- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

Once an industry star, Chevrolet slipped to the role of an understudy. Except for the unique Corvette, most of the division’s new products in recent years have come on the heels of something somebody else did first, and often better.

In minivans, the Venture chased the Dodge Caravan. In midsize truck-based SUVs, the Trail Blazer fell in behind Ford’s Explorer. The Impala and Monte Carlo tried to take a piece of the turf already occupied by Honda’s Accord, Ford’s Taurus and Toyota’s Camry.

Even now, with its newest offering, the compact Equinox, a car-based sport utility vehicle, Chevrolet is not paving a new road. The way already has been marked by the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mazda Tribute, Subaru Forester, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander and even, if you stretch the definition a bit, the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Despite that, Chevrolet may have swerved into the passing lane with the 2005 Equinox. When you’re honking at the tailpipes of the competitors, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s to make the product better and more innovative.

Considering it’s a first effort at a compact, car-based SUV, Chevrolet’s designers have done an admirable job, similar to what they managed with the new Chevrolet Malibu Maxx four-door hatchback.

From its hidden roof rack to its adjustable back seat, the Equinox shows evidence of thoughtful consideration of the needs and wants of people who want or need a tall station wagon more than a truck, but don’t have big paychecks.

Like others of its ilk, the Equinox can be bought with front-wheel drive or an all-wheel drive system that is unobtrusive and requires no input from the driver.

Unlike most of its competitors, it comes standard with six-cylinder power and a five-speed automatic transmission that is nicely matched to the engine’s power band.

Prices start at $21,560 for the LS model with front-wheel drive. Add $1,975 if you want all-wheel drive.

The tested all-wheel-drive LT model, with plenty of standard equipment and a list of options that included leather upholstery, XM satellite radio, the General Motors OnStar communications system, 17-inch alloy wheels and a power driver’s seat, had a sticker price of $28,390.

The engine is an old reliable at General Motors — a 3.4-liter V-6 with pushrods instead of overhead camshafts that delivers 185 horsepower.

It’s enough to make the Equinox a comfortable highway cruiser with a full load of passengers and cargo.

Empty, except for a driver, it can reach 60 mph in just over eight seconds.

However, the fuel economy is nothing to brag about. At 140 pounds shy of 2 tons, the Equinox delivers 19 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city cycle and 25 on the highway. Because those are laboratory test figures, owners should expect to get less.

Still, there’s a lot to recommend the Equinox.

The styling has some of that edgy quality that is returning Cadillac to favor and profitability, and there’s enough innovation to give the Equinox the edge in some comparisons.

The back seat is one. Similar in design to the back seat on the Malibu Maxx, the entire seat has a fore-and-aft adjustment of seven inches.

Push it all the way back and you get limousinelike lounging room in the rear seat. Run it all the way forward and you still have enough legroom for most passengers, plus an extra 3 cubic feet of cargo space out back.

It’s a good thing, too, because the cargo area needs some help. Though it has a neat adjustable shelf to accommodate different loads, similar to the setup on the PT Cruiser, the cargo space is constricted by large plastic shelf supports over the inside wheel wells.

Visibility out front is good, with a low-profile hood.

However, fat pillars out back, along with the large rear-seat headrests, make it essential to adjust the big outside mirrors correctly to eliminate blind spots.

On the highway, the Equinox is quiet and comfortable, with little engine, road or wind noise. The seats are flat, but they do not become fatiguing on a long trip. In back, the center passenger fares almost as comfortably as the outboard passengers, with adequate knee and head room, though there’s not an abundance of hip room with three aboard. The center position has no headrest.

Instruments are large and easy to read, with white-on-black numerals and symbols, and the attractive center stack houses audio and climate controls, as well as the automatic transmission shifter. The power window controls are also located there, which is a bit awkward until you get used to them.

A large fold-up center armrest contains cup holders and some storage space, and beneath it is a large area that can accommodate a large purse or satchel, as well as CD cases. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.

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