Payne: Toned Chevy Equinox vs. Honda CR-V champ

Posted by hpayne on March 30, 2017

The 2018 Chevy Equinox, the automaker's best-selling

Bigger isn’t always better.

That line seems heresy in an American auto market where vehicles have grown with each generation to accommodate bigger performance demands, bigger storage needs and bigger (ahem) waistlines. Ford F-150s are the size of Detroit apartments, sports cars are more muscled than John Cena, and a Mini Cooper isn’t mini at all.

“Bigger is better” is most evident in crossovers. They are station wagons on stilts that are taller, longer and thirstier than the sedans customers have abandoned.

So imagine my shock when America’s brand, Chevrolet — the maker of supersized Suburbans, tremendous Traverses, carnivorous Camaros — put its 2018 Equinox on a diet. The brand’s best-selling SUV has lost a whopping 400 pounds, four inches of length and two cylinders to bring its proportions more in line with Honda’s svelte, class best-selling CR-V. That means an all-wheel-drive Equinox improbably weighs about the same (3,540 pounds vs. 3,523) as my athletic 2001 BMW M3.

Like Nixon going to China or Apple becoming a phone maker, who better than Equinox to challenge orthodoxy? Equinox has worn the bigger-is-better uniform since 2005 and has come up short.

The solution? Another all-American aphorism: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Impressively, the Equinox diet doesn’t compromise interior space but makes it more fun to drive. That’s a designation formerly reserved for niche zoom-zoom manufacturer Mazda and its CX-5 crossover.

“We can do anything, but we can’t do everything,” GM chief engineer for crossovers Rick Spina likes to tell his troops.

But compact crossovers are the Shane Halter (the last Tiger to play all nine positions in a game) of autodom. Customers demand all-around performers that are good at everything from utilitarian shopping needs to road trips through mountain twisties. Spina and team have defied their motto: Equinox and CR-V are good at dang near everything.

In targeting the CR-V — which invented the class way back in 1996 — the Equinox took on a moving target. The CR-V, too, has undergone a complete (if more evolutionary) remake that incrementally increased length, width, height and rear legroom. Honda sells so many models from its Marysville, Ohio assembly plant that it should call it McCR-V and put a big sign out front reading “Over 4 million served” (the actual number they’ve sold to Americans).

Honda’s remarkably taut chassis is based on the same platform as the Audi A3-baselined Civic play-toy that has motorheads drooling. How serious is Honda about SUV handling? CR-V project leader Takaaki Nagadome’s first job at Honda was body engineering for the NSX supercar. It shows.

I first drove the CR-V last fall in flat Marysville farmland and was soon pining for twisty, mountain roads. I’m not saying the CR-V is a Civic hot hatch, but Car and Driver recorded similar skid-pad numbers as the once-untouchable Mazda.

Throw the Honda ute into a 90-degree right-hander and it bites. Even the CR-V’s safety system freaked at the speeds I was taking corners: the auto-brake assist flashed “BRAKE” in the instrument panel as I hurtled into one ess turn.

With its new bod, Equinox goes toe-to-toe with its Japanese rival. Chevy’s confidence was apparent as it set media testers loose on the Blue Ridge Mountains’ serpentine roads. With an aluminum-block, 1.5-liter, base turbo engine up front, the crossover doesn’t plow through corners. The Mazda may still set the standard for this class, but the Equinox turbo has better giddyup than the CX-5’s normally aspirated 2-liter. The giddyup winner of this comparison, however, is the Honda’s 1.5-liter turbo that was first introduced in the Civic.

Heat up this hot tamale over 3,000 rpm and the CR-V really sizzles. Equinox is nearly as spicy, but it’s a 170-horsepower base engine compared to the Honda’s 190-horse premium offering (a normally-aspirated, 2.5-liter is the base mill). The CR-V’s engine strategy emphasizes economy: married to an excellent continuously variable tranny, it boasts 29 mpg (3 mpg more than the Equinox) despite its higher output.

Touting bigger-is-still-better when it comes to performance, Chevy will offer a muscular 252-horse, 2-liter turbo as its prime engine later this year.

It’s worth noting that the sticker on my $38,122 loaded Equinox — with moon roof and Premiere trim — was $3,500 above the $34,635, similarly equipped top-trim Touring CR-V with the premium 1.5-turbo. How expensive will that 2-liter Equinox be?

Chevy says the price is justified by going the extra mile on technology and refinement. For example, the Equinox went shopping at the upscale GKN boutique for a twin clutch-pack system that can move drive torque front to rear. Attack a snowy hill in the dead of Michigan winter and Chevy says you’ll feel the difference.

But will buyers feel enough of a difference to deter them from the tried, true and cheaper CR-V?

Chevy goes the extra mile inside with a more-sculpted interior, more buttons and optional gee-gaws like heated rear seats and surround-vision camera. The CR-V comes away looking cheaper — especially those plasticky steering-wheel controls. But the Honda comes with typically clever ergonomics of its own including versatile center-console storage and rear doors that open nearly 90 degrees for better entry.

Elsewhere, these valedictorian students of American taste are an even match, covering every driver need: hidden rear-storage compartments; grocery-friendly, kick-open rear hatches; fold-flat rear seats.

And Chevy and Honda continue to show why they have been pioneers in smartphone-app connectivity as Android’s Google Maps embarrassed both Honda Navi and Chevy OnStar in navigation tests.

What may ultimately decide your choice between these evenly matched rivals is your design taste. Neither will challenge the pretty Mazda for the title of Miss Crossover.

The Chevy’s sleek shape may earn its best-in-class .336 drag-coefficient, but it’s determined to offend no one — the designers even managed to make the problematic split-grille a generic shape. If the Equinox were ice cream, it would be vanilla.

The CR-V is Chunky Monkey. The youthful design details are familiar — bat-wing taillights, funhouse wheels — but with more attitude. The front grille looks like a bulldog with a pronounced underbite.

Lest you think Chevy still doesn’t value plus-size cars, you’ll be pleased to know that the forthcoming midsize Traverse is XXL. But for its compact SUV, the Equinox matches the CR-V as proof you can do everything with less.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Chevrolet Equinox

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT- AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER

CROSSOVER

Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Weight 3,375 pounds (FWD); 3,540 pounds (AWD)
Price $25,370 ($38,122 Premier AWD as tested)
Power 170 horsepower, 203 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph (NA)
Fuel economy EPA 26 city/32 highway/28 combined (FWD)

EPA 24 city/30 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Report card

HIGHS LIGHT ON ITS FEET; TERRIFIC INTERIOR DETAIL
Lows Vanilla styling; Premier-trim sticker shock

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Honda CR-V

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT- AND ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER CROSSOVER
Power plant 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Transmission Continuously variable automatic
Weight 3,307 pounds (FWD); 3,508 pounds (AWD)
Price $24,945 base ($34,635 AWD Touring as tested)
Power 190 horsepower, 179 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 28 city/34 highway/30 combined (FWD)

EPA 27 city/33 highway/30 combined (AWD)

Report card

HIGHS FUN-TO-DRIVE SUV; EASY-ACCESS REAR SEATS
Lows Bulldog front end; plasticky controls

Overall:★★★

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