2018 Chevrolet Equinox first drive: A strong third act

March 24, 2017

The Chevrolet Equinox's revitalization has been long overdue. Compact crossovers are all the rage in America's driveways and Chevy's entry had been out of touch for a few years. 

The old model could trace its roots back to George W. Bush's first term. Despite some updates, its thirsty engines, its chintzy interiors, and its dearth of advanced safety and tech features combined with awkward styling to remind us that, once upon a time, an axe was hanging over General Motors' head. 

Right-sizing

Instead of growing the 2018 Equinox, as seems to be the trend, designers shrunk the crossover. At 183.1 inches long, the redesigned model is 4.7 inches shorter than its predecessor (with a 5.2-inch shorter wheelbase). That looks minor on paper, but in person, the Equinox is now within striking distance of fierce competition from Ford (Escape) and Honda (CR-V). Today, the Equinox looks like the fifth grader that hit an early growth spurt rather than the one held back two years.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

The latest Equinox's shrunken footprint sacrifices less than an inch of space in any worthwhile measurement, even gaining some room for shoulders despite a mere tenth of an inch increase in overall width. There are barely any sacrifices in the cargo hold, either. The 0.2-cubic-foot drop with the second row folded flat–which is possible now, thanks to “kneeling” rear seats–pairs with a 1.6-cube cut with the rear seat up. Owners and passengers will appreciate these successes regardless of where they're sitting.

DON'T MISS: Do you really need a three-row crossover? 

But more than that, passengers will enjoy the comfortable trimmings. While the Equinox's standard cloth-trimmed front seats are a little too snug and supportive for larger drivers, the extra-cost leather-finished thrones are broad without losing support. In back, negligible sacrifices in legroom yield a second row that's comfortable on long journeys, even with a taller driver in front. One note: because the second row now folds flat, it no longer adjusts fore and aft. 

But for the first time, the Equinox's cabin impresses on a fit and finish level, too. Plastic remains dominant, but it's soft to the touch, even in places where automakers tend to pinch pennies, like the door panels. The “denim-style” cloth upholstery looks and feels great, to the point that we'd consider passing up the Premier trim and its leather, even though we'd miss the handsome leather dash inserts that match the seats and add much needed color to an otherwise drab cabin.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

Big money for what?

Skipping on the range-topping grade is a big ask, shiny bits aside, because the Equinox Premier is the only path to advanced safety features in Chevy's head-scratching option strategy. While Honda will give you everything from automatic emergency braking to lane keeping assist on a $27,000 CR-V, Chevy demands owners step up to the $32,000 Premier for the latest safety kit. And no, the kit doesn't include adaptive cruise control, which inexplicably isn't available here.

That sorry state of affairs overshadows what is otherwise a well-equipped vehicle. The volume LT trim, for example, starts at $27,645 (including an $895 destination charge) and includes HID headlights, a 7.0-inch infotainment system (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), a power driver's seat, active grille shutters, and 17-inch wheels. Tack on an extra $1,945 for the Confidence and Convenience Package, which adds rear-park assist, blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate, remote start, and heated seats and the Equinox ends up a relatively attractive, sub-$30,000 package. All-wheel drive is a $1,750 option across the board.

ALSO SEE: Here's what makes a car a Top Safety Pick+

And yet, the Chevy remains a hard sell against the compact crossover standard bearer, the latest CR-V. The Honda is cheaper–an all-wheel drive CR-V EX is $28,935, $400 less than an Equinox LT AWD–and yet it comes with much more safety equipment, a more powerful (but less torquey) turbocharged engine, and higher fuel economy—27 mpg city, 33 highway, 29 combined—versus the 24/30/26 mpg of the Equinox. The CR-V is also roomier, with more head, leg, and hip room in all four outboard seats and a bigger cargo hold, despite a smaller footprint.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

Chevy claws some points back on the road, where its standard 1.5-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder impresses compared to Honda's turbo-4. The Chevy's abundance of torque–203 pound-feet available from just 2,000 to 4,000 rpm–combined with a quiet, refined exhaust note and a drama-less 6-speed automatic makes the Equinox the stronger of the two. The Equinox also sacrifices some comfort for a more engaging handling character, promising appropriate levels of roll, squat, and dive, as well as an electric power-assisted steering rack that builds weight very naturally. The Honda is more willing to talk to its driver, though, giving a better idea of the road condition and grip levels.

All of this is to say the third-generation Equinox is something of a mixed bag. The limited availability of must-have safety tech and the high price it demands are issues we can't overlook, no matter how eye-pleasing the interior or impressive the powertrain. At the same time, the 2018 Equinox represents a huge, dramatic leap forward over its predecessor. It's still not a segment leader (yet), but Chevy's latest crossover is good enough to forget all about the vehicle that came before it.

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