Driven: 2010 Chevrolet Equinox

July 7, 2010
GM has finally stepped up to the plate with the 2010 Chevy Equinox.

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.

From the short stint on the highway, it became apparent that the Equinox would make a great highway vehicle for a small family; the ride feels more settled, less pitchy, than former vehicles on this platform—and versus some compact crossover alternatives.

The electric power steering system is worlds better than it was years ago, with a heftier, almost German feel. But it's still not ideal. The steering wheel doesn't transmit much of a feel of the road but has very strong weighting that keeps it on center. It's at home on the highway, but a bit odd on lower-speed back roads especially; steer off center and resistance builds to a point then tapers off, leaving you with the feeling that it's lighter off center. Brakes are excellent and reassuring in feel, like those in most GMs of recent years

A cabin with (mostly) what GM does well

There's lots to love about the Equinox inside; the driving position is excellent—carlike yet affording a good view outward. The seats are better and more supportive than those in a lot of small crossovers, too, and in our $30,540 Equinox AWD LTZ test vehicle were covered in attractive cross-stitched dual-tone perforated leather.

Overall, the instrument panel shows hints, design-wise of recent GM interior themes but falls short on just a few of the materials and details. The small latch for the big storage bin up top, which you have in view all the time, is one of the flimsiest I've felt in years, with a thin chrome-plastic latch and jagged edges.

The sound system (which announces itself as from Pioneer when it starts up) wouldn't be bad for a base system, but disappointment mounted when we found it's the step-up premium choice. It's a little bass heavy and sounds great at a moderate volume, but sound quality deteriorates when you turn it up.

Again, the Equinox's package hits the mark in many ways. Back seats are great and the seatbacks can be clicked into several different rake positions. There's a retractable cargo cover, stretchy net, and two deep cargo wells in back, and the center console well is very deep.

And, taking a step out and back from the Equinox, we like the smoother, sleeker sheetmetal overall, with none of the chunky faux-rugged look that it previously sported. The nicely detailed headlights and taillights particularly caught our attention.

Despite all the Chevy badges, the Equinox feels like a fully realized Saturn Vue. Had the base Vue gotten steering, suspension, and engine like this five years ago, Saturn would still had quite the hit.

That said, with the 2010 Equinox, Chevy finally has a compact vehicle that’s as versatile yet carlike as the excellent, larger Traverse. Take one out for a drive and you won’t be disappointed.

For an additional point of view on the 2010 Chevy Equinox, see the drive report on our sister site, GreenCarReports.com.

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