Some of the criticisms leveled against General Motors have been that it wasn’t focused on making the high-efficiency cars Americans wanted to buy and that it was falling behind in green technology. The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox is GM’s answer to its detractors.

The Equinox is redesigned for 2010 with a focus on boosting fuel economy. So the front-wheel-drive model comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, direct-injection engine the EPA estimates burns 22 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Adding part-time all-wheel drive drops the estimates to 20 and 29 mpg, respectively. Drivers can also opt for a V6 in LT and better trims.

The four-cylinder’s highway fuel economy beats that of Equinox’s competitors, including the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, by four or five points. It also beats the Escape Hybrid by one point, although the hybrid does far better in town than competing models.

Head-to-head
 
Chevy Equinox 1lt
Honda Cr-V
Ford Escape
Toyota Rav4
Wheelbase (in.)
112.5
103.1
103.1
104.7
Height (in.)
66.3
66.1
67.9
66.3
Cargo Room (ft3)
63.7
72.9
67.2
73.0
Cargo Room (ft3) 63.7 72.9 67.2 73.0 mpg (city/hwy)
22/32
21/28
21/28
22/28

But an empty Equinox still weighs 3,761 to 3,838 lb, depending on options, so barring anti-gravity technology, how did they do it?

Most of the efficiency comes from the smaller engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The transmission defaults to “eco” mode, which forces it to upshift earlier and downshift later. The driver can bypass this mode to get more low-end power.

That strategy works for most driving situations, like highway cruising or tooling around town. But try to floor it on an on-ramp to get ahead of a semi, and the Equinox is all bark and no bite. Eco mode prevents downshifting, so the engine emits a high-pitched, grating scream but doesn’t really pick up the pace.

Perhaps this is GM’s way of encouraging consumers to drive “greener” through negative reinforcement. But the company has included positive reinforcements, too, like an in-dash driver information center that updates your gas mileage in real time.

Small efficiency gains also come from electronic power steering (the engine no longer has to run hydraulic boosters) and low-rolling-resistance tires. Although these are well-accepted strategies for boosting fuel economy, they both contributed to the trouble I had driving the Equinox uphill in wet snow. The wheels slipped and could not track straight. At the same time, the power steering didn’t provide enough tactile feedback, so the steering wheel felt disconnected from where the vehicle was actually headed.

However, once you accept that GM has stuffed a small sedan’s engine under the hood and that you may need better tires, there is plenty to like about the Equinox. Engineers at GM weren’t totally focused on fuel economy; they took a good look at comfort, too.

The cushy driver and front passenger seats were cherry-picked from the Cadillac CTS. A full 8 in. of travel, plus height and lumbar adjustments, accommodate just about any size driver. Rear seats are almost as comfortable, split 60/40, and can slide and recline slightly.

However, all the attention paid to passenger comfort came at the expense of cargo space. The Equinox can carry 63.7 ft3 of cargo with the rear seats folded nearly flat. This compares to the Escape’s 66.1 ft3 and the CR-V’s 72.9 ft3. Roof-rack side rails and a 1,500-lb towing capacity complete the Equinox’s cargo capabilities.

Our tester came with a vehicle-interface package comprising Bluetooth, audio controls on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote starter controls, and a USB port. The standard AM/FM/CD stereo also has an aux jack and comes with three months of Sirius/XM satellite radio. Onstar network knows when your airbag goes off and calls officials. The service is free the first year and can be upgraded to add navigation help.

The front-wheel-drive 1LT model we drove costs $23,360, and the interface package added another $495. Upgrading to AWD would add $1,750. The $22,615 base LS model doesn’t include roof racks, tinted windows. body-colored mirrors, or floor mats.

Jessica Shapiro

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.