By Lesley Wimbush, Driving.ca - We're more than 3,800 feet above the Pisgah National Forest, where mist envelops the shoulders of the Appalachian Mountains. Below us lies the Pink Beds Valley, a swath of lush growth tinted by the blush of blooming rhododendrons.
We'd been given the option of making our own way across the Carolinas, the only caveat being that we arrive intact by dinner. My driving partner had a hankering to experience the Tail of the Dragon, 18 kilometres of serpentine road that's virtually a rite of passage for any driving enthusiast. I pointed out that our trip gave us a chance to visit one of the remove, mountainous creeks where we could search for the elusive Hellbender, an exceedingly rare giant salamander, charmingly dubbed the "Snot Otter."
The Blue Ridge Parkway proved an acceptable compromise, though its abundance of looping curves had us yearning for a nimble two-seater instead of the crossover we're piloting. To be fair, our Chevrolet Equinox handled the hairpin twists quite admirably, with none of the lumbering wallow once characteristic of this segment.
Completely revised for 2018, the third-gen Equinox returns with a shorter, stiffer platform, an available nine-speed automatic transmission and the choice of three engines. Based on the same D2 architecture underpinning the Buick Envision, the Equinox sheds 400 pounds (180 kilograms) - a 10 per cent weight reduction - over the previous platform.
As with nearly every other vehicle in the industry-wide quest for better fuel economy, the chassis has been lightened by using high-strength and hot stamped steel, fewer welds and more industrial adhesives. This gives the new Equinox an added bonus of great torsional rigidity and less flex, meaning a more stable ride. The smaller body, shorter wheelbase and slightly lower ride height not only aid in the Equinox's stability, but also improve aerodynamics. Visually, the Equinox isn't as compelling as the Mazda CX-5 or Ford Escape, but it is neat and tidy, if rather unremarkable.
In this segment, space and utility are paramount. Despite its compact size, the Equinox's cabin space remains virtually the same as the outgoing model. The rear seats have given up their ability to slide fore and aft, providing a more usable and flatter floor when folded. Maximum cargo space increases to 1,798 litres, including a hidden compartment beneath the trunk floor.
The cabin's overhaul follows the same conservative yet functional design principles as the Cruze. Premier models feature more soft-touch materials and leather, but cheaper plastics creep into use as you move down through the trim levels. The Equinox follows Chevrolet's familiar packaging strategy by offering three models (LS, LT and Premier) and two packages (Confidence and Convenience, and True North) are available on the LT and Premier.
All trims are available in front- or all-wheel drive, but it seems Canadians prefer AWD, which accounts for 80 per cent of all Equinoxes sold here. New for 2018, the AWD system can help conserve more fuel by directing power to just the front wheels when extra traction isn't needed, or torque to all four wheels can be manually locked in by the driver.
The mid-range LT AWD is predicted to be the volume seller, but even the base LS has a good level of standard features. They include keyless entry with push-button start, Chevrolet's MyLink Infotainment system, rear-vision camera, Teen Driver (which lets you restrict and monitor driving habits), one-touch folding second-row seats, heated front seats and heated rear-view mirrors, a remote starter, start/stop technology and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.
Moving up through the trim lines adds extra goodies, such as a heated steering wheel and rear seats, HID headlights, a hands-free power liftgate, an eight-inch in-dash touch screen and 4.2-inch instrument cluster display, and wireless charging. The Premier trim gets rear park assist, plus side blind-zone and rear cross-traffic alerts.
Available packages add forward-collision alert, 360-degree surround vision, low-speed automatic braking, safety-alert seat and lane-departure warning. Only the True North package includes GPS navigation, which leaves the rest of the model lineup to rely on either OnStar's turn-by-turn navigation services, or Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which rely on the user's own data plan.
Unfortunately, the new 2.0-litre turbo-four and the 1.6L four-cylinder turbodiesel engines weren't available yet and probably won't arrive until summer. The diesel, producing 136 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, is rated to deliver 6.9L/100 km in combined city and highway driving for FWD models, or 7.4 with AWD. The larger 2.0L turbo-four, producing 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, will be the only one paired with the new nine-speed automatic transmission. It will deliver 8.7 L/100 km combined on FWD Equinoxes and 9.4 with AWD. It will also offer a maximum towing capability of 3,500 lbs (1,588 kg), compared with 1,500 lbs (680 kg) for the other powertrains.
"There are advantages to using the nine-speed, from a fuel economy and from a performance standpoint," says Larry Mihalko, engineer and performance manager for Chevrolet's crossovers. "But this segment is also price-sensitive, so if you want the nine-speed you've got to check the box and get the bigger motor. But we've got pretty good fuel economy with the six-speed, and quite frankly, the diesel is the true fuel economy play on this vehicle."
Our sole available choice was the base 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder engine paired to a six-speed automatic. It seemed quiet enough on the highway, thanks to noise cancellation provided by the audio system and an abundance of sound-deadening material. But it was slow to respond after braking through the tight turns, which was probably a combination of the engine's modest 170 hp and 203 lb-ft of torque, the transmission's limitations and perhaps the altitude's effect on the power output.
Given the Equinox's nicely controlled handling and the suspension's ability to soak up the bumps and potholes we encountered, the power output was rather disappointing. Although it was possible to awkwardly induce shifts with the gear lever, I couldn't help wishing for paddle shifters in the corners.
While we'll have to wait to see if the Equinox's new powertrains match the impressive handling, the more compact size and better manoeuvrability should help it chase down segment leaders. And with its all-in base price of $26,995, including PDI, is should finally be able to succeed.