It’s been a long time coming. For years, compact crossovers have been the fastest-growing portion of the market, but as sales of rivals like the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, and Honda CR-V were picking up pace to a frenzy—and those models became refined alternatives to large utility vehicles—GM's efforts were half-baked, to put it bluntly.
But GM has finally righted many of these wrong with a redesign; essentially, the Equinox gets all the changes seen in the now-discontinued Saturn Vue for its last couple of model years, plus more extensive changes and a new, more fuel-efficient engine and transmission.
In short, the Equinox now drives, for all practical purposes, every bit as well as those chief rivals. And it gets better fuel economy than most of them.
One of its trump cards is the new 182-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which gets direct injection in addition to variable valve timing. The engine idles smoothly, albeit with a ratchety DI sound, but it's pretty agreeable and unobtrusive most of the time when underway.
Matched up with the new engine is a six-speed automatic transmission. First gear feels quite low, enabling a quick takeoff, and the transmission lets engine revs wind quite high (3500 rpm or so) in light to moderate acceleration. After that, the cogs get progressively taller and it does a good job keeping revs down low in the fuel-efficient range.
Refined and responsive, but not sporty
Manual shifts can be made not though steering wheel paddle shifters or a separate gate, but through little plus or minus toggle bottons on the side of the shift knob. But honestly, this isn't an engine that you're going to be revving up to redline much; it makes plenty of usable power in the 2,500 to 4,500 rpm range, and above there it seems to feel a little hoarse and out of breath. There's not a huge amount of torque on tap off the line either, but once underway the Equinox never feels short on power.
Perhaps of more interest is the new 'Eco' button which, when engaged, causes accessories like the air conditioning compressor to be a little more conservative, has the torque converter lock up a little earlier, and makes the transmission a little more reluctant to downshift. One criticism is that, while the transmission shifts very smoothly in ordinary driving it could stand to shift faster and more firmly under full throttle; downshifts likewise are mushy and muted, even when you use the manual buttons.
The Equinox's fuel economy figures (of up to 32 mpg highway with front-wheel drive) are a major selling point, so I had to check it out, albeit informally. According to the trip computer, I got more than 24 mpg in about 70 miles of driving—most of it short-trip errands around town, combined with short spurts on the highway—then more than 27 mpg when we set the cruise to about 65 mph for nearly 20 miles. Incidentally, both of those figures are MORE than we could muster last year in the Saturn Aura Hybrid, and very impressive, approaching the 29-mpg EPA highway rating of our test vehicle.