The handsome 2008 Chevrolet Equinox midsize SUV drives much like a high, roomy, full-size sedan. New for 2008 are a Sport trim level with more power, sport-tuned suspension, and a new 6-speed automatic transmission. Also new is an upscale LTZ trim level, which joins the base LS and midrange LT versions, which get improved ride and handling. Both front- or all-wheel drive are offered.
Two V6 engines are available. The base 185-horsepower 3.4-liter works with a 5-speed automatic transmission. The up-level, 264-horsepower 3.6-liter mill shoots power through the responsive new 6-speed automatic, which has manual-shift capability. The Equinox has decent estimated highway fuel economy of 24 mpg. City economy is 17 mpg with the 3.4-liter engine and 16 mpg for the 3.6 liter. A plus in these times of high fuel prices is that only regular-grade gasoline is needed for either engine.
The Equinox shares its basic design with the Pontiac Torrent and Suzuki XL7. List prices range from $22,380 for the front-wheel-drive LS to $28,980 for the Sport with all-wheel drive. The base LS and higher-line LT and LTZ trim levels use the 3.4-liter V6, which provides decent acceleration. Both engines are smooth, but the Equinox Sport's 3.6-liter V6 delivers good off-the-line performance and no-fuss merging into fast traffic or 65-80 mph passing.
Even the $22,380 Equinox LS is pretty well equipped. Standard are air conditioning, cruise control, an AM/FM/CD player, a tilt steering wheel, height-adjustable driver's seat, fold-flat front passenger seat, sliding and split-folding rear seat, and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry. The LT adds a leather-wrapped wheel with radio controls and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 player. The LTZ trim provides leather upholstery, a power driver's seat and heated front seats.
All trim levels have anti-lock disc brakes, a stability-control system, traction control and a tire-pressure monitor. The LTZ adds side-curtain airbags with rollover deployment. Those bags can be had for the LS, LT and Sport for $395.
Other options include a $1,325 package for the LT that contains a power driver's seat and remote engine start. A towing package for the LT, LTZ and Sport costs $350, and leather upholstery for the LT and Sport will lighten wallets by $595. Many families will want the DVD entertainment system, a $995 option for the LT, LTZ and Sport. A power sunroof is $695 for those trim levels.
Since it sits higher than your average sedan, the Equinox requires a little extra effort for ingress and egress. Entry is helped by large door handles, and rear door openings are very wide. Thanks to the elevated seating, visibility from the driver's seat is pretty good, although it's hampered by thick windshield posts and wide rear roof pillars. Large outside rearview mirrors help a bit.
The Sport's front bucket seats are supportive, and with an especially roomy rear seat area, the cabin will comfortably sit four tall adults. Although the center of the back seat is too stiff for comfort for a fifth occupant of any size, that seat slides fore and aft about eight inches to provide impressive legroom or more cargo space.
The main gauges can be read at a glance, but both the coolant temperature and fuel gauges are very small. Audio controls can be easily used, although they could be larger, like the easily managed climate controls. The power window controls are annoyingly located near the center console shift lever. The doors have storage pockets, but the covered center console storage bin is just moderately sized. Dual rear cupholders that pop out from the back of the front console don't look particularly sturdy and are inconveniently located at floor level.
The cargo area is large, although the wheelwell openings consume some space. It does have a low, wide opening that facilitates loading, and the rear seatbacks flip forward to create more cargo capacity. The hood is held up by a prop rod instead of more convenient hydraulic struts, but fluid-filler areas can be easily reached.
I tested the front-wheel-drive Equinox Sport ($27,380), which is the most responsive version I've ever driven. Besides the larger V6 and special suspension, the Sport has wide 50-series tires on 18-inch wheels, along with such comfort and convenience features as a power driver's seat, heated front seats and remote engine start.
With its sport suspension and wide tires, my test Equinox Sport had sharp handling, precise steering and nice brake pedal feel. While roomy and comfortable, with its stiffer setup the Sport has a rather truck-like ride on marginal roads, although it never beats you up.
For the sticker price, the 2008 Chevy Equinox offers appreciable content, and a wide variety of trim options to help it slot into many budgets. Though some of its Japanese rivals are more refined than the Equinox, for a similar amount of room and features, expect to pay a significant premium.