Chevy's VUE on small SUVs
DETROIT, Mich. - General Motors was among the first automakers to field a mini-SUV. Way back in 1989, under the import-fighting Geo division umbrella, the Suzuki-based Tracker debuted. Diminutive and undermuscled, the Geo Tracker nonetheless proved popular in Sun Belt regions where its convertible top could be appreciated on a regular basis. A hardtop was also available, but few buyers selected this model. A budget bushwacker that sipped fuel and proved reliable, the tough Geo Tracker developed a loyal, if small, cult following. Years later, in 1996, Toyota crashed the party with the segment-defining RAV4 and rewrote the rules for the segment. Based on passenger car underpinnings and lacking any true off-road capability, the Toyota RAV4 accordingly offered a better ride quality and improved handling response to more competently match the real world driving in which most SUV owners engaged. The Tracker, however, continued with stout truck-based underpinnings and underpowered motors for its 1999 redesign, and General Motors lost market share competing against so-called "soft-roaders" like the upstart Toyota, the Honda CR-V and others.
For 2005, Chevrolet debuts the Tracker's replacement. Dubbed Equinox, this new model is among the largest of today's crop of small suvs, offering plenty of room for five adults and their cargo. Based upon the same structure as the Saturn VUE but using steel rather than composite side panels, the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox is powered by a 3.4-liter V6 engine driving the front or all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission.
Making 185 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 210 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,800 rpm, the Equinox's V6 is the venerable overhead-cam Vortec 3400 engine that has been deployed in everything from the Chevrolet Venture to the Pontiac Grand Am. We haven't driven the Equinox; in other GM products this motor offers decent power off the line but becomes winded at mid- to high-rpm driving. Power delivery is somewhat unrefined, with plenty of engine racket accompanying forward velocity. Why GM didn't design the Chevy Equinox to use the Malibu sedan's more powerful 3500 V6 is anyone's guess.Properly equipped, the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox will tow 3,500 pounds, enough to get the Wave Runners to the lake. Both base LS and uplevel LT models come equipped with front-wheel drive, but an automatic all-wheel-drive system that senses wheel spin and accordingly transfers power to the rear wheels is optional. A four-wheel independent suspension is better suited to on-road than off-road driving, guided by an electrically powered rack-and-pinion steering system. Let's hope that engineers have improved the feel of this steering gear over the same unit that is currently installed in the Saturn VUE. Like the VUE, brakes are vented discs up front, which is good, and drums in the back, which reeks of cost cutting rather than cutting edge. ABS is standard on all models except the LS with front-wheel-drive. Traction control, which cannot be combined with AWD, comes standard on the LT FWD and is optional on the LS FWD.
The Chevrolet Equinox boasts plenty of room inside for five adults, with a handy Multi-Flex seating system that provides eight inches of fore-and-aft travel for the rear bench seat and a folding front passenger seatback to optimize either occupant comfort or cargo carrying capacity. Additionally, the height-adjustable cargo shelf serves double duty, able to function as either a picnic table or a cargo cover.Standard equipment includes air conditioning, automatic headlights and power door locks. Daytime running lights, a vehicle theft control system, and 16-inch wheels with 235/65 Bridgestone tires are also included on all Equinoxes. Optional are 16-inch alloy wheels or 17-inch alloys with 235/60 rubber.
Other options include roof-rail side curtain airbags, premium sound with an MP3 player and an in-dash six-CD changer, XM satellite radio, OnStar telematics, heated front seats with driver-side power adjustment, leather upholstery, and a power moonroof.
Wisely, designers have eschewed the body cladding, simulated brush bars and big-knobbed tires that can ruin the appearance of other crossover vehicles. The Chevy Equinox is cleanly styled, and is instantly recognizable as a Chevrolet. The interior borrows more from its Saturn VUE cousin that the exterior, with the simple gauge cluster and jutting transmission selector giving away the Equinox's VUE DNA.
Based on driving time behind the wheel of the Saturn VUE, let's hope Chevrolet improved the steering feel, the seat comfort, the suspension tuning, and the quality of the interior materials for the Equinox. The VUE's electric steering is lifeless in the driver's hands, the front seats are small and unsupportive, the rear seats are mounted too low to the floor, the suspension is mushy and lacks the ability to adequately control body motions, and certain cabin appointments are cheap to both the sight and touch. If Chevrolet has tackled these issues, and erased the VUE's tendency to exhibit torque steer, the Equinox will be extremely competitive.Production of the Chevy Equinox commences in Ingersoll, Ontario in the spring of 2004, and by summertime they ought to be in Chevrolet showrooms nationwide. Then, if you can wait until calendar year 2005, a hybrid version should become available boasting the power of a V6 engine with the fuel economy of a small four-cylinder car.
From our perspective, the VUE is getting better the closer we get to the Equinox.
Photos courtesy of General Motors Corporation