PLYMOUTH, MI – The former General Motors Corp. struck a winning strategy a couple years ago for its highest-volume products, exemplified most recently in the new-for-’10 Chevy Equinox.

And if the new General Motors Co. is smart, it will stick with that same game plan.

As with the redesigned ’08 Chevy Malibu midsize passenger car, an unqualified home run for GM, perhaps the Equinox’s most impressive feat is its library-like cabin.

The key, GM engineers say, is taking money that could have been spent elsewhere on the vehicle and sinking it into sound-damping materials. For example, the seats on the Equinox can be found in any number of GM vehicles either new to the market or in the pipeline.

So rather than new seats for the 5-passenger CUV, planners put the money towards items such as acoustic glass and triple door seals.

But the smartest dough was spent on acoustic noise-cancelling technology. Much like the Bose headphones some air travelers use to knock down the whine of jet engines and beat fatigue, the Equinox’s technology emits a frequency to cancel out certain noises.

The technology doesn’t cure everything – there still are the familiar booms of most wagons, CUVs and SUVs – we picked up some low buzzing from the driver’s side seatbelt housing, which GM says has been remedied – but it does help impart to passengers a near-luxury experience in a vehicle with a razor-sharp base price of $23,185.

More important than taming road noise, the technology quiets a superbly performing 2.4L 4-cyl. direct-injection gasoline engine.

The all-new engine, offered in addition to the new 3.0L DIG available on the Equinox, delivers an estimated 22-32 mpg (10.7-7.4 L/100 km) city/highway fuel-economy rating on front-wheel-drive models.

Yet, the frugal little mill also provides an ample 182 hp and 172 lb.-ft. (233 Nm) of torque. Both engines are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.

On two separate driving occasions, we found the 4-cyl. powertrain quiet, fuel-efficient and for the most part well-behaved. Without sound-damping, the engine would be too loud.

Ward’s editors averaged 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) running errands in the Equinox and 28 mpg (8.4 L 100/km) on the highway while in Eco Mode, a driver-selective technology altering shift points to improve fuel economy by an average of 1 mpg (0.4 km/L).

We’ll take both performance numbers anytime, as both live up to GM’s claim as best-in-class. The CUV does not lack for giddy-up, either, whether accelerating from an intersection or digging in for passing power on the highway.

However, one Ward’s editor did report a jumpy transmission on one morning. The same vehicle later exhibited slight vibration from the engine compartment to the foot brake, shift knob and driver’s side armrest while at idle in Eco Mode.

GM engineers say our tester was an early model, lacking the updated software to move the 4-cyl. engine speed at idle from 500 rpm to 750 rpm. Install too low an idle on a little DIG engine like that in the Equinox and you’re asking for trouble.

’10 Chevrolet Equinox
Vehicle type front-engine, 2WD 5-passenger CUV
Engine 2.4L 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) (SAE net) 182 hp @ 6,700 rpm
Torque 172 lb. ft. (233 Nm) @ 4,900 rpm
Compression ratio 11.4:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/manual mode
Wheelbase 112.5 ins. (285.8 cm)
Overall length 187.8 ins. (477 cm)
Overall width 72.5 ins. (184.2 cm)
Overall height 66.3 ins. (168.4 cm)
Curb weight 3,770 lbs. (1,710 kg)
Base price $24,105
Fuel economy 22-32 mpg (10.7-7.4 L/100 km)
Competition Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4, Ford Escape
Pros Cons
Library-quiet interior No fifth headrest
High-tech 4-cyl. Small wheels, big wells
Family friendly styling Sour on BlackBerries

Driving a different 4-cyl. model recently confirmed the glitch has been fixed.

Styling wise, the new model receives Chevy’s updated global face – a 2-tiered grille with a prominently displayed gold bow tie and wraparound headlamps. The result is a bold, yet gentler, more family-friendly fascia than the previous model.

Rear glass also wraps around on the new Equinox, giving it a sleeker, more sporty appearance. GM shortened the overhangs at both ends to create a more confident, car-like stance.

Inside, the Equinox successfully continues the brand’s dual-cockpit design. GM offers 2-tone leather seating surfaces, another lesson learned from the Malibu’s success in imparting a premium touch.

Gauges and lighting glow a pleasant icy blue at night, and the various functions are easy to navigate, especially the auxiliary system for an iPod. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for cell phones, paperwork and refreshments.

The rear bench seat travels 8 ins. (20.3 cm) fore and aft, providing lots of legroom or extra cargo space in the rear. We like having the option.

Ride and handling are satisfactory. There’s no harshness penalty for the low-rolling resistance tires GM adds to boost fuel economy. And the rack-mounted electric power steering from ZF Friedrichshafen AG feels spot-on, with the appropriate assist on the highway or in the parking lot. Models with the V-6 engine receive a hydraulic unit.

A quick note on pricing: GM stickers what it expects to be the most popular trim level at $24,105. That’s cheaper than both the previous model and the base Honda CR-V. The ’10 Equinox also boasts $1,000 more content and better fuel economy than a Toyota RAV-4, GM claims.

GM brings down the price without cheapening the Equinox, in part by eliminating an astonishing 8,800 build combinations. If consumers choose a base model LS, for example, they get one option – floor mats.

Fewer build combinations means the CUV is a less costly vehicle for GM tomanufacture, with the savings reflected in the low base prices. It also simplifies the purchase process (always a plus) and allows dealers to stock their lots more effectively.

A fully loaded LTZ model with the 3.0L 6-cyl. engine and all-wheel-drive amenities tops out at $35,000.

So what’s wrong with the new Equinox? For starters, no second-row head rest for the in-board passenger. GM says it would obscure the driver’s rearward vision and jeopardize safety, but why not add the pop-up head rest found on the new-for-’10 Cadillac SRX?

Also, GM offers too many wheel choices, with 17-, 18- and 19-in. sizes available. That leaves too much travel between the tire and the body, which never looks good.

And finally, our tester’s auxiliary connection would not accommodate a BlackBerry, arguably the most popular data phone on the market.

Despite a couple wrinkles, GM delivers a nicely updated CUV. The new Equinox is quiet, stylish, safe and affordable to buy and drive. That’s always a winning combination.

jamend@wardsauto.com