The 2008 Chevrolet Equinox Sport is the answer to a question I thought no one was asking: "Why isn't there a deluxe, high-performance version of the Equinox?"

Shows what I know. The Equinox, introduced as a 2005 model, has filled an important but moderately low-profile niche for General Motors: As a five-passenger "crossover," sharing bits and pieces with the Saturn Vue, it targets consumers who don't need the ruggedness of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, or want a minivan like the Chevrolet Uplander. Though offered in all-wheel-drive, the Equinox is no off-roader, and most sold are front-wheel-drive. It's an attractive, utilitarian vehicle marketed at a reasonable price, powered by a reasonably old-fashioned, Chinese-built 3.4-liter V-6 engine with 185 horsepower. Hard to get excited about that.

For 2008, that sensible-shoes Equinox remains, but it's joined by the Equinox Sport. The Sport is more than just a bigger engine, though: Quite a bit of suspension work has been done to the SUV, the numb electric power steering was replaced by a much better hydraulic unit, handsome 18-inch tires and alloy wheels replace the 16- or 17-inchers on other Equinox models, and some modest but effective body trim identifies it as something different.

So does the sticker: Base price of our front-drive Equinox Sport is $27,380. Had we wanted the all-wheel-drive model, that would have added $1,600. The least expensive Equinox starts at $22,995, including shipping, and even at that price, the base Equinox is very well equipped. Standard on all models is air conditioning, a six-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD player, cruise control, antilock brakes, stability control, keyless entry and a five-speed automatic transmission to go with the 3.4-liter V-6. The next step up from the base LS is the LT, then the LTZ, then the Sport. Load up an all-wheel-drive Sport with most all options, including a navigation system, and you're nudging $34,000.

The test Sport had several options, including leather upholstery, a sunroof, roof racks and side-curtain airbags, bringing the total price, with shipping, to $29,580.

Inside, the Equinox still has some interior trim that belongs on a less expensive model, but there are some very nice features: The rear seat slides forward or back about eight inches, giving you the option of lots of room for passengers or cargo. With the seat toward the rear, there's room aplenty for five six-footers. There is no third seat, but Chevrolet could probably squeeze one in there if they tried -- the Equinox is big enough.

Instruments and controls are standard GM-issue, which is fine. The front seats are supportive; rear seats are comparatively hard and upright. Even with the rear seat all the way back, there's still lots of luggage space.

On the road, the Equinox Sport shines. The ride is firm but compliant, and handling is better than I thought I'd ever see in an Equinox. This engine, optional on the new Malibu, has plenty of punch, nicely delivered through the six-speed automatic transmission. And you don't pay much of a price in fuel economy: The test Sport is EPA-rated at 16 mpg city, 24 highway; with the regular 185-horse engine, it's 17 mpg city, 24 highway. Both engines run on regular gas.

The Equinox Sport, and its counterpart, the Pontiac Torrent GXP, add some genuine spark to serviceable but otherwise dull vehicles. Good for General Motors.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.