Hop in the redesigned Chevrolet Equinox, and you may notice an “Eco” button ahead of the automatic gearshift. It comes in four-cylinder versions of the Equinox. In other cars, “Eco” or “Econ” buttons can limit A/C usage or, in the case of the Honda Insight and Toyota Highlander Hybrid, scale back accelerator sensitivity. The goal is the same: Improving fuel efficiency.
The Equinox’s example is one of the few such buttons we’ve seen in a non-hybrid that actually influences the way the engine and transmission react. Thanks in part to that button, GM says the four-cylinder Equinox achieves an impressive EPA-rated 32 mpg on the highway. Eco mode doesn’t come without a cost to the driving experience, though. At a press event last Friday near our Chicago offices, GM program engineering manager Doug Smith gave us a rundown.
Specifically, Eco mode locks up the Equinox’s torque converter at lower speeds — most automatics do this at highway speeds — and changes shift patterns in the four-cylinder’s six-speed auto. It cuts the engine’s speed at idle, too, but it doesn’t affect the accelerator pedal. The net effect? About 1 mpg more with it on, Smith said.
“It could have a broader range,” he said. “We could get a lot more out of it than we did … but drivability has to be within certain acceptable limits.”
What are the compromises? For starters, in Eco mode the engine may start lugging at 40 or 50 mph, Smith said, like a manual transmission that’s shifted too early into its topmost gear. At idle speed, the engine can come off a bit coarse-sounding. The Equinox has an Active Noise Cancellation system that can lower undesirable sounds by up to 20 dB at certain frequencies, according to GM engineer Jim Vallance.
Smith’s characterizations may have been too harsh. We puttered around in a four-cylinder Equinox all over Chicago, and the Eco button doesn’t appear to cause any noticeable changes — until you get on the highway.
When Eco mode is engaged on the highway, there isn’t a burst of acceleration when you hammer down the gas pedal to pass; there's no big kickdown in gears by the transmission. Instead, you must learn to push the accelerator with gusto, and you’ll be greeted with steady acceleration but not enough to get out of the way of barreling traffic. Since the fuel efficiency gain in Eco mode is relatively minor, most drivers will likely leave it off in highway traffic.
The four-cylinder isn’t the most potent drivetrain, but for EPA highway mileage in the 30s, it would have to be far pokier to merit more complaints.
Stay tuned later this week for Cars.com’s full review of the Equinox.
Mike Hanley contributed to this report.