Tackling Winter solstice in a Holden Equinox
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It’s coming up the shortest day as I point the Holden Equinox at the alpine spine of the South Island, and ponder the model name. Surely it’d be more appropriate to do this road trip in the now-defunct Pontiac Solstice, give the opportunity of matching the model nomenclature to the time of year?
However, GM’s Mazda MX-5-competitor of the mid-2000s never made it into right-hand-drive markets and now resides in the discard bin along with the whole Pontiac division. The Equinox, meanwhile, comes from Chevrolet, albeit via Mexico, and now fills the medium-SUV gap left by the Captiva in Holden New Zealand’s lineup.
Say what you like about the Korean-sourced Captiva, give into the temptation of adding an ‘r’ behind the ‘C’ in the model name if you have to, the facts are that it found favour with a lot of New Zealand families, and garnering similar popularity is the biggest challenge facing the new Equinox.
It probably doesn’t help that the rebadged Chevy range (with no less than nine variants) is best viewed via the luxurious prism of the $52,990 LT-Z model that I’m driving. For the LT-Z is absolutely packed with stuff to the point where the mysterious omission of radar-enhanced cruise control becomes more of a glaring oversight than it should be. It possibly has everything else a buyer at this price point expects, plus a bit more. The vented/heated front seats, full of support in all the right places, accompany a heated steering wheel to create a leather-clad driving station that is perfectly-tailored to a high-mileage road trip conducted in sub-humane temperatures such as this one (Christchurch – Punakaiki – Christchurch via the Lewis and Arthur’s Passes).
The LT-Z also gives you access to a gesture-controlled power tailgate that responds to human sign language even when said key-pocketer is shivering deliriously because of the freezing morning temperatures. When the tailgate raises up and you quickly dump luggage in there before the zips on the bags freeze solid, it’s mildly cheering to find that the Equinox can accommodate plenty.
All up, you can fit nearly 2000litres of stuff in there with the split-folding rear bench stowed. Even better is that the luggage bay still retains 846litres of stowage with all the rear seats erect again. There’s practicality fused into the rather-fussy design of the Equinox, like the curved rear widow and tailgate that enables the rear door to still close after you’ve filled all the available floor space.
You can then open a rear side door and admire the flat floor (quite a hard trick to pull off in an SUV fitted with all-wheel-drive), and the acres of leg room still available to passengers placed there. Overhead, the huge panoramic sunroof of the LT-Z will ensure none of those rear seat occupants develop ‘cabin fever’. It’s a light, airy, spacious vehicle, this, and even those riding in the middle of the rear bench seem to enjoy plenty of elbow room.
The scenery of this particular drive route, paid for by lots of investment in earthquakes, is entertainment enough, but the LT-Z’s six-speaker Bose audio system can lift driver/passenger moods further by adding an appropriate soundtrack to the drive. Holden’s MyLink system and the LT-Z’s 8” touch screen are easy-to-use features and even though there isn’t the on-board wi-fi of the Chevy Equinox to indulge in on-the-move surfing, there’s still fuss-free connectivity for communications.
The coastal flatlands soon rise into mountains on the drive, and the gradients highlight perhaps the greatest feature of the LT-Z model – it’s willing powertrain. This consists of a 2.0litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine developing 188kW/353Nm and driving a nine-speed automatic gearbox.
In normal driving, just the front wheels are driven, but as the gradients increase and ice begins to cloak the road, it’s easy to pop the LT-Z into all-wheel mode with a push of a button, and get the steering back again. Otherwise, those leading tyres have a bit of a struggle maintaining their grip, as the turbo produces boosted torque flows early in the rev range with no lag in evidence. When the Equinox descends into warmer climes again, it’s best to go back to front-drive mode if you wish to save fuel. Front-drive will record average fuel-use figures beginning with an eight on the trip computer when driving on the open road. Getting torque to all four tyres will see them start with a ‘10’…
After climbing and descending a Lewis Pass draped in white hoarfrost, the twists and turns of the Reefton Spur would see the drive take a turn for the ethereal. With the frost melting into rising mist, the sun streaming through the adjacent beech forest created curtains of light. The Equinox did the dance of 10,000 veils between Springs Junction and Reefton, pleasing this driver with its dependable levels of all-wheel-drive grip, and the healthy amount of road traction intel it delivered via the steering wheel and driver seat cushion. The Holden SUV has a chassis set-up better for corners than expected, with robust stabilisers keeping the body flat and the inside tyres connecting with the road. I found my happy place here, with a spirited-yet-fully-in-control drive through one of Nature’s most spectacular light shows.
Slowing to conform with Reefton’s town limits bought the flip side of the sporty chassis set-up to the fore. The ride quality of the Equinox at urban speeds definitely won’t win it any awards. Those seeking the bump compliance of the Captiva at lower speeds will feel disappointed, while those wanting to banish themselves of that previous Holden SUV’s sloppy cornering at higher speeds will find that an Equinox fits the bill nicely.
This is where the rubber meets the road on the question whether the Equinox is the appropriate product to replace the Captiva. For the North American-sourced SUV is built more to mannish tastes than the Korean one. Getting the Equinox down to a similarly affordable price position as Captiva also requires discarding lots of the things that make this LT-Z model so great. The engine becomes a lesser 1.5 turbo-petrol that hardly gets its running shoes on by the time 2.0 rips from 0-100kmh in seven seconds. Gearboxes shed ratios like a possum sheds fur when the coming spring equinox arrives. As for the all-weather handling security of 4wd, forget about it.
By the time you reach the $35,990 ($29,990 on special offer at the moment) entry price of the Equinox range, you’ve got a fine alternative to a used mid-sized SUV, but no longer one that’s challenging for class leadership in the new medium SUV segment. But then, you do get that spacious, well-packaged body that has been given a five-star crash test rating. And if it does look a little odd at first, the reaction to the design of the Equinox will bloom into appreciation for some.
It certainly grew on me over two days of winter driving, traversing some of our finest roads in an Equinox LT-Z. Even though it was solstice at the time.