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REVIEW

Sporty and rugged, but strictly for suburban cowboys

A wagon at heart, the Chevy Equinox is no rough, tough SUV. And there's no shame in that.

August 25, 2004|Warren Brown | Washington Post

The auto industry could save itself marketing headaches and money by firmly embracing station wagons.

Consider the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox. Although it is sold as a small SUV, it actually is nothing of the sort. That also can be said of Equinox rivals such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Saturn VUE, Ford Escape and Jeep Liberty -- all of which have abandoned body-on-frame, truck-based architecture in pursuit of vehicles more akin to family wagons and sedans.

Like the Equinox, all have lighter construction in which the vehicle's body, floor pan and chassis form a single rigid structure. Such a design is most often used in cars. It is seldom used in full-size pickup trucks or SUVs.

Also, there is the matter of all-wheel drive, which the auto industry, for marketing purposes, deliberately confuses with four-wheel drive. The two are not one and the same. For truly tough terrain, four-wheel-drive transmissions are needed, with locking differentials that guarantee that power flows to all four wheels simultaneously.

All-wheel-drive Equinox-type vehicles, by comparison, are city-suburban dwellers wearing cowboy and cowgirl outfits at a masquerade ball. Many look like rough, tough trucks. Indeed, Chevrolet seems to have gone out of its way to give the Equinox that persona. But that is just marketing imagery.

It is fundamentally silly stuff. The money and effort invested in selling what isn't could be better used selling what is.

The Equinox -- available in base LS or upscale LT trim, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive -- is a station wagon, and it is a good, affordably priced, high-utility station wagon at that.

Despite its ruggedly styled exterior, the Equinox is no more aggressive than the mild-mannered Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, another good wagon/hatchback from General Motors Corp.

That is not to suggest that the Equinox has substandard performance on the highway, or in hauling duties. It is commendably capable in both areas. It accelerates with competence and handles well within the context of its tall body structure and high ground clearance (8 inches above ground for the front-wheel-drive models). It can be equipped to tow up to 3,500 pounds -- at the expense of acceleration and handling.

Purists would argue that a more sensible comparison would be between the Equinox and its market rivals -- the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Saturn VUE, Ford Escape and Jeep Liberty. But that would be missing the point: Those ersatz compact SUVs are nothing more than station wagons. They should be compared with bona fide wagons such as the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 325i wagon, Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Ford Focus.

It's a matter of marketing simplicity. The car-based, "compact SUV" and "crossover" and "sport wagon" and "touring" labeling -- all nomenclature ruses designed to fool buyers into thinking they are getting something more exotic than a station wagon -- is needlessly confusing.

It is past time to start calling these vehicles what they are: wagons. Buyers won't care as long as they are attractive, affordable, useful wagons, of which the Equinox is one.

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