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SUVs have been pushed front and centre of Holden’s response to a downturn in sales. And the Equinox, considering it sits in what is now the most popular vehicle segment in Australia, faces the most pressure to perform.

The Holden’s first full year on sale, 2018, was a solid start with all but 5000 units. Yet, as a figure that equates to just three per cent of market share – or 10th place in the category placings – and shows the company faces a challenge to unseat numerous big-hitters. They include the Kia Sportage, which secured eight per cent market share in 2018 with more than 14,000 sales.

Are buyers getting things the wrong way around? Or are there obvious reasons the Equinox has yet to fire?

To find out, we’ve paired the two SUVs in mid-spec petrol forms: Holden Equinox LT versus Kia Sportage Si Premium.


Pricing and features

Astute observers may point out that the Sportage SLi is a more direct competitor to the Equinox LT. And, on price, that would be a fair call. The LT costs from $36,990, which would more naturally match with the SLi’s $36,790 sticker.

Yet, the $32,290 Si Premium – a lower-mid-spec variant as it were – is Kia’s stronger value card.

In our book, the SLi doesn’t fully justify its $4500 premium – unless you place huge emphasis on an electrically adjustable driver’s seat and seats featuring leather accenting rather than being made purely from cloth.

Otherwise, the only other notable gains are simply an electronic park brake, LED combination tail-lights, privacy glass, luggage net, and a slightly larger TFT digital instrument panel display.

The Si Premium shares many more important features with the SLi: 18-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, digital radio, 8.0-inch touchscreen, navigation, JBL audio system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and front/rear sensors.

Holden, in contrast, doesn’t just give the LT extra features over the $32,990 LS+, but also a bigger engine.

The LT can justify its higher cost compared with the Si Premium in other ways. While the Sportage from base Si upwards has lane-keep assist, autonomous emergency braking, fatigue monitoring and high-beam assist, the Holden adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, stability control with added Trailer Sway Control function, a Safety Alert driver’s seat that vibrates in certain hazard-detection scenarios, and
torque vectoring to aid handling. Heated front seats, too.

Not even the Sportage SLi will help match those features.


Interiors

It seems there’s a fine line between ‘compact’ and ‘mid-sized’ in the SUV world. Holden’s Equinox, stretching 4.65m from nose to tail, certainly fits the medium-SUV mould. Kia’s Sportage, at 4.49m, isn’t much longer than a Volvo XC40 that’s described as ‘compact’.

Don’t be misled by the 167mm difference in the length of these models, though. More relevant to cabin space are the wheelbases, and here the Equinox has only an extra 55mm between its axles.

Climb into the back of these SUVs and the rear seats are just as spacious as each other, with no more reason to complain about head, leg or foot room in the Sportage. Each provides ventilation, centre armrest with cupholders, ISOFIX points in the outer seats, and door pockets focused on bottles (with the Sportage’s capable of accepting larger bottles).

A middle passenger may prefer the Equinox for its flat rear floor, whereas the Sportage features a transmission hump. The Equinox also provides 12-volt and USB sockets.

There’s a clear winner for outright comfort, though, as the Equinox’s rear bench feels overly firm and the seatbacks are positioned too far back and without the option of a recline function. (In a previous test, we found the leather-appointed bench in the flagship LTZ-V to be more comfortable.)

The Sportage’s seatbacks not only feature adjustable recline, but our testers agreed its bench seat offers just-right cushioning – and the sensation of sitting ‘in’ the seat rather than ‘on’ it as in the Holden.

Plastics are hard and scratchy in the back of the Holden, with materials improving in the front of the cabin, if still mixed in quality. Fit and finish seemed better than we experienced in the Equinox LTZ-V.

The dash design is uninspiring, mind you, and hardly a gigantic visual leap over the cabin of the Captiva model the Equinox replaces. This is very much ‘old Chevrolet’ (the brand from which the Mexican-built Equinox is sourced), especially with those shiny chrome vents.

It’s a huge contrast to the ‘new Chevrolet’ Blazer – also sold in the US market – that looks far more contemporary inside and out, and more in keeping with the latest Opel-sourced products. Alas, the Blazer is left-hand-drive only.

But back to what we do have in Australia, and ergonomics are harder to fault (though the upwardly angled touchscreen display isn’t ideal), while there’s also a decent tactility to buttons. Only the dials feel on the cheaper side.

More effort could have been put into the damping of the console-bin lid, though the bin is usefully deep. Tall door pockets are good for drinks bottles, there’s a sunnies holder overhead, and you get a storage tray for phones (though the space could be more generous). Another two USB ports and 12-volt socket mean the Equinox out-sockets the Sportage.

The Equinox’s MyLink 8.0-inch touchscreen display, aside from its strange positioning, features graphics that are neither sharp nor that well designed. The function tabs are all clear and obvious, though.

Fellow tester Rob complained that during his time with the Equinox, he was unable to charge his phone while streaming music, with the MyLink system not allowing Apple CarPlay to be disengaged.

Kia’s vertically positioned touchscreen is easier for eyes, especially as the display, like the rest of the centre stack, is angled slightly towards the driver. The presentation of graphics is smarter, too, though the system didn’t entirely escape Rob’s scrutiny, either.

Rob pointed out that while the Sportage’s Safety Alerts – which provide audible warnings for upcoming speed cameras, school zones and more – could be handy, they were an annoying default. So, you need to manually ‘untick’ the alerts via the touchscreen every time you turn on the car if you don’t want them.

Kia’s choice of cabin materials is underwhelming – virtually all dark, if at least soft in key areas. The dash design isn’t going to have interior designers rushing to copy it, yet it’s the epitome of effective simplicity.

The large group of central buttons, for example, features large fonts that make it easy to locate desired functions on the move. The buttons are well damped, too, while the audio and temp dials feel of a higher quality than those you find in a Golf.

Storage is pretty average. Door pockets are middling in size, the console bin is quite small, and the storage section below the centre stack is awkwardly shaped for most smartphones.

Boots

Neither the Equinox nor Sportage boots stand out for outright space. You’ll find more capacity for your gear in a Honda CR-V or Subaru Forester, for example. No auto tailgates at this pricepoint, either.

The Kia’s boot is particularly basic with just tie-downs, cargo blind and plastic side trays with pull-off lids. There are 60/40 split-fold seats, which are operated via levers at the sides of the outer rear seats.

Holden’s SUV trumps this with release levers in the boot, though partly defeats the useful feature by requiring the centre-middle rear headrest to be removed before the 60/40 seats can go fully flat.

The Equinox LT adds a 12-volt socket in the boot, too, but there are only two tie-down points (to the Sportage’s four) and there’s no cargo blind standard.

There’s some underfloor storage in the Holden, though ideally it wouldn’t feature a hole exposing parts of the vehicle’s bodywork and suspension point. That means a space-saver spare for the Equinox, whereas the Sportage is equipped with a full-sizer.


Ride and handling

Australian engineers from both camps have been involved in developing the ride and handling of these SUVs. Neither team, though, has nailed all elements of the driving experience.

The Kia’s steering disappoints on the open road where almost constant, fiddly adjustments need to be made to the wheel to keep the Sportage tracking straight – a result of inconsistent weighting at, and around, the straight-ahead position. It’s much less of an issue around town.

The handling is otherwise tidy enough, and while the ride could be smoother on country roads, the Sportage’s suspension provides plenty of comfort in built-up areas where the car will spend most of its time.

For buyers with a proclivity to driving enjoyment, they’ll find much appeal in the Equinox.

The steering is among the best in the segment. If a touch on the light side, its smoothness and accuracy are truly commendable, and tied to handling that can be described as relatively fun.

The Equinox is an SUV that enjoys corners rather than just merely copes with them, notably in the way its torque-vectoring system nips at an individual front brake to help the Holden resist pushing wide quite impressively.

There’s no overly firm or crashy ride as a trade-off, either, though the Equinox’s suspension ultimately fails to deliver sufficiently soothing progress for occupants. The ride can be summed up by one of three Js – jiggly, jarring or jittery – with the chosen adjective determined by the quality of the surface.

It’s an unsettled ride we also experienced last year with the flagship LTZ-V (which sits on 19-inch wheels to the LT’s 18s).

When negotiating roundabouts on full lock, we did encounter a knocking sound from the Equinox’s front end. And far from the tightest of turning circles.


Performance and Fuel Economy

Four combustion chambers creating two litres of capacity. That’s about all these two SUVs share under the bonnet.

The Sportage Si Premium’s petrol engine still uses old-school multi-port fuel injection, whereas the rest of the world has moved onto direct injection (including Hyundai’s twin, the Tucson).

The Equinox, more significantly, features a turbocharger that results in a big disparity of outputs. Whereas the Kia produces a measly 114kW and 192Nm, the bicep-flexing Holden brings 188kW and 353Nm to the table. That maximum torque operates between 2500 and 4500rpm, too, while the Sportage’s 192Nm exists at a high 4000rpm.

And it’s no contest on the road.

The Sportage’s performance is adequate if the road is flat and the driver isn’t in a rush. Bring hills or the desire for increased acceleration into the mix and the 2.0-litre petrol starts to struggle and sound harsh.

One trick to help on hills is to switch the Sportage’s driving modes to Sport, which prompts the six-speed auto to hold lower gears. You’ll just want to revert to Normal mode as soon as things flatten out again, otherwise throttle response is too toey.

No such modes in the Equinox, but it doesn’t need them. Its 2.0-litre turbo is always ready and willing regardless of gradient. Always smooth, too. It’s the only engine here that will provide overtaking confidence, such is its mid-range strength. The nine-speed auto also never gets confused by its large choice of ratios, consistently picking the right gear for the occasion – and smoothly.

Urgent getaways from junctions, though, will produce uncivilised tyre-screeching wheelspin. (For an adaptive all-wheel-drive system, you need to step up to the much more expensive $44,290 LTZ.)

There’s a 0.3-litre difference in the official fuel consumption figures, with the Kia’s 7.9L/100km edging the Holden’s 8.2L/100km. Funnily enough, the same difference showed up in our average fuel-use readings (if a litre higher in each case): 8.9L/100km for the Kia versus 9.2L/100km.

The Equinox just requires premium fuel.


Ownership

Kia’s fantastic seven-year (unlimited kilometre) warranty leads here, though at least Holden offers the now industry norm of five years (also unlimited kilometres).

Holden counters with cheaper servicing, though there’s not a huge difference.

The Equinox 2.0L petrol costs $817 to service over three years (or up to 36,000km) and $1565 for five years (or up to 60,000km).

The Sportage 2.0L petrol is $992 for three annual service intervals (or up to 45,000km) and $1879 for five yearly services (or up to 75,000km).

Both manufacturers provide rolling complimentary roadside assistance for owners adhering to service intervals.


VERDICT

There may be a $4700 difference between the Kia Sportage Si Premium and Holden Equinox LT, but that doesn’t give the Korean SUV a real-world value advantage over its US-imported rival.

The Equinox’s vastly better drivetrain would be worth the extra investment alone before the LT’s extra equipment is factored in. (The 2.0-litre turbo is also the pick of the Equinox’s engine range, which also offers a 1.5-litre turbo petrol and a turbo diesel depending on variant.)

In fact, the Sportage we strongly recommend is any version powered by Kia’s excellent 2.0-litre turbo diesel. Unfortunately, it carries a whopping $5400 premium, so in Si Premium spec that would cost $37,690.

For the Equinox, it needs its first update – whenever that’s due – to focus on upgrading the cabin presentation and sorting out the ride comfort. Only then will Holden have a vehicle at the pointy end of the mid-sized-SUV pecking order.

For now, there’s little between these two variants, which are decent offerings without managing to shift out of the middle of the medium-SUV pack.

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