There is hope for the diesel. I just spent a week in the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox LT turbodiesel, a compact SUV new for 2018, and got 42 mpg without trying to be a model driver. A 950-mile run from Atlanta to New Jersey cost $70 in fuel. A flight the same day was $193 minimum with two stops, or $612 nonstop. Vehicles like the Equinox diesel could play an important role in fuel conservation in the years leading up to a more electrified future.
Against this, there’s a significant diesel premium compared with the gas-engine. This long-distance cruiser can’t be had with adaptive cruise control, and some of the other options depend on trim lines and options packages. That’s too confusing for safety features that, in 2018, ought to be standard.
I put more than 2,000 mostly highway miles on the Equinox LT all-wheel-drive diesel. My test car was stickered at $35,485, including $945 shipping and three options that provided an 8-inch touch screen (instead of 7 inches), six USB jacks instead of four, a 120-volt AC jack, a sunroof, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and a color multi-information LCD in the instrument panel (Sun & Infotainment package), rubber floor mats ($200), and dealer-installed wheel locks ($65). Last year I drove the just-shipped gas-engine 2018 Chevrolet Equinox and found it a big improvement over the first two generations. Both gas and diesel models rode and braked well, though highway expansion joins were sometimes intrusive in my tests, mostly by virtue of the short wheelbase of compact vehicles.
The Equinox has been downsized from midsize to compact SUV and lost 400 pounds in the process. That makes it more competitive in the red-hot small SUV segment. It’s now 183 inches long (5 inches less than before), 73 inches wide, and 65 inches tall. The diesel version skips past the entry L and LS trims, and is offered on the LT trim level with fabric seats, and on Premier with leather and more features. All-wheel-drive versions add $1,700 to the price. The diesel is a closer match against the 1.5T on performance and fuel economy, and carries a premium of $2,200.
Equinox Diesel on the Road
The Equinox diesel starts up with more clatter than the gasoline version. The engine can still be noticed at idle and accelerating from a stop. As you get going, the difference fades, and you can’t tell it’s a diesel at highway speeds. Low-speed acceleration feels vigorous thanks to the diesel’s significant low-end torque, but to reach highway speed, 60 mph, takes 9-10 seconds, which is not particularly quick. Auto stop/start can’t be disabled, but it restarts quickly, every time.
The EPA rates the Equinox diesel at 28 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, 32 mpg combined; the front-drive diesel is 28-39/32. In comparison, the AWD 1.5T gas-engine Equinox is rated at 24/30/26. The highway mpg is the best of any compact SUV, and city mileage is topped only by a pair of hybrids, the Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue. With the all-wheel-drive Equinox diesel, I got 46 mpg in highway driving going a bit over the mostly 65 and 70 mph interstates; at a steady 60 mph, I got 47 mpg. With a 15-gallon fuel tank, I could drive about 600 miles. For every three fill-ups in most compact SUVs, you’ll only need to make two. During my week with the Equinox diesel, I filled up or topped off five times.
For an SUV not cut from the premium Audi-BMW cloth, the Equinox handles reasonably well. The cockpit is nicely finished, although there are some hard plastic surfaces. The fabric seats never felt hot or sticky and won’t feel cold in winter. Even with the 2018 downsizing, the front and rear seats are roomy for adults. Cargo space was reduced with the 2018 Equinox. It’s 30 cubic feet versus 38 for the 2017 sales leader Toyota, and 64 versus the RAV4’s 73 cubic feet of storage with the rear seat folded down. Oddly, the diesel can only tow just 1,500 pounds, while the 2.0-liter Equinox can tow 3,500.
Great Infotainment, Passable Driver Assists
MyLink, Chevrolet’s information, entertainment, and telematics system, works well because it doesn’t go overboard on alternative control methods. There is a touch screen, largish buttons, and a smallish volume knob, but no tuning knob. My car came without on-board navigation, but that still let me use Apple or Google nav, or OnStar-downloaded directions that are voice prompts plus turn arrows (but no maps). OnStar’s telematics modem can also be used for Wi-Fi connections; unlimited access is $40 a month and also includes connected and turn-by-turn navigation. Four USB jacks come standard.
On the Equinox, the Teen Driver app rats out your kid if the car goes too fast, engages traction control, or uses wide open throttle. Parents can set a cap on audio volume, and the audio is muted until the front seat belts are fastened. The car also had GM Marketplace, an evolving place to run phone apps for Shell and ExxonMobil; fast food restaurants and mainstream restaurants such as Dunkin’, Starbucks, Waffle House, TGI Friday, and the like; also hotels. Because of fears of driver distraction, some apps are limited; with Dunkin’, for example, you can order only the last three things you bought. Marketplace usage doesn’t count against the car’s data minutes if you don’t have the unlimited plan.
As for driver assists, the Equinox has room to improve. My LT diesel trim line came standard with blind spot detection, rear parking sonar, and rear cross traffic alert. The Sun & Infotainment package provides better infotainment plus the sunroof, but adds no driver assists. On the Premier trim line, the $4,515 Confidence & Convenience II package includes low-speed forward emergency braking, lane keep assist, surround view cameras, a vibrating Safety Alert Seat, and automatic high beams, plus many convenience features including the sunroof, on-board navigation, Bose audio, a ventilated driver (only) seat, a heated steering wheel, and heated rear seats. The Toyota RAV4 has full-range adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist standard, called Toyota Safety Sense; and Honda C-RV has them on all trim lines except the bottom, called Honda Sensing. Honda makes blind spot detection standard on all but the entry trim, while Toyota makes it available as an option (again except on the entry trim).
The Equinox’ list prices are high for a non-premium compact SUV. A loaded gas-engine all-wheel-drive Equinox would cost $4,500 more than a loaded Toyota RAV4.
Should You Buy the Equinox Diesel?
If you’re looking for a mainstream compact SUV with a diesel engine, the Chevrolet Equinox is your only choice. The Mazda CX-5 has been announced with a diesel engine (back in 2016 for the 2018 model year), but it still hasn’t shipped. Among premium compact SUVs, the Equinox sibling GMC Terrain uses the same 1.6-liter diesel.
BMW has the midsize X5 offered as a diesel, but not the compact X3; Mercedes-Benz, once the king of diesels, sells none in the US this year. Diesel passenger vehicles make up 2 percent of the US market by sales, most of them big SUVs and pickup trucks. The number of diesel models for sale fell in the wake of cheating on emissions tests, primarily by Volkswagen. For city driving, the hybrid version of the Toyota RAV4 would be a solid competitor. The RAV4 would get better city mileage and the Equinox would triumph handily on the highway.
The break-even point for the Equinox diesel, where diesel’s lower per-mile driving costs outweigh the price premium, would be on the high-side of 100,000. Using my 42 real-world diesel mpg, which most drivers should be able to match, against the 30 highway mpg rating of the gas-engine Equinox 1.5T, and using the AAA’s late-May average fuel prices of $3.20 a gallon for diesel (plus $5 for a gallon of diesel exhaust fluid good for 10,000 to 12,000 miles), versus $2.96 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline, yields a cost per mile of 9.07 cents for diesel and DEF; 9.87 cents per mile for gasoline. Divide the difference per mile, 1.79 cents, into the $2,200 price delta, and you need 123,000 miles of driving to break even. And that assumes all-highway driving. Assuming two-thirds of the miles are highway miles, you’d need 136,000 miles for the break-even point at today’s fuel prices.
For some buyers, the Equinox will make a lot of sense, since it’s a currently unique creature with several big pluses: fuel efficiency, a useful infotainment system, lots of USB jacks, and good crash safety ratings. It would be more desirable if it had adaptive cruise control. Better still for safety would be if Chevrolet made the core standard features standard and gave them a memorable name.
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