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"Equinox" has become a truly apt name for Chevrolet's small crossover. Twice a year, the equinox marks a near-perfect balance between length of day and night across the planet, and for 2010 the redesigned Equinox offers an excellent balance of size and efficiency, roominess and utility, quality and price.

The second-generation Equinox four-cylinder surpasses the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 — three of its main competitors — in gas mileage, and its stylish cabin brings high-quality materials and an upscale flair to the class. It also features a large backseat to keep passengers happy. Some people might find the Equinox's ride a bit too firm for a family vehicle, but there's enough good stuff going on here to elevate the Equinox — for the first time — into a discussion of the best small crossovers on the market.

It's offered in LS, LT and LTZ trim levels. I tested two LT versions of the crossover, one with the four-cylinder and one with the optional V-6 engine. (See a side-by-side comparison of the new Equinox and the previous version.)

Going & Stopping
The Equinox's claim to fame is its gas mileage — an EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg city/highway with the standard 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive.
EPA-estimated city/highway mpg with base four-cylinder and automatic transmission

Small CUV Gas Mileage FWD AWD
2010 Chevrolet Equinox 22/32 20/29
2009 Toyota RAV4 22/28 21/27
2009 Nissan Rogue 22/27 21/26
2009 Honda CR-V 20/27 20/26
2009 Subaru Forester -- 20/26
2009 Ford Escape 20/28 19/25

Chevy expects the four-cylinder will make up about 70 percent of Equinox sales, with the other 30 percent going toward the optional 264-hp, 3.0-liter V-6. Both engines feature direct injection, which improves gas mileage, as do a more aerodynamic body and the use of low-rolling-resistance tires. Both engines team with a standard six-speed automatic transmission.

It's understandable that some customers would have reservations about purchasing a crossover, even a smaller one, with only a four-cylinder engine. (Heck, I think the smaller CR-V doesn't offer a lot of power.) The Equinox's four-cylinder, however, is a plucky little engine, and its smooth-shifting transmission reacts quickly when you need more power at midrange speeds. It doesn't feel underpowered, but it does start to lose steam when accelerating hard at 60 mph or so.

For people who want more reserve power for passing and merging, it's nice that Chevrolet offers a V-6; some of its competitors don't. It's a $1,500 option, and it's also going to cost you more at the pump because it gets an EPA-estimated 18/25 mpg for front-wheel-drive models and 17/24 mpg for all-wheel drive.

The Equinox has front and rear disc brakes with ABS. While the brakes don't have trouble bringing this crossover to a halt, the pedal feel is lackluster; there's a mushiness to it that doesn't inspire confidence.

Ride & Handling
The Equinox is one of the better-handling small crossovers around. It's composed through corners and does a good job resisting body roll. There's a not-too-hidden price for this performance, as it comes at the expense of ride comfort. There's no question it might be too taut for some people — it was very close to the line for me.

The ride was a little tiresome on rougher roads, as you can feel small pavement cracks and patchwork in the cabin. Larger bumps could be absorbed better by the shocks in order to make the Equinox more agreeable to family-oriented buyers. Balancing ride comfort and handling is something Chevrolet did quite well in its Malibu midsize sedan, but the Equinox's focus on handling is greater than it needs to be for this vehicle type. By comparison, Chevrolet's Traverse three-row crossover offers more comfortable suspension tuning, as does the Nissan Rogue, one of the Equinox's competitors.

The Inside
The Equinox's redesigned interior is a big step up from its predecessor and now rivals the leaders in its segment. The design is modern yet functional and makes use of high-grade trim that fits tightly together.

I'm less enthusiastic about the LT's premium cloth bucket seats. They feature an interesting mesh pattern that looks durable, but the seats' firm padding isn't particularly comfortable. The optional leather seats, in comparison, provide some welcome softness.

The driving position affords excellent forward views, and the standard tilt/telescoping steering column lets you adjust the wheel just so. Taller drivers, however, might notice that the B-pillar blocks the view when checking their left-side blind spot.

Even taller adults can enjoy the Equinox's backseat thanks to its generous legroom. The one-piece bench seat can slide forward and backward as a whole, but each section of the split backrest can recline independently.

Cargo & Towing
The Equinox measures 187.8 inches long, 72.5 inches wide and 66.3 inches tall, which makes it substantially bigger than most small crossovers and similar to some midsize models. Unfortunately, the extra size doesn't translate into a larger cabin for people and cargo.

A split-folding backrest lets you partially extend the cargo area to carry a golf bag, for instance, or you can fold down both sections of the seatback to expand the cargo area to 63.7 cubic feet. The extended cargo floor is nearly flat when the backrests are folded.

Maximum trailer weight ratings vary based on which engine is under the hood. When properly equipped, four-cylinder models are rated to tow 1,500 pounds and V-6s are rated at 3,500 pounds. These weight ratings are comparable to competitors', though the four-cylinder Forester can pull up to 2,400 pounds.

A number of stand-alone options are available for the Equinox, and some are more affordable than you might think. For LT trims, the optional backup camera with its screen integrated into the rearview mirror costs $320, and the upgraded audio system is $395. A power liftgate that allows you to control how high it opens is $495, and a moonroof is $795. Chevrolet also sells a $495 Vehicle Interface Package that adds a USB port for connecting a portable music player to the sound system, along with remote start and Bluetooth cell phone connectivity.

There are also more expensive options. All-wheel drive costs $1,750. A dual-screen backseat entertainment system goes for $1,295, while the touch-screen navigation system, which features a 40GB hard drive that can store songs, is $2,145. There's no group discount for purchasing the entertainment system and navigation together; getting both will run you $3,440.

Equinox in the Market
It's worth understanding what Chevrolet recently did with its Malibu family sedan when considering the Equinox's place in the market. With the Malibu's redesign for 2008, Chevrolet took what had been a ho-hum sedan and turned it into one that could challenge segment leaders like the Honda Accord, no excuses necessary. It was a dramatic turnaround for the model that paid off in higher sales and reflected GM's commitment to product quality.

Chevy has taken the same approach with the Equinox, as its redesign is of the same magnitude as the Malibu's and vaults it into contention for small-crossover bragging rights. There are already some very nice models in this category, but the Equinox is another example of GM's focus on products, which is absolutely what it needs to have if it hopes to compete and thrive in the future. The Malibu and Equinox are authoritative steps in the right direction, but they can't be GM's last steps.

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