To see just how much Americans love sport-utility vehicles, you need only look at Chevrolet. The well-known brand has five SUV nameplates, including the popular Tahoe and full-size Suburban.
As a group, they've done extremely well at bringing in buyers. Indeed, Chevy helps parent company, General Motors Corp., remain the only automaker to sell more than 1 million SUVs in the United States in a calendar year.
So Chevy wasn't about to lose momentum by leaving a hole in its showrooms when the aged Chevrolet Tracker compact SUV was being retired.
A new SUV, the five-passenger Chevy Equinox, offers a larger interior than the Tracker had, more comfortable ride and a novel rear seat that can slide forward and back nearly 8 inches to provide a whopping 40.2 inches of back-seat legroom — unheard of in the smaller SUV segment. Also standard in every Equinox: A V6 and automatic transmission.
Based on Saturn VUE platform
You'd be hard-pressed to tell from the outside, but the Equinox rides on the same platform, albeit lengthened, as the Saturn Vue. As Saturn's first and only SUV, the VUE has posted steadily increasing sales since its debut in the 2002 model year.
But where the compact VUE comes with a buzzy, 143-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder base engine, the Equinox has a larger, more powerful, 185-horsepower 3.4-liter overhead valve V6. It's mated to a smooth-shifting 5-speed automatic.
The engine's 210 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm provide satisfying get up and go from startup as well as when drivers need to merge onto freeways and dodge into oncoming traffic. And the powerplant moves the Equinox confidently during highway travel.
My main issue was a certain disconnected feel between accelerator and throttle in the test vehicle as I'd let up from the pedal and the Equinox would coast readily down the road and not immediately begin to slow.
As a result, I felt as though I used the brakes more than I wanted. After a few days of this, I also adapted my driving style to let up on the Equinox gas pedal sooner as I approached slowed or stopped traffic ahead.
Not a VUE V6, though
I didn't hear the Equinox engine much as I traveled, but when I did—during hard acceleration—the sound was pleasant in a mainstream way.
Fuel economy for the test Equinox LT with all-wheel drive was rated at 19 miles a gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, the very same rating that a VUE with all-wheel drive gets when it's fitted with a VUE V6.
Note, though, the VUE's V6 is a different, 3.5-liter single overhead cam engine with much more horsepower—250—and more torque—242 at 4500 rpm—than the Equinox has. This VUE engine comes from Honda as part of a sales agreement between the two automakers, while the Equinox engine comes from within GM.
Length doesn't translate into cargo room
Because of its lengthened platform, the Equinox is larger than the VUE, inside and out.
For example, the Equinox is 7.5 inches longer, or 15.7 feet long from bumper to bumper. The wheelbase, which is the distance from one wheel on one side of the SUV to the center of the other wheel on the same side, is 112.5 inches in the Equinox, compared with 106.6 inches in the VUE.
This, and the seat track that's included to move the Equinox rear seat forward and aft, helps explain why there's all that rear-seat legroom in the Equinox. The VUE's rear-seat legroom is 36.8 inches, which is less than the 39.4 inches in the competing Honda CR-V. The Toyota RAV4, however, has just 32.6 inches of rear-seat legroom. But don't expect a huge increase in cargo room inside the Equinox.
Despite its larger outer size than the VUE, RAV4 and CR-V, the Equinox's maximum 68.6 cubic feet of interior cargo space—with rear seats folded down—is just 0.3 foot more than the 68.3 cubic feet in the RAV4 and less than the 72 cubic feet found at the back of the CR-V.
Some of this has to do with the involved plastic-slot structure built into the sides of the Equinox cargo area. It's there for use with a height-adjustable cargo shelf that can double as a small table back there, but this shelf system also can be less convenient to manage than a simple sliding shade-like vinyl cover. But some of the problem also seems to be the rear seatbacks don't fold flat and the wheel wells intrude into the cargo space.
The Equinox can tow up to 3,500 pounds, according to Chevy, which is far more than the 1,500-pound maximum of the CR-V and RAV4, which come only with four-cylinder engines that produce 160 and 161 horsepower, respectively.
About the ride
While the Equinox works to keep many road bumps away from passengers for a mostly mild ride, passengers notice indications that the suspension is working underneath them.
Among the most annoying indicators in the test vehicle were noisy "boom" sounds that came when the Equinox passed over potholes and other major road bumps. There were "boom" sounds from the 16-inch tires, too, as the Equinox rolled over expansion cracks on highway bridges. But wind noise wasn't obtrusive.
Odds and ends
I had to stay alert making turns at busy intersections, because the pillars around the windshield of the Equinox are large enough to create blind spots where I couldn't see pedestrians.
I liked the high driving position of the Equinox which allowed me to see traffic problems on the road ahead. Too bad the front seats didn't provide enough lumbar support to keep me comfortable.
Still, the seats are nicely positioned so at 5 feet 4, I didn't have to climb up and aboard. I just opened the door, turned and put my rear end on the seat cushion of the test vehicle.
I wish the look of the Equinox interior was a bit more upscale. This vehicle, after all, has a starting MSRP of around $21,000 for a 2005 two-wheel-drive model, while Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4, which come with four-cylinder engines only, start around $19,000.
In the test Equinox, the front-passenger seatback didn't seem to lock fully into place. The seatback distracted me as I sat there, because it shifted forward and back about an inch, with the starting and stopping motions of the vehicle.
Oddly, there are no grab handles at any of the doors of the Equinox. I couldn't even find a hook to hang my dry cleaning on. This SUV's rear-seat floor is completely flat, which makes it accommodating when unsteady-on-their-feet but determined toddlers want to walk across on their own.
An MP3 player and XM satellite radio are among the notable options in the Equinox. Head curtain airbags also are optional, but stability control, which is appearing in more and more SUVs, was not even offered at the start of the 2005 model year.
Lastly, check out the area between the two front seats of the Equinox. It's open and large enough to stow a purse out of the way and out of view.