Let’s face it. If you are going to bet big bucks, the car biz is one of the games with the lousiest odds. Tech startups are far glitzier and offer much looser slots (at least by price-to-earnings or value-to-sales yardsticks). Take your eye off the car-biz action for a minute, and you could find yourself crapping out $1 billion with a one-generation, over-incentivized Chrysler 200.
But some still have the cojones to play the game. And the savviest bettors these days are throwing down on compact CUVs—the largest and fastest-growing segment in the industry. Chevrolet has had a seat at the high-roller table with its Equinox, but even after 13 years it’s a perennial fifth-place seller. Cardsharp Honda cashes in more than 100,000 more sales per year. But Chevy’s all-new 2018 Equinox brings a fresh pile of chips to the game. We got a look at its initial hand last fall and found it encouraging; a recent drive of the mainstream powertrain offering has us ready to handicap its odds a bit more.
We’ve reported on the Equinox’s impressive 400-ish-pound weight loss, much of which was made possible by adopting a lighter four-cylinder-turbo-only engine lineup. First to market is a 1.5-liter version, created primarily as a Chinese-market tax darling. Rated at 170 horses, it cedes power leadership to the 1.5Ts in the best-selling Honda CR-V (190 hp) and No. 4 Ford Escape (179 hp), but the Chevy’s 203 lb-ft trumps both rivals by 24 lb-ft. (The second- and third-place Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue make similar power but lower torque from 2.4- and 2.5-liter naturally aspirated fours similar to the old Equinox’s base-model mill.)
The Equinox and Escape use a similar jointly developed six-speed automatic, and the CR-V gets a CVT. Its transmission might be the Equinox’s single biggest negative (and the best argument in favor of its sibling GMC Terrain, which pairs the 1.5T with a nine-speed). The transmission acts like it bears full responsibility for achieving the Equinox’s impressive EPA numbers (26/32/28 mpg city/hwy/combined with front-drive, 24/30/26 with AWD). No matter how hard you cane it, Chevy’s programming has it grabbing the highest plausible gear whenever the throttle lifts. There’s no sport mode and apparently no Performance Algorithm Shift learning. There’s no redline printed on the 8,000-rpm tach, but automatic shifts happen at 5,500 rpm—1,000 revs shy of fuel shutoff. This engine is no eager revver, so don’t bother manually delaying the shifts.
Chevy claims only a sub-9.0-second 0–60 time for the front-driver (an improvement from the old 2.4’s 9.5-second performance with AWD). That will put it in the hunt with the Escape, RAV4, and Rogue but more than a second slower than the far sweeter-revving CR-V and its ratio-optimizing CVT.
This summer, the Equinox doubles down on its powertrain offerings with a 252-hp, 260-lb-ft 2.0T version. That handily trumps the three top-sellers. Although it looks like a push compared to the Ford EcoBoost 2.0T’s 245 hp and 275 lb-ft, its nine-speed automatic should take the hand. Of course September’s 137-hp, 240-lb-ft 1.6-liter turbodiesel stands to bring completely new business to the segment, too.
The borderline obsessive-compulsive weight reduction program (the team used ritual shaming of any members falling short of its targets) produced a savvy chassis design with smarter materials and joining techniques and hard-mounted front and rear suspension and powertrain cradles. The result is an exceptionally rigid structure that attenuates bumps the way only German luxury sedans could a decade ago, with softer ride-control bushings that carpet over bumps better than before. The steering system points the car quite accurately. Sadly, the information coming through the wheel rim is better at corroborating the tachometer reading than describing the road surface. It’s worth noting that the impressive peak torque produces no discernible torque steer even on front-drive models.
The mechanical grip of the 19-inch Hankook tires on our top-drawer Premier test cars seemed appropriate for the class, and although the brakes felt a bit grabby at first, they were easy to acclimate to. Its weight loss brings the Equinox into rough parity with the Honda, undercutting the other top-sellers handily. This pays off in a nimble demeanor on twisty Carolina hill country roads. Of course, if handling is your top purchase priority for a CUV, check out Mazda’s CX-5.
The interior design and two-tone colors look upscale, but much of the interior plastic feels as hard as a poker chip. Based on design and ease of use of the infotainment screen alone, however, the Equinox deserves to advance a few spaces in the sales race. The new non-sliding rear seat offers great thigh support and two backrest recline angles, the lower of which feels more recumbent than a coach airplane seat. Visibility from the high back seats is superb, with a kid-friendly low beltline and available panorama roof. There’s room to stow stuff (including the cargo shade) under the cargo floor, but there are only two tie-downs, and they’re at the back. The drive didn’t include any inclement weather or bushwhacking, but we’re slightly dubious of an AWD system that will only engages after you press a button, albeit perhaps at the urging of a warning on the dash.
Chevrolet has strengthened the Equinox’s hand considerably with an attractive exterior wrapped around an inviting, easy-to-use interior on a tight, smooth-riding, lithe-handling chassis. The price seems right—starting at $24,475, the Equinox undercuts the cheapest 1.5T variants of the Escape and CR-V by $1,673 and $3,160, respectively. And although the first-round powertrain might not win the class, the subsequent versions look very promising indeed.
|2018 Chevrolet Equinox (1.5T)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINES||1.5L/170-hp/203-lb-ft* turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,350-3,500 lb (est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||183.1 x 72.6 x 65.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.9-9.1 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||24-26/30-32/26-28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||130-140/105-112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.68-0.74 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|