How do you solve a problem like Captiva? If you’re Holden, you replace that Korean-made car with a substantially improved SUV from elsewhere, of course. In fact, Holden’s post-Captiva SUV strategy is built around not one, but two, new-to-Australia models, both sourced from General Motors’ American product lineup. This month, we’ve driven the first of the replacements to arrive: the five-seater 2018 Holden Equinox. Those who’ve been to the United States in the last year will recognise the Equinox as a year-old Chevrolet design – but this Australian version of the Equinox, available with two turbo petrol engines at launch, has seen its dynamics customised at length by Holden’s crack local engineering team.
Though the Equinox was designed entirely in America – and Australian-delivered cars are built in Mexico – Holden’s customisation sees the steering, suspension tune and tyre packages altered from the Equinoxes you find cruising American streets. Holden engineers were involved in the development of this third-generation Equinox for several years, and the local dynamic changes were based around the goal of reining in the softer, floatier nature of the Chevrolet Equinox – the target for the Holden Equinox was a more tied-down, dynamic character that would suit Australian driving tastes.
Unsurprisingly, Holden were keen to focus on the elements of Australian character found under the Equinox’s skin, rather than the American roots, which were given little attention at the car’s national launch. According to Holden’s director of communications, Sean Poppitt, the level of Australian input into the Equinox make it the best-suited SUV for Australian drivers – a group that Mr Poppitt says Holden know better than any other brand. In other words, local Holden manufacturing might have been consigned to history, but the brand hopes to retain its iconic Australian character and special familiarity with local tastes. It’s a lofty goal, but a solid and attainable one, if General Motors continues to allow such a considerable amount of development input from Holden’s 500-strong engineering team on future vehicles.
Having driven a selection of Chevrolet products in the United States, the difference in character in this Australian-tuned product is immediately clear. Holden can walk the walk when it comes to talking up their engineering talents: their top talents like steering guru Tony Metaxas, or suspension master Rob Trubiani, really do know Australian roads. The major changes the team have made – the Australian-specific ride quality, which is supple but planted and free from exaggerated body roll, and the unique steering feel which is weightier and more linear than expected, can be clearly felt from the Equinox’s commanding driving position. Decent tyres, which were selected by the Australians – 17-inch Continentals, 18-inch Bridgestones, and 19-inch Hankooks – mean the Aussie Equinox can endure a higher degree of cornering force. A spirited run through the rain-soaked Glasshouse Mountains in each specification revealed the Equinox to be a confident companion that doesn’t mind being pushed. Sportier drivers will find that this Holden has an unexpected layer of dynamic ability.
Holden haven’t fettled the available engines, but that’s no matter – they’re all pretty good. A 1.6-litre turbo diesel will arrive next year, so for now, the Equinox is available only as a turbo four-cylinder petrol in a choice of 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre displacements. We were surprised to find that the base 1.5-litre turbo producing 127kW/275Nm, to be the standout mill. Despite the small displacement, the 1.5T has more than enough torque on town, nor is overtaking an issue. It’s refined until it’s completely wound out and the claimed fuel economy of 6.9L/100km is fairly miserly. We think it’s a shame that the 1.5-litre is limited to the two entry-level models; we think cheaper versions of the LT and LTZ, at least, should also be offered in 1.5T form. Aside from the base LS model, which comes standard with a six-speed manual, the 1.5-litre is paired to a six-speed torque converter automatic that is as slick and unobtrusive as the well-endowed nine-cog auto in the two-litre.
Most buyers will choose from the LT, LTZ and LTZ-V trims, which come as standard with a larger 2.0-litre turbo making punchy outputs of 188kW/353Nm. As you’d expect from those figures, the bigger engine feels strong all of the time, and in front-wheel-drive form (in the LT or LTZ 2WD), the front wheels can be overwhelmed quickly on a moist surface. The consumption claim blows out to 8.2L/100km and we have a suspicion that the powerful 2.0T will be thirsty around town, but we’ll confirm that with extended testing next month. With all-wheel-drive, which is standard on the LTZ-V and is a pricey $4,300 option with the LTZ, it’s much easier to harness all that power; on a fast blast uphill in the rain, it was clear when torque was transferred to the rear wheels. In all-paw Equinoxes, to save fuel, the driver can effectively disconnect the rear axle with the push of a button on the fly in the cabin. It’s also quiet in the cabin – all auto-equipped Equinoxes have active noise cancelling to reduce engine noise, and it works.
More than ten centimetres longer than a Mazda CX-5, the Equinox sits at the large end of medium SUVs, but it’s strictly a five-seater. This is to protect some space in the range for the incoming Holden Acadia, a larger seven-seater sourced from GM America’s premium SUV specialist, GMC. However, the Acadia won’t arrive before winter, so the ageing Captiva will soldier on for at least another six months as the sole seven-seater in Holden dealerships. Limiting the Equinox to five seats was a decision out of Holden’s control – but at 4,652mm in length, which is 56mm longer than a Honda CR-V, which offers a grade with a reasonably-sized third row – the Equinox could easily have accommodated an optional set of way-back seats that could tuck into the boot floor. Speaking of the boot, Holden claims it’s the biggest in class at 846 litres, but we suspect this measurement exceeds the regular limit of the window line. We’ll measure it independently in our own testing next month.
Outside and in, the Equinox’s design carries over without changes to the Chevrolet product. To our eyes, it’s a handsome SUV. There’s a strong sense of familiarity in the design; the Equinox doesn’t move the design game on, but that’s hardly the point. Linking in well with Holden’s easy-breezy marketing campaign for the Equinox, this car’s unfussy (almost homely) design stands it well apart from boxier, edgier designs like the Skoda Kodiaq. The front end, while designed for the Chevy bowtie, looks right with a Holden lion and there are echoes of the Mercedes-Benz GLE in the steeply raked C-pillar. Dated taillight graphics aside, the Equinox is a good looking rig, especially in dark grey, or the signature shade of burgundy.
Jumping into the Equinox sees the feeling of familiarity return. This might be an all-new product (for Holden), but the basic layout inside is so clear that I felt like I’d driven the car before. It’s a little dark in here – the attractive, optional tan leather option offered on the Chevrolet version is conspicuously missing in Australia – but as with the outside, the Equinox’s uncomplicated interior is a welcome contrast to generally over-complicated modern cabins. In the Holden, buttons are kept to a minimum, with a focus on operating the various car functions through an easy-to-use touchscreen. Unfortunately, the low-end LS and LS+ models have an inferior, inset 7-inch screen; the crisp, responsive 8-inch glass unit in the LT, LTZ and LTZ-V is superior in aesthetics and usability. The standard nature of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto across the range, however, is impressive. The fact that the Equinox has four USB ports – two in the back – plus a household power port in every grade shows that Holden know the family market well.
But a better touchscreen isn’t the only reason to stick to the upper end of the Equinox range; the LTZ 2WD is the value star of the range. At $39,990, the LTZ sneaks in under the key forty grand level, but standard equipment is impressive. A few lashings of chrome and 19-inch wheels drive the look upmarket; inside, heated leather seats replace the LT’s (admittedly classy) heated cloth – and even the rear bench is heated, which kids in the southern Australian states will love on cold days. The LTZ adds an electric tailgate, and sound quality takes a big step up to a six-speaker Bose stereo that sounds pretty convincing. At this key price point, the Equinox bests the CX-5, Kodiaq and Escape for the breadth of standard features.
It’s the price-leading LS base model that makes the least sense, despite the low $27,690 cost of entry (with a six-speed manual that was not available for testing). Interior comfort is fine at the LS level thanks to better-than-average cloth seats, but the lower-end infotainment and the absence of a critical layer of adaptive safety tech – including autonomous emergency braking (AEB) means the LS will be consigned to fleets. The auto-only LS+ ($32,990) brings that safety kit into the fold through the Holden Eye mono camera; AEB, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, forward collision warning, and lane keep assist are all standard from this level. Because it is only a mono camera, adaptive cruise control is not available on any Equinox – an omission that the local Holden team acknowledges as something of a disadvantage.
Holden say that the Equinox has the potential to be the number one SUV among medium SUVs. On first impressions, picking where the Equinox’s talents sit among the current continuum feels pretty easy to place. We don’t feel it displaces the Skoda Kodiaq as this segment’s best all-rounder, but the Holden is in the top third of the class. It’s competitive with the Hyundai Tucson and Ford Escape, and we look forward to putting it into comparisons against each of those cars – plus Volkswagen’s Tiguan. Even if the Equinox isn’t number one, it’s enough that this Holden can be held up for consideration among really good SUVs. That is a substantial achievement – and it’s something the Captiva could never have done. As the first Holden to arrive in a new era of full importing, the Equinox isn’t a bad effort at all.
Key specs (as tested)
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