New Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV is plenty pleasing

Chevrolet is General Motors' biggest brand, so it needs to excel wherever it competes.

It hasn't always — and that was apparent with the former version of its Equinox compact crossover SUV, which became almost an afterthought in a hot slice of the market. Buyers moving out of big SUVs into modest-size models that use less fuel and cost less to buy, insure and maintain, hadn't much considered Equinox. Honda sold three times as many CR-Vs last year; Toyota sold twice as many RAV4s.

Chevy's revamped 2010 Equinox should do better. It's based on the previous model's chassis — itself an evolution of the 2002 Saturn Vue underpinnings, according to Robert Reuter, chief engineer for GM's compact crossovers worldwide. But everything else about it is significantly sweeter.

The new Equinox styling trumps the small-SUV field — a fashion model among the sweat-suited masses.

No hybrid is available. GM's two-mode hybrid system "was ready to go" for the Vue this summer. But post-Chapter 11, GM has axed Saturn, and the two-mode hybrid is "an expensive system, and right now we're not going to announce any plans" to use it in the Equinox, Reuter says.

Based on suburban scooting in a nicely equipped, four-cylinder, front-drive test model ($28,625) and a more-optioned V-6 all-wheel drive ($33,235), here's what to expect.

Good stuff:

•The base four-cylinder will be plenty for most folks. And it's not only more powerful but also more fuel-efficient than most rivals.

Still, with four aboard plus lots of luggage, you wouldn't want to tackle the Rockies in the four-banger.

The optional V-6 was a hot rod that begged to be flogged because it responded so delightfully and emitted a striking growl, more tenor than bass, doing so. Worked just fine driven gently, too, but not as much fun.

•The leather-festooned interiors in the test vehicles were unexpectedly classy. Well-designed accent lighting was a premium touch. Controls operated smoothly, with upscale feel.

•Dynamics were good. Not common in SUVs, but the Chevy steering and cornering were sporty, especially in the V-6. Brake pedal felt dead, though Chevy claims Equinox stops better than rivals.

•Utility factor was high. Center console storage area was deep enough to stow a laptop computer on end. Tunnels at the edge of the console opening were big enough for coiled cords. No need to stretch out charging cords just to fit through a tight access channel, as in most vehicles.

Rear seat slid fore and aft 8 inches for your choice of big-adult legroom and knee room or, in the forward position, extra cargo space behind. Seat-back angle also is adjustable.

Optional power tailgate lifted at a touch on the handle or the remote or the button inside, and provided an adjustment for those who want the gate to rise not so high, as when parking in a low-ceiling garage.

•Comfort's good. Front seats felt lumpy at first sit, but quickly seemed to pass the Goldilocks/Baby Bear test: Juuuust right. And the back's spaciousness and adjustability keep the cheap seats quiet, even on long jogs.

•The feel is right. The old-school "thunk" when you close the doors. The taut handling and firm ride. The pleasing colors and textures. Sometimes the Equinox felt more like a Caddy than a Chevy.

Bad stuff:

•Transmission's not housebroken. Yeah, it's a six-speed in a segment populated by four- and five-speed automatics, and you have to give GM credit for that.

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