylinder model. It uses microphones inside the vehicle to detect booming sounds and then seeks to cancel them out with counteracting sound waves from the audio system speakers.
Honda has had a similar system in its larger vehicles, such as the Odyssey minivan and Pilot SUV, for years.
But the Equinox's four-cylinder can feel a bit sluggish for such a heavy vehicle. It produces peak torque of 172 foot-pounds at 4,900 rpm, which comes at a higher rpm than the 172 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm in the RAV4.
The tester had a disturbing low buzz/rubbing sound whenever I made sharp U-turns. It seemed to come from the power steering. And I had to be careful when turning around because the model with optional 18-inch tires needed some 40 feet of turnaround space. This compares with the 34.8 feet turning circle in a base RAV4.
The large pillars at the sides of the rear window make it difficult to see while backing out of parking spaces.
All safety equipment is standard, including curtain air bags, antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.