Holden finally has what it calls a competitive rival to big-selling medium-sized SUVs such as the Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson and Nissan X-Trail. Its name? Equinox.
Tasked with making up a lot of lost ground against ensconced rivals, the Equinox launches this week as a replacement for Holden's axed five-seat Captiva, a vehicle sold on price alone.
The tagline in Holden’s already expensive ad campaigns says a lot: “Nothing to prove?” it asks. “Prove it”.
We just want the company to prove it can offer a compelling medium crossover in a market brimming with good options, further examples being the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan and Ford Escape.
How does the Lion Brand stand out and establish instant credibility otherwise?
There’s also the small matter that Equinox is the first new Holden badge to launch after the closure of its local manufacturing arm, arriving a few months before the new European Commodore and at least half a year before the Acadia seven-seater.
On paper, the Equinox stacks up. It’s priced competitively between $27,990 and $46,290 before on-road costs and beats most contenders for standard equipment at each grade.
The base $27,990 (manual) and $29,990 (auto) LS gets a 7.0-inch touchscreen, reversing camera, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, LED DRLs, automatic headlights, Active Noise Cancellation and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The $3000 walk up to the $32,990 LS+ adds lane-keep assist, forward collision alert, autonomous emergency braking, small motors in the driver’s seat that buzz/give haptic vibrations when danger is detected, cross-traffic alert, a blind-spot monitor and keyless start.
A further $4000 gets you the $36,990 LT which adds a bigger engine (detailed in a sec), 18-inch wheels, 8.0-inch screen, sat-nav with live traffic updates, front sensors, heated seats, dual-zone climate control and HID headlights.
Throw down a further $3000 above this for the LTZ ($39,990 front-wheel drive, then a further leap to $44,290 with AWD) and you get 19-inch wheels, hands-free power tailgate, park assist, leather seats with heating in both rows, DAB+, a Bose stereo, LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
Finally the range-topping $46,290 LTZ-V adds a massive dual-panel sunroof, heated steering wheel and front seat cooling.
There’s not much missing, bar the odd absence of adaptive cruise control, which wasn’t built into the global program.
Compared with the cars correctly cited by Holden as key rivals — the Mazda, Toyota and Hyundai — its Equinox offers an objectively outstanding list of features, right across the five-variant range. A late entrance countered by a ton of kit.
Of course it’s not just the spec sheets that are important, though the showroom ‘wow’ factor goes a long way. It’s also about how the cabin look and quality makes you feel, and the practicality on offer.
Frankly it’s a mixed bag. The technologies are fine, with decent touch screens and standard phone mirroring, as well as snappy Bluetooth repairing and a wireless smartphone charging pad on the LTZ and above (fitted with a neat nook that’s perfect for an iPhone 7 but too small for any of the new wave of big smartphones).
The ergonomics are also first rate, as are the cabin storage options including a big console, sunglasses-holder and a sizeable set of door pockets. The seat trims from the base funky-pattern cloth to the upper-grades’ soft leather are also good.
On the other hand, it lacks the polish of a CX-5, or a Tiguan/Sportage. The digital instruments are legible but small and a little passé, while some of the plastic trims atop the dash, cowl and doors, and used on much of the switchgear, have a cheap feel.
Build quality out of the Mexico plant where our versions of the Equinox are made seemed pretty good, though one LTZ-V we drove, with about 1200km on it, had a squeak from near the air vent to the right of the steering wheel. An easy fix, at least.
The back seats are great. There’s plenty of bolstering on the sides and base, ample leg-, foot- and headroom (though anyone over 190cm will find the LTZ-V’s sunroof a little restricting) and the availability of rear vents and flip-down cupholders as standard.
Higher grades that have rear seat heating, plus two USB points, a 12V socket and a 230V powerpoint, have proper showroom bling. Buy some tablet mounts and you’ve got one entertaining back-row setup.
On the downside, the seats don’t slide on rails like the Tiguan’s — allowing you to bring your child-seat closer, and liberate a longer cargo area — the sizeable C-pillar gives you inferior outward visibility to a Forester, and the door apertures are smaller than a CR-V’s.
There’s also no ‘5+2’ seven-seater option like the X-Trail, Mitsubishi Outlander and CR-V offer, all of which have a third row for occasional use and peace-of-mind.
At 4652mm long, the Equinox is a relatively big car for the class, and the boot reflects this. It’s got plenty of surface area for a pram, while the floor lifts up to reveal a hidden compartment. Unfortunately there’s only a space-saver spare wheel.
You can also get the de rigeur levers in the rear that flip down the back seats to give you a circa 2-metre loading area with 1800 litres of storage. The only fiddly bit is the fact that you need to remove the middle-seat headrest to get that table-flat loading area, otherwise the left-side part of the split-folding bench sits higher than the right.
There are two Euro 5 petrol engine options powering the Equinox from launch: a 1.5-litre turbo in the LS and LS+, or a 2.0-litre turbo in the LT, LTZ and LTZ-V. A Euro 6 1.6-litre turbo-diesel will arrive in 2018 to cater for that smaller portion of the market.
The entry engine makes a decent 127kW of power and 275Nm of torque, available between 2000 and 4000rpm. It’s mated to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, only comes with front-wheel drive and uses a claimed 6.9L/100km of 91 RON fuel.
It’s a sweet unit, with typical small turbo characteristics such as vibration-free outputs and a decent helping of pulling power from low in the rev band, helped by a generally intuitive 6AT. Urban response is more than sufficient. Forget the displacement, it’s not about that.
It’s the bigger engine that gets the headlines, though. It makes a class-topping 188kW of power (the Ford Escape has 178kW), and 353Nm of torque between 2500 and 4500rpm. It’s matched to a nine-speed automatic gearbox, the same basic setup that’ll feature in the new base Commodores, albeit with a different tune.
Holden claims a 0-100km/h time just over seven seconds, though on the launch we didn’t have a V-Box handy to test this independently. Whatever the time, it has impressive rolling response and a distinctive rasp that it emits from the squared twin pipes.
The 9AT is also pretty intuitive, with the ECU proving capable of shuffling through a plethora of ratios without getting tied up in knots. Hours and hours of calibration at Holden’s Victoria proving ground surely helped that…
“It’s no coincidence,” one of its engineers told us with a knowing nod.
On the downside, there are no paddles for aggressive driving — just a silly button atop the shifter to do that — nor is there even a sports mode that tells the ‘box to hold a lower ratio for better response. It’s a performance engine without a performance mode!
Holden claims fuel use (premium) of between 8.2L/100km and 8/4L/100km on the combined cycle, though we did about 400km over a set of challenging country roads with a lot of hills, plus some motorway time, and got 12.2L/100km. Too high, for a 59L tank.
Another thing that may throw some people is the fact that the stop/start system cannot be switched off.
This engine can be had with front-wheel drive, or an all-wheel drive system that’s a hefty $4300 pricier on the LTZ. It’s your familiar on-demand setup that’s default FWD but shuffles up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the rear when slip is detected, complemented by a hill-descent control system for soft-roading.
It also has a novel button on the transmission tunnel that lets you completely decouple the rear wheels from the AWD system to let them just roll, thereby saving fuel.
The upside of the AWD system is the extra traction, not just on slippery surfaces but also off the line where it puts the torque to the road more convincingly than the FWD. The downside is a sizeable 100kg weight impost, which hurts fuel use.
Perhaps the single most impressive part of the Equinox is the driving experience.
Holden’s engineers have given the car specific suspension calibration for our market, with unique damper tunes, bushes and sway bars. The ride quality over potholes and corrugations, especially on the 17-inch wheels, is equal to the best-in-class Tucson, though the LTZ-V’s 19s take the edge off.
The handling is also ideally suited to a medium SUV, with the pliant suspension soaking up hits and traversing big undulations, but settling the body down rapidly, and the mid-corner roll proving controllable and predictable. Huge tick here.
The Equinox drives more like a hatchback than a crossover. Given a road loop comprising coarse chip motorways, dynamic sequences and corrugated/pockmarked B-roads, there may be no better offering in the segment, though a Tiguan is slicker on smooth surfaces.
The motor-driven power steering has plentiful on-centre feel and low resistance for urban driving. Its calibration is confidence inspiring, because it’s communicative.
The only real bugbear is the upper grade’s massive 12.7m turning circle, a full metre wider than the versions on smaller wheels. What a pain.
From an ownership perspective, you get Holden’s capped price servicing program with 12-month/12,000km intervals, with the first five visits set at: a piece.
At launch you also get a reassuring seven-year/175,000km warranty, though this only lasts until December 31. After that it’s back to the regular three-year term, which seems frankly a fairly cynical ploy to permit people in-market to kick the tyres.
If Holden is/has a brand searching for points of difference in this new era, an agenda-setting warranty — Kia excepted — would be a good tool to arm the dealers with.
Yet after a good first drive of the Holden Equinox we can safely say the product stacks up with the segment leaders, even if it looks rather uninspiring while doing it. Subjective…
From a value, practicality and performance perspective it’s actually first rate. It may not change the game, as it were, but it’s generally an above-average SUV. As it should be.
The issue is instead the Equinox’s late arrival into a crowded segment. How does Holden stand out against a raft of contenders advantaged by long headstarts in market?
Good luck to Holden, armed now with much improved products. It may claim to be chasing buyers with nothing to prove to others, but it sure does have something to prove to them.