Fourth Place: 2012 Chevrolet Equinox FWD LTZ

The Chevrolet Equinox competes in the compact category, but it's by far the biggest kid on this playground, as well as the heaviest. It's also the only vehicle in our test group to come to the starting line with a V6 engine -- 3.0 liters, 264 horsepower, 222 lb-ft of torque -- adding $1,500 to the bottom line.

As equipped, our front-drive test vehicle was EPA rated for 17 mpg city/24 highway, lowest in the test group -- it's intriguing to note that in 2013 models the V6 option is GM's even-more-powerful direct-injection 3.6-liter: 301 horsepower, 272 lb-ft of torque, with the same fuel economy ratings.

This is a strong testimonial for the efficiency of direct fuel injection, but if MPG is a top priority the best bet with the Equinox is the standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Although its output -- 182 horsepower, 172 lb-ft of torque -- manages just ho-hum acceleration in a vehicle this size (curb weights can run up to two tons), its 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway ratings (20/29 with all-wheel drive) compare well with the rest of the class.

Fuel economy notwithstanding, test staff gripes with the 3.0-liter V6 had to do with performance. Considering its big edge in power, we expected a little more verve when the foot feed went floorward, but we were disappointed.

On the other hand, the standard 6-speed automatic was a typical GM Hydra-Matic unit -- smooth, responsive and equipped with a manual mode that operates via a little switch atop the shift lever. While this device is far from ideal, it does help to make the most of the engine's powerband.

Other categories on the Equinox's dynamic scorecard drew indifferent responses. The steering was criticized for heavy low-speed effort, and limited tactile information about what was going on with the front wheels. The substantial weight slowed responses in abrupt maneuvers, and the 40-foot turning circle (42 feet with 19-inch wheels) used up a lot of parking lot.

Still, ride quality was reasonably smooth, and the Equinox driver gets a better-than-average view of what's going on around the vehicle, particularly straight ahead.

While size may be a limiting factor in terms of dynamics, it does provide benefits inside. Rear-seat passengers in particular will appreciate the roomy interior, augmented by the rear seat's fore-aft adjustability. Even the center seating position is habitable for more than three blocks, something that can't be said for many 5-passenger vehicles.

However, rear seat roominess does come at the expense of some cargo space -- the Equinox is only mid-pack in this respect -- and the rear seats don't fold completely flat.

Although interior fit and finish didn't quite measure up to the Honda -- one or two trim panels that didn't quite match up, a few uneven panel gaps, some hard plastic saved from looking tacky by attractive graining -- the Equinox comes very well equipped in the LTZ trim level. The list of standard features includes power front seats, leather upholstery, heated front seats, heated power mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, premium audio, a luggage rack, foglights, halogen projector beam headlights, and a power rear liftgate.

The V6 engine added $1,500, 18-inch chrome wheels another $1,000, red metallic paint $325, Chevy's MyLink hands-free smartphone integration $100, and GM's lane departure warning/forward collision alert system, $295 -- $3,220 in options.

The grand total: $33,250, the highest price tag in this group.



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