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.

But in the four-cylinder Equinox, it shimmied and shuddered on some shifts, delayed grossly before downshifting in medium-speed, medium-throttle circumstances. Good snappy shifts if you floored the pedal, but most people don't drive that way.

"That has not been the type of comment we've heard" from GM test drivers or early buyers, Reuter says.

The V-6 uses a different version of the transmission and shifted better, though slurred on some upshifts instead of, bang, grabbing the next gear.

Chevy says the test vehicles were right off the production line, not early-build units without the latest software, which is what many media test vehicles are. "Fully representative," says Reuter, who drove the four-cylinder before it was handed over to Test Drive and felt no shift problems.

•Big turning circle. Forty feet; more with optional 19-inch tires. Rivals' are about 35 feet. Clumsy in the mall parking lot or tight urban maneuvers. It's due to the unusually long wheelbase, Reuter says, and the trade-off is Equinox's extraordinary back-seat room.

•No safety head restraint in the middle rear seating slot. GM, unlike rivals, couldn't figure a way to put one there without poking into the driver's rear view.

•Poor rear visibility. Mainly blame the fat side and rear roof pillars. Consider the optional backup camera.

•Second-rate rear arm rest. Folded down to offer merely a dual cup holder. No additional bin for fries, Lego pieces and the like. C'mon, this is a family bus. Consider the kids.

•No clever cubbies under the cargo area floor, as found in many rivals.

•No 115-volt outlet, as some rivals offer.

•Low-rise front-door map pockets. Your papers will fall out.

The Equinoxes had a fetching jump-'n'-go personality, and were sufficiently classy and comfy to overlook most gripes. The V-6 is pick of the litter because its transmission shifted OK, and the extra power's a rollicking good time.

More about the 2010 Chevy Equinox

What?

Compact, four-door, five-passenger crossover SUV available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD).

•Vehicle with different body and interior, but identical underpinnings, is sold as GMC Terrain.

When?

Equinox on sale since June. Terrain on sale about now.

Where?

Made in Ingersoll, Ontario.

Why?

The old Equinox was getting its bumper kicked by Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4. A revamp was needed.

How?

Carry over the previous chassis, which traces its lineage to the 2002 plastic-body Saturn Vue SUV, and remake everything else.

How much?

Starts at $23,185 including $745 shipping for base FWD. AWD adds $1,750. Top: $37,720 for loaded V-6 AWD with navi, leather, sunroof, chrome wheels, etc.

How many?

Chevy, in today's fashion, refuses to predict, but no doubt hopes for a large improvement on the previous model. That model snared a paltry 67,447 buyers in 2008, according to industry tally master Autodata.

How powerful?

2.4-liter four-cylinder is rated 182 horsepower at 6,700 rpm, 172 pounds-feet of torque at 4,900 rpm. Optional 3-liter V-6: 264 hp at 6,950 rpm, 222 lbs.-ft. at 5,100 rpm.

•Six-speed automatic transmission is standard; manual not available.

How fancy?

OK at the low end, lavish at the high.

•Here's a quirk: Four-cylinder models get a standard stereo subwoofer, usually an expensive audio option. That's because four-cylinder models, inherently noisier than the V-6s, have active electronic noise-cancellation systems that require a subwoofer. So, voilà, nice piece of stereo gear is baked into the basic model as standard equipment.

•More info available at www.chevy.com.

How big?

Much bigger outside than main rivals CR-V, RAV4, but slightly smaller inside. Equinox is 187.9 inches long, 72.5 in. wide, 66.3 in. tall on a 112.5-in. wheelbase.

•Passenger space: 99.7 cubic ft.; cargo space behind second row, 31.4 cu. ft.; with second row folded, 63.7 cu. ft.

•Weighs 3,761 pounds (base model). Tows 1,500 lbs. (four-cylinder) or 3,500 lbs. (V-6). Totes 1,190 lbs. of people, cargo and accessories.

•Needs surprisingly big, 40-ft. circle to come about.

How thirsty?

Although it's some 400 lbs. heavier than rivals, and more powerful than most, it gets better fuel-economy ratings in some cases.

•Four-cylinder: 22 mpg in town, 32 mpg on the highway, 26 in combined driving (FWD) and 20/29/23 (AWD). V-6: 17/25/20 (FWD), 17/24/20 (AWD).

•Trip computer in four-cylinder, FWD tester registered 19.9. mpg (5.03 gallons per 100 miles) in suburban driving. V-6 AWD tester: 15.7 mpg (6.37 gal./100 mi.) in vigorous suburban driving.

Overall:

Classy, comfy, stylish.