Holden Equinox: A whole new day

Holden’s new entry into the mid-size crossover scene is here in force. But how much strength does it add to a well-subscribed scene?

EVERYONE knows the Equinox.

Everyone in America, that is. Chevrolet has been building this small crossover for more than a decade and it has sold more than two million, a count that makes it GM’s most popular sport utility Stateside.

Now for phase two: A world tour as a central figure in the General’s grand globalisation plan. Some 116 countries will see this five-seater. And though we’re late at least we're not last; actually beating Australia, albeit by mere weeks.

It’s a Holden, of course, albeit by marketing intent, obviously. Although GM’s fully international styling continuity is coming together, from even casual scrutiny it’s easy to see, first, that this product ain’t from anywhere other than America and, second, that it’s 'Australisation', insofar as the look goes, goes little further than a change of badge and grille on the outside and steering wheel shift within.

However, the Melbourne crowd wants to reinforce that there’s a world of change in feel. Lion-badged Equinox models were subject to engineering development at Holden Australia, with retuned suspension hardware, a firmer damper tune and electric power steering recalibration all aiming to deliver a sportier, firmer more reactive driving feel.

This aspect was truly put to the test on the media preview, which centred in New Plymouth and took us up the coast toward Mt Messenger before diverting inland to Ohura then back down the Forgotten World Highway, out to Inglewood and back to the country’s Energy Capital.

A few hundred kilometres, a few thousand corners and no small amount of gravel for good measure. If any run was to put the spotlight on this car’s strengths and weaknesses, it had to be this one.

Will owners even be so adventurous? Holden cites this as being a ‘family-focused’ product whose buyer type is domestically-settled … so yeah, maybe not so much. 

Simply putting the city first is not such a narrow buy-in. The medium crossover sector is very much the place to be; SUVs are outselling cars and running on pace with one-tonne utes and this is the top-performing sector. Except, of course, for Holden.

Just their luck that the category exploded into action pretty much straight after they dropped the Captiva Five in 2015. For sure, it was high time for the Korean car to move on, but even so, Holden NZ admits that, with nothing to offer until now, it has truly suffered.

Now they’re rushing to make amends. This five-chair car comes to us in force – nine variants with five levels, and a mix of two- and four-wheel drive (which carries a $3000 premium), six and nine speed automatic transmissions, three turbo engines - a pair of petrols (127kW/275Nm 1.5 and 188kW/353Nm 2.0-litre) and, from early next year, a 100kW/ 320Nm 1.6 diesel (also with a $3k premium). The whole caboodle from $35,990 through to $59,990.

That’s a lot of choice, perhaps too much, HNZ marketing boss Marnie Samphier readily admitted during our drive. She says it is entirely possible the line might be slimmed over time. “We’ll work out what’s popular, what’s not … it’s easy to make changes if they are required. We’ll let the customer decide.”

You can see why they’ve started with a shotgun approach. Coming out strong reminds the market they’re back in the game and also allows latitude to sort out exactly sure what buyers want. All they know is that front-drive is on the rise and that diesel interest is declining, yet might still kick back into life should petrol prices rise beyond tipping point. Private purchasers are also becoming more important regardless that the category’s kingpin, Toyota’s RAV4, feeds exclusively (Holden says) on rental and fleet sales.

So many makes sense. On paper. From our experience, it became pretty patent that the idea that Holden is starting out with an Equinox for everyone isn’t quite on the button. In reality, for all the choice, it might quickly pan out that only some variants fully touch your expectation.

Holden is rightly proud in it having a lot of special features - everything from a driver seat alert (which, uniquely and rather oddly, sends vibrations through the seat sides and base to support the usual flashing lights and electronic squawks that trigger when collision and blind spot warnings trigger) to that snazzy nine-speed, its clever all-wheel-drive and a variety of active and passive safety systems. But heed the subliminal message about every one of these being crucial to ensuring the optimal Equinox ownership experience (and perhaps they are) and the selection reduces considerably. Many of these features are by no means range-wide.

What also muddies the water is that there are effectively two versions of the entry model: The LS and and LS Plus. There's total mechjanical commonality: So, front drive, purely with the smaller petrol and six-speed, running 17-inch rubber. Plus a seven-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/ Android Auto, passive entry pushbutton start and rear park assist with a camera.

And snazzy active safety features? That's the Plus. Holden is continuing a strategy it first tried out with Astra; in that it asks you pay $4000 to get those accident-avoiding assists that keep ANCAP and the NZAA smiling. In addition to implementing automated emergency braking, forward collision alert with lane departure warning and lane keep assist, the Plus also throws in automatic high beam assist and rain sensing wipers.

Happy with that? Personally, it seems an unnecessary palaver, not least because Holden NZ itself accepts the with/without ploy won’t really sway sales one way or another. Either way, they suggest, the LS will be a minor performer.

Their money is more on the next rung up LT, which in its $43,990 petrol form offers the cheapest access to the 2.0-litre drivetrain and the diesel, albeit also in front drive.

To my mind, a better pack leader should be the LTZ, that can be had in front-or four-wheel-drive in 2.0-litre petrol, or all-wheel-drive with diesel.

With a six-speaker Bose stereo, wireless phone charging, 19-inch wheels, park assist, leather, front and rear seat heating, power driver seat, hands-free power tailgate, LED lamps, chrome roof rails and door handles, it lends itself more obviously to the private buyer set that Holden has prioritised.

All the same, these versions – which span from $49,990 to $55,990 – and the highest rung ‘V’ models (which add power adjustability to the front passenger seat, a fan that blows air through the bases of both front chairs, a heated steering wheel and also, most obviously, a massive dual panoramic sunroof) certainly reinforce why the brand also cites that Equinox owners will likely be “professionals earning above average incomes.”  

The LTZ V is the model we spent the majority of time in during the drive programme and, I’d have to say, it’s not at all a bad ride; comfy, lots of cool stuff, the smartest looks.

But even though Holden cites that the high fliers are lineball with the expensive editions of the Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander, surely they’re hoping also that buyers will remain as blissfully unaware as they themselves seemed to be (given it never got a mention during the official sales spiel) of Skoda’s Kodiaq – which, for no more money, has two more seats, heaps more kit, more space, more grunt.

And that’s simply a spec shakedown. Sizing the Equinox up against its rivals does somewhat put the spotlight on it being a somewhat quiet American, if not so much in size - at 4652mm long, 1843mm wide, 1661mm high and has a 2725mm wheelbase, it is 76mm longer, 7mm narrower, 86mm lower and with an 18mm-longer wheelbase than the Captiva 5 i- as in street presence. Even though it has all the elements of generic GM design, you'd have to think this is a car in which more emphasis has gone into its engineering than its shape.

Most effort has gone into its presenting a bold face: The sharply styled, chrome-heavy front end features projector-beam headlights, LED daytime running lights, while the horizontal tail-lights – LED on higher-spec variants – give a wide stance. From other angles, notably in profile, it’s less interesting, however. The profile presents an interesting touch with that odd-shaped rearmost window shape and a Z-strake down the sides, but overall the pizzazz is subdued.

Sometimes subtle designs last better than loud ones, but it does seem disturbing that there’s every possible potential for anyone lacking awareness about how long this model has been around for this car might well be left with impression that what we are seeing is a mid-life refresh of something well-established, when reality is that the covers only came off globally just a year ago.

The cabin is certainly usefully sized and generally well organized and the topmost trim level uses a nice mix of leather and soft-touch plastics, but cheaper materials creep in as you move down the price ladder. Be thankful about Holden’s insistence that every edition gets the intuitive MyLink infotainment system and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Without this, it’d be dullsville.

Where it goes large is on seat size and cabin space; there are no if’s about butt size here. The rear seat is also well shaped, provides plenty of room, and can recline slightly; though in one example it seemed to be doing so without human intervention. This was the same car that also presented an occasional thunk from the front suspension. Just saying.

A removable false cargo floor and articulating seat-bottom cushions create a flush, uninterrupted cargo floor with the 60/40-split rear seatbacks folded, but only the most expensive editions come with luggage covers. Or they should have. Apparently someone forgot to include these for the first cars to NZ.

Cargo cpacity? Thought you’d ask. With all seats in place, the Equinox can swallow 846 litres of cargo and with the second row folded it can take 1798L. This is well above that of the Mazda CX-5’s 403/1560 capacity and the Mitsubishi Outlander’s 477/1608L.

Only the petrol models were on the launch. Starting with a 1.5-litre for the first road section, a laidback run up the coast, and then transferring to the brawnier mill for the more demanding driving proved a good idea.

It’s not as the 1.5 is downright slow, but though actual kerb weights as are hard to track down as lost Inca gold, this is clearly a hefty car, carrying quite a few more kilos than the Astra with which it (more or less) shares an underpinning, and the fact that Holden doesn’t provide a 0-100kmh time, rates it as being up to towing no more than 1500kg (500kg less than the others) does lend a certain impression which the drive certainly did nothing to erode.

The engine itself does create a decent amount of low-end torque, but I’d suggest the six-speed auto doesn’t always make the most of the output. There’s an over-eagerness to shift into higher gears, presumably to benefit the cited optimal overall economy of 6.9 litres per 100km. Engine noise is well contained but the example I drove, wholly on tarmac, was fighting a losing battle to contain tyre roar over coarse chip.

The high-end all-wheel-drive 2.0-litre models we switched for the remainder of the day reinforced just as immediately that this drivetrain is the main game for Equinox.

A replacement for a 3.6-litre V6, making good use of twin scroll turbo tech to compensate for downsized capacity, it’s a very likeable unit. It has much more life and is far more refined and the marriage with this new automatic is much better counselled; the shifts are smooth and well programmed. The extra oomph is far more easily accessible, too. Again, it’s not an outright rocketship but, all in all, it seems a much better package to sit behind, not least when the car is going to be fully-loaded. The examples we drove almost always had three adults aboard – two journos up front and a poor brand rep hanging on for dear life in the back – and the mechanicals rarely felt strained for it.

In saying that, there is some operability weirdness. Manual shifting capability, for instance. It’s possible in the transmission’s L setting but can be operated only by an awkward trigger on the gearshifter (what feel like shifter paddles on the back of the steering wheel spokes are, in fact, radio controls).

The all-wheel-drive setup is also … erm .. interesting. Actually, make that frustrating.There's facility to default to front-drive by decoupling the rear axle in the interest of fuel economy. A good idea, but is it one you need religiously apply? The saving is slight – a mere two percent difference – and the car feels more stable and lays down its power better in AWD. Even if that were not the case, the turn-off would be the awkward processese involved.

Disengagement from four to two is easy enough. It's the reset to AWD that's borderline daft, this being a two-stage operation that requires using two buttons, a primary one – obviously set up for left-hand-drive (clue: the activation light is much easier to see from the front passenger chair than the driver’s) below the centre console, the other on the steering wheel hub. The one smart thing is that all-wheel drive will remain engaged even if the car is turned off and restarted. 

Handling-wise? It’s a win for Holden that this big American feels more like a big Aussie. Meaning it’s not spectacular nor even particularly agile, but well-damped and safe, solid and secure.

The MacPherson strut front and four-link independent rear suspension setup is a good start, obviously, but the Holden team’s rework very likely shines brightest on metal roads. The  car’s poise on gravel really impressed; it felt nicely balanced, chuckable even - deep off-camber shoals didn’t overly disturb it. The on-seal operation is good, too; by and large, it soaked up bumps with little quiver through the cabin. There wasn’t a lot of body roll nor any particular sensation of body float. Given that they ride on bigger wheels and low-profile tyres, I’m not quite sure how the pricier cars can seem quieter than the base item, but they are. Road and wind noise in all the 2.0-litres I experienced was impressively hushed.

The steering is nicely weighted, Holden’s rework has reduced the amount of play on-centre - there’s none of the usual sense of disconnect we associate with American fare – and the brakes did all they were bid.

Summation? It’s great to see Holden back in this segment. Equinox will find its place, of that I'm sure, but it arrives into a ell-contested segment, one in which there's no shortage of bold, stylish, capable and polished product. This car's competence is obvious, it's cachet perhaps less so, Time and sales will tell. On that latter subject ... well, your guess is as good as mine. Holden NZ is fiercely determined to keeo its volume forecast private. You'd have more luck finding out next week's winning Lotto numbers.