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2018 Chevrolet Equinox LS AWD: Heartland Crossover

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Topics:  Chevrolet Equinox
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2018 Chevrolet Equinox LS AWD: Heartland Crossover

Bill Crittenden
25 September 2017

It’s either one of the worst in its class, or one of the best in its class. That depends on where you live.

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Having just driven a Chevrolet Malibu, getting into a Chevrolet Equinox felt remarkably familiar. Despite sharing platforms with the Cruze, visually it has more in common with the Malibu. The larger interior size makes it feel like the Malibu’s “bigger brother,” but the Cruze platform puts the Equinox’s prices fairly close to the Malibu.

At first glance the wide wheelbase and 188” overall length seems to put it in a bigger class of crossover with the Ford Edge and Hyundai Santa Fe, but the interior dimensions, power, and price definitely put it back in the Ford Escape/Hyundai Tucson/Toyota RAV4 group.

I didn’t find out that the engine displacement was the same turbocharged 1.5L as the Malibu until I had turned in the Equinox. It’s no performance vehicle, so with the benchmark being commuting it doesn’t feel underpowered at 170 horsepower & 203 lb.-feet of torque.

The big difference between the Malibu and the Equinox is what the weight and the shape of the vehicle does to the fuel economy. The lower Malibu with a long sloping rear roofline slips through the air to 37 miles per gallon on the highway, the Equinox gets just 30. Since the turbocharged engine needs premium gas for full power & efficiency, that’s going to matter if you have a long-distance commute. Some of that extra cost is offset by better fuel economy than the competition in the CUV category.

On paper that 1.5-liter engine doesn’t seem appropriate for a vehicle this large, and is a deterrent to a lot of people who consider engine size and horsepower specs alone and don’t look at the torque. But the turbocharger makes those small cylinders work extra hard, producing significantly more torque than the competition, 28 lb.-ft. more than the Kia Sportage and 33 more than the Ford Escape.

Some of the fuel savings comes from a stop-light-shut-off system, but that sometimes makes the car lurch a bit when it restarts the engine in gear as you take your foot off the brake. It’s all for a good reason, and it just takes some getting used to. My other car is a hybrid, and the first time the engine stopped just as I was about to pull out into traffic my heart stopped along with it. But you get used to it.

Other than torque, there isn’t a clear winner against the competition in specs. It’s significantly longer, but also lighter. Despite the length it has less cargo space than the Escape. Headroom is excellent, but it has less overall passenger volume than the competition.

Every company in this segment has a slightly different idea of the ideal crossover, which is to be expected from a relatively new and still evolving segment. Remember how wildly different minivans were in the early 1990’s before we settled on the current style?

The Equinox AWD LS I drove had an MSRP of $28,425. If you just need a decent-sized box to carry people and stuff, you can strip it down to the FWD L at $23,100, $650 cheaper than the base Escape.

Can’t Stand the Seats

Mechanically it’s a decent vehicle. However, if you’re looking to buy one chances are you’re going to spend some time behind the wheel, and that’s where the troubles with the Equinox begin.

Let’s start with that steering wheel. The controls on the front of the steering wheel have the feel of something from the Walmart toy aisle. The radio controls on the back of the steering wheel are well placed, though, even if it took me a while to find them. This should be an industry-standard placement, not only because I like them there but also if every car put them there it wouldn't be a question as to where the radio volume buttons on the steering wheel were.

The awkward way the screen sticks out from the dashboard makes it look like a tablet in a cheap kid-friendly plastic case, attached by Velcro to the middle of an otherwise nicely textured surface. The basic, non-smartphone-connected touchscreen graphics remind me of the user interface on my old Motorola phone with the slide-out keyboard, circa 2010. I have no idea why, but the song title from the radio station displays in abbreviated form in about an inch of screen even though there’s plenty of open space to the right of it. The Ford's Sync system in our 2013 C-Max is much better for adding color & looking brand new even in a four year old car. However, when connected to CarPlay or Android Auto this shouldn’t be an issue.

The two-tone interior mostly looked great, but the seats were probably not the best place to put light colored fabric. The dealership loaner I was driving had spots on the seats already at just 2,300 miles. Dirty pants after Scout camp, shopping bags that have been left on a floor, the occasional dropped French fry between the legs, they’re all going to leave visible dinginess on the light gray seat bottoms.

Those seats have bigger problems than the fabric color, though. The side bolsters dug into my ribs on the way home from the dealership. It was not only uncomfortable but entirely unnecessary...who needs that much side support in a bargain crossover? If this thing ever finds its way to a track day it’s going to be as a spectator’s car.

It took a turn for the worse when I got home. I found my wife in the driveway just getting ready to leave for work and as soon as I pulled up her face lit up. She likes the style of the new Chevrolets and she really wanted to try out the Equinox. After sitting in the car, getting a sense of the dashboard, and adjusting the mirrors, she called me back to the car. “Nope, I changed my mind.” The seats were that uncomfortable. Imagine if that wasn’t a service loaner on our new Kia and we were shopping in that segment. We wouldn’t have even taken a test drive, in that setting it would have been an instant “this car feels God awful, let’s go to the Ford dealership.”

This doesn’t seem to be an anomaly exclusive to the Equinox, either. We had the same reaction to the Chevrolet Trax’s seats digging into our legs when we first saw one and sat in it. We’re both above average size, even for Americans, but neither of us is anywhere near “you have to buy a second seat for the flight” wide. Maybe the seats won’t be a problem for you if your laundry basket is full of smalls & mediums, but Walmart still sells multiple sizes above ours so I don’t think that it’s too much to ask that the seats not feel like a middle school bully digging his knuckles into my ribs.

I’m not ruling out Chevrolets as a viable vehicle because there are plenty of smaller folks who maybe wouldn’t feel those seat bolsters but maybe they should reconsider such an aggressive seat in such a non-aggressive vehicle, especially since where people sit is really important to car buyers.

Anyway, the Hyundai or Kia are is always excellent choices considering their build quality and warranties. Toyota and the Honda also make top-notch vehicles in this segment. There are at least a half dozen vehicles I could buy ahead of the Equinox, but you might not have a full field of competition available to you. That depends on where you live.

Can I really say “don’t buy an Equinox?” No, because while it’s not anywhere near best in its class, it’s not at all a “bad” vehicle and it just might be right for your situation.

Chevrolet’s Heartland Advantage

As I discovered when considering the Malibu I’d been loaned a week before, there are some places where owning a domestic brand is the most practical option.

Some of numbers available are a bit old, so I'm estimating there are about 2,900 Chevrolet dealerships here, compared to about 1,200 for Toyota, about 1,000 Honda, and about 800 for Hyundai.

The Chevrolet's advantage against most of the competition is it's dealership network. Buying & owning a foreign marque in many parts of the country just isn't practical. That narrows the competition down to just the Ford Escape and the Dodge Journey, and the Jeep Cherokee.

Take Nebraska for example. It was the first state to come to my mind when I thought of "where would be a bad place to try and buy a Hyundai?" Known as part of "flyover country" to the snobby hipsters in New York and Los Angeles, the state is notable to the rest of us as the home of Warren Buffett and 1.9 million more Americans. There are three Hyundai dealerships in the Omaha metropolitan area at the eastern edge of the state, and serving the east side of the state one more just across the northeastern border in Sioux City, Iowa. Serving the west end of there's one each maybe an hour or so into Colorado and South Dakota, and zero in the middle of a state 430 miles across.

Suddenly that Equinox looks pretty damn good compared to spending half a Saturday on the road just to get something minor done at the dealership. What's the cost of that when factored into the cost of ownership? I've had a Kia Soul for six weeks and I had to make my second trip back to the dealership yesterday, and there's nothing wrong with the car.

Once narrowed down to a field of just four vehicles, where none include a 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, where none of them have the build quality of the blue chip Japanese brands, suddenly the Chevrolet compares much better.

The Jeep Cherokee is cool, but is it cool enough to justify the issues I’ve been hearing about? Maybe. It’s really badass looking.

Take away everything badass about the Jeep but leave the Chrysler engineering and you have the Dodge Journey. Nope. Next...

More conventional competition is the redesigned Ford Escape. It’s a hair shorter than the Equinox for headroom but it has more cargo room. It also has a 1.5L engine and costs about the same. Basically, Ford vs. Chevrolet here comes down to subjective measurements: which has the space where you need it, which do you feel more comfortable in, which dealership do you feel more comfortable doing business with?

I’ve spent time in the middle of Indiana corn country where Walmart was fifty miles & forty minutes away, where the only foreign vehicle I saw in an entire week was a lonely old Toyota pickup. What would I do given that situation instead of the edge-of-the-suburbs situation I’m in now? Well, considering the seating issue I’d probably get the Ford, but that’s just me.

It’s not a bad vehicle at all, it just doesn’t fit us well (literally). If you narrow the field down to the domestic brands, the Chevrolet is second only to the Ford, and only in subjective categories of style and fit. If you can get a good deal and you feel more comfortable with both the Equinox seats and your Chevrolet dealer, you’ll be just fine buying one.

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