First Drive – 2018 Chevrolet Equinox Diesel

For over a decade Volkswagen was the leader in both number of models available with diesel and overall number of diesels sold.  The recent exit of VW, perhaps permanently, has left a hole in the market – one that Chevrolet is eagerly trying to fill.  The Chevrolet Equinox diesel is perhaps the best case-for-diesel model ever as it offers better-than-hybrid fuel economy in a very usefully size package.  We applaud Chevrolet for making this vehicle available, but, the question is – is it any good and will it help repair the image of diesel engines as a whole?

Pros:

  • Diesel engine is incredibly quiet, even at idle and at load
  • EPA rated 40 mpg will be easily exceeded, drivers may see 45 or more
  • Space for 5 passengers
  • Great Technology Options

Cons:

  • It is a 1.6 liter, don’t expect much in the way of power
  • Styling is blander than bland
  • Options get expensive quickly
  • Build quality behind others in the segment

Price as tested: 40,972.00

Summary

Is the Equinox a good compact SUV, absolutely.  Is the diesel engine the best engine choice, we think so.  While the power delivery was disappointing, we realize that the Equinox has plenty of power for the average driver.  Coupled with unparalleled fuel economy, it is a great option for families that travel lots of miles.

Introduction

We were excited/thrilled/surprised when Chevrolet announced that they would make the next-generation Equinox available in diesel.  Honestly we were probably incredulous more than anything else – we had seen many, perhaps over a dozen, diesel models “announced” only to never physically appear.  From the Tiguan to the Mercedes E-Class, there have been lots of diesel disappointments throughout the years.  When release date was pushed back to “Late 2017” and then “model year 2018” we began to temper our expectations.  Now, however, the Equinox diesel is for real and available on dealership lots.

Engine

The Equinox diesel uses Chevrolet 1.6 inline 4-cylinder diesel engine, referred to as the LH7 engine.  This is the same powerplant used in the Cruze diesel – this makes sense in that both the Cruze and Equinox share the same platform –  and it has been used in Europe since 2015.

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This 1.6L began as a joint Fiat-GM venture before that partnership fell apart and is assembled in Hungary.  It includes the latest diesel technology including variable-nozzle turbocharger by Borg-Warner, swirl-flaps in the intake tracts, newest-generation Bosch common-rail injectors running at around 2,000 bar and third-generation SCR – SCR is the exhaust aftertreatment system through DEF/AdBlue, and this latest generation is more durable and, importantly, easily meets the emissions requirements set forth by CARB/EPA.

Fuel Efficiency

The main draw of a modern, small displacement diesel engine is fuel efficiency, and in that regard Chevrolet hits a home-run.  The EPA rating of 39 mpg highway is better than ANY other compact SUV, including hybrids.  The EPA cycle is famous for drastically under-rating highway fuel efficiency on diesel engines, so, we expect 40-41+ to be a realistic number – some efficiency nuts that drive with a light pedal may break 50…pretty amazing considering the size of this vehicle.

Power

For such a small engine, this LH7 unit puts out a fair bit of power – 240 ft/lbs along with 137 horsepower.  If you are familiar with VW TDIs, these numbers will sound familiar as they are nearly identical to VW’s Gen1 engine (140 hp/237 lbs-ft).  We came away from our Cruze diesel manual test drive largely impressed.  However, the Equinox is carrying around another 500 lbs, nevermind being able to fit more cargo and has an automatic transmission.

While we applaud efforts to put smaller engines into bigger cars for the purposes of fuel economy, we think this combination went a bit too far.  From standstill/merging power is not confidence inspiring, leading to worries about gaining enough speed to make the merge smooth.  In fairness, even though the car didn’t give the feeling of pushing you back in your seat we were able to merge onto both local highways and interstates without any real issues, but we did have to fully depress the accelerator pedal to do so.  

One thing that did impress was the smoothness and quietness of this motor.  GM is throwing around the marketing term “WhisperDiesel” – which is a lame name – and it is probably the quietest diesel we’ve seen yet.  Noise at idle is less than a lot of direct-injection gasoline engines and even at load the engine noise does not increase significantly.  The noise is so well dampened that it is hard to tell that the engine is under load at all. 

Transmission

Manufacturers have been increasing the number of gears in their automatic transmissions – recent Mercedes diesels came with 7 speed transmissions for years, while BMW is using a new 8-speed.  Tall overdrive gears improve highway efficiency significantly, so, it was surprising to us that Chevrolet attached their traditional 6-speed unit to the 1.6L diesel.  The 2.0 turbocharged gasoline motor gets a new 9-speed unit, as does the Cruze diesel, so we are disappointed the Equinox diesel got stuck with a lesser unit.  The 39 mpg highway rating is pretty good, so if we were to guess there probably isn’t much room for improved efficiency even with the 9-speed, which is certainly more expensive.  Luckily the transmission seems well tuned to deal with the power/weight deficiency, though it does seem reluctant to downshift. (a common complaint)

Interior & Options

We tested the Premier edition, which had nearly every option available including heated & cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, safety features like auto-braking, collision warning, lane tracking and lane keep assist, full LED headlights with auto-high beam and steering adjustments.  Moving to the rear, this Premier edition featured heated rear seats, an option we found surprising since it is rare even on premium cars.

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The front seats were comfortable enough, though the rear seats were largely flat and contoured – probably to allow them to fold “flat” when needed.  Legroom was plentiful in the rear and the rear seat back offers two positions – one which Chevrolet claims is the “recline” position but should really be understood as the “comfortable” position, with the other one understood to be uncomfortably upright.

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Chevrolet has made a very strong push to modernize their whole fleet with the newest in-cab entertainment and safety options.  Coming from the world of German-engineered vehicles, who have had these systems for year now – including the Mercedes COMMAND system, BMW iDrive, Audi MMI etc – we have one thing to say: these Germans NEED to learn from Chevrolet.  The Equinox in-dash system requires zero instructions or training, with no confusing buttons or trackpads (really, MB, what were you thinking?).  The system has a high-center mounted, large touchscreen (capacitive) display with clear, large buttons and (mostly) easy to read text.  It was extremely refreshing to get into a car where the systems made sense right from the get-go.  Things that *should* be buttons, like HVAC controls and seat heaters, had their own buttons that were well laid out and easy to understand.  Apple CarPlay – check. Android Auto – check.  

Body/Styling

The Equinox is what it is: a mass-market “compact” SUV designed to appeal to the largest number of buyers possible and keep the starting MSRP low.  What all the means is that this thing is BORING.  Some vehicles, like the Mazda CX-5, reflect designers that were passionate for design and making it part of the Mazda design ethos.  Even the new Tiguan shows a dedication to a design ethic that is modern and elegant while fitting with VW’s overall brand design.  The new Equinox has none of these things – design by committee, totally lacking in any Chevrolet “identity”.  Is it ugly?  No, not really, but it isn’t attractive either.

Conclusion

While the styling is boring, there is no denying that the Equinox a very good compact SUV.  Comfortable, spacious, affordable.  The addition of the diesel engine option makes it stand out that none of its competitors can.  While the power delivery was disappointing, we realize that the Equinox has plenty of power for the average driver.  Coupled with unparalleled fuel economy, it is a great option for families that travel lots of miles.  We’re excited to see these things again in a few years when owners have put 20-60,000 miles on them.  

 

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