Monday, April 22, 2013

The Cheap Jeep

In 1995, I went shopping for a Jeep Wrangler. Came home with an Infiniti. I'm not a great outdoorsman. I get itchy if I walk too close to a planter at the mall. 

The Wrangler is a true American icon. And while the Grand Cherokee is the father of the modern SUV movement, the rest of the lineup has not enjoyed any measure of celebrity. This is especially true for Jeep's twin small offerings, the Compass and Patriot.

Built during the recession on a platform hewn from the old Dodge Caliber, the only practical difference between these two Jeeps are their distinct body styles, which were intended to have gender-specific appeal—"traditional Jeep" Patriot for dudes, curvy Compass for chicks.

Yes, Enterprise. I'd be happy to be your Compass chick for a week.

When FIAT's Sergio Marchionne took the helm at Chrysler, Compass got one of the best mid-cycle facelifts I've ever seen (too late for you, Joan). It went from dowdy, plastic frumpmobile to Grand Cherokee, Jr. And when outfitted in top Limited trim, the saddle leather interior is a thing of beauty.

But Enterprise didn't rent me a Limited. They rent the NoTech™ Black Plastic Edition, in which the apex of technology is an AUX jack on the 2-knob LED radio. The manual driver's seat moves fore/aft and reclines. No lumbar or height adjustment. The latter is bad news, considering the high beltline and giant blind spots on the Compass. The dash and doors are awash in a half dozen textures of hard black plastic, punctuated with occasional bright chrome. The plastic hand grab on the hatch is scandalously cheap, like a dollar-store recycling bin. Yet everything is tight. Nary a rattle or squeak from all that petroleum product.

The ride impressed. Chrysler got something right when it comes to smooth, compliant cruising, as the ride in the Compass reminded me immediately of the Chrysler 200. Unexpectedly refined for a CUV. The 2.4 liter fourbanger isn't in a rush to do anything, but power wasn't significantly compromised when 4WD was locked. And 30mpg highway ain't bad.

Dev1 and Dev2 got pretty comfortable in the Compass. It's certainly not as commodious as the Chevy Equinox. Adults might bump elbows in the front seat, but back seat passengers (at least up to 6'1") don't have to assume a fetal position.

Nimble, solid, and smooth, Compass makes a darn good basic 4WD daily driver for about $20k. Especially for those, like me, who exist in the snow belt. Start clicking the options and a decked-out Limited can rise above $30k. At that price point, it's best to shop and compare.

Kudos to Colleen at Enterprise, by the way. She had keys to the Compass and an Impala. She already knew which ones to hand me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Changing Seasons in the Equinox

I only got a taste of the brutal Chicago winter this year. It's a pure-evil cold that acts like it hates you, on a personal level. The snow is gone, but when it was snowy here, why did the fates have me behind the wheel of the Impala and Grand Caravan? Why did my Equinox arrive so late? I'll dispense with my existential quandary and move on.

The Chevrolet Equinox is a mid-size CUV and sister-ship to the GMC Terrain. It's a tidy execution of Chevy's current design language, which means it's attractive inside and out. This Black Granite Metallic LT AWD example was well equipped with Chevys MyLink system, back-up camera, power everything, alloy rims, sunroof, heated seats, and more. Wide doors make for easy entry and exit. Pleasant, masculine cloth covers the firm seats and is adorned with contrasting red stitching. It's easy to get familiar with controls, although I found the wiper control stalk to be particularly confounding. Who puts a rocker switch on the tip of a stalk? MyLink is essentially similar to my Buick's IntelliLink, so pairing my phone was a no-brainer.

Equinox was the best rental yet for my purposes here in Chicago.

Chevrolet is located on the first rung of the GM brand ladder. And the divisional difference in terms of cabin comfort and refinement is immediately apparent when comparing Chevy to the next level up (Buick). The Chevy's cabin surfaces are all hard plastic. Seats are stiff yet comfortable. And while features are plentiful, some are lacking simple and inexpensive touches that leave me scratching my head. Perhaps these nuances help to differentiate the escalating eleganza when graduating to the next GM class. But why have auto-down windows that don't also have auto-up? Why not have trajectory markings on the back-up camera image?

For our interior discussion, I've decided to give my developers the Seussian monikers: Dev1 and Dev2. Dev1 had nothing but good things to say about the comfort of the Equinox. Svelte and 5'8", he fits into just about anything and loved our time in the FIAT 500. Dev2, however, is 6'1" and a self-proclaimed "Big Guy". He found the adjustable back seat of the Equinox supremely accommodating. Leg room was outstanding. His only gripes came from the front seat, where he felt as though his shoulder was jammed against the B pillar. I found the driving position just right, thanks to power seat adjustability and the tilt/telescope steering wheel. Blind spots, while huge, are mitigated by convex mirror segments on both sides.

On the road, the Equinox is well planted in corners for a tall vehicle. The taut and communicative ride is even smooth over the low, raised center islands that Chicagoans can legally thump over. Turning radius is pretty wide—A u-turn became a k-turn inside 3-1/2 lane widths. The sound insulation deficit (when compared to Buick products) is most evident during hard acceleration. The 4-cylinder engine wails as the transmission downshifts, returning modest propulsion compared to the din. Equinox is no cruise missile with this engine. The 182 HP 4-cylinder returns about 20/29 mpg. Upgrade to the 301 HP V-6 and get the thrust you want, but pay at the pump with a 16/23mpg return.

After a week behind the wheel, I have to say that Equinox was the best rental yet for my purposes here in Chicago. While the Grand Caravan certainly gave us more room that we could ever need, it was a lot of barge to haul around. And the fuel economy of some of the micro-car offerings was great, but we suffered a bit with comfort and entry/exit ease. The Chevy Equinox LT AWD came packed with the right amount of equipment, carried us and our stuff in great comfort, wasn't too thirsty at the pump, and was just the right size for gliding through traffic and easy parking.

As for its handling in the snow, I'm hoping not to find that out until after the NEXT equinox.