A Station Wagon in Disguise

The auto industry could save itself marketing headaches and money by firmly embracing station wagons.

Consider the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox. Although it is sold as a small SUV, it actually is nothing of the sort. That also can be said of Equinox rivals such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Saturn VUE, Ford Escape and Jeep Liberty -- all of which have abandoned body-on-frame, truck-based architecture in pursuit of ride and handling more akin to family wagons and sedans.

Like the Equinox, this week's test vehicle, all have lighter, unitized construction in which the vehicle's body, floor pan and chassis form a single rigid structure. Such design most often is used in cars. It is seldom used in full-size pickup trucks or SUVs.

Also, there is the matter of all-wheel drive, which the auto industry, for marketing purposes, deliberately confuses with four-wheel drive. The two are not one and the same.

In all-wheel drive, power is shifted from one wheel to another, most often through electronically controlled transfers, on the basis of algorithmic need -- repetitively shifting power from slipping to gripping wheels, for example.

All-wheel drive is good for running through moderate snow, traversing rain-slick highways or rolling over gravel. But no one knowledgeable about driving off-road would dare take an all-wheel-drive vehicle, such as the Equinox or one of its rivals, on a trek over rocks and fallen logs, or across streams or through deep mud.

For that kind of travel, true four-wheel-drive transmissions are needed. Those transmissions have four-wheel low gears to help pull you through the mud and ease your ascents and descents on steep grades. They have locking differentials, thus guaranteeing that power flows to all four wheels simultaneously. They are dedicated, hard-knock, in-the-wild beasts of burden.

Equinox-type vehicles, by comparison, are city-suburban dwellers wearing cowboy and cowgirl outfits at a masquerade ball. Many look like rough, tough trucks. Indeed, Chevrolet seems to have gone out of its way to give the Equinox that persona. But that is just marketing imagery. It is based on the notion that you would smoke a Marlboro cigarette if you thought it manly enough, even though you could die just as quickly from smoking the Virginia Slims cigarettes marketed to women.

It is fundamentally silly stuff. The money and effort invested in selling what isn't could be better used selling what is.

The Equinox -- in base LS or upscale LT trim, in available front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive -- is a station wagon; and it is a good, affordably priced, high-utility station wagon at that.

Despite its ruggedly styled exterior, the Equinox is no more aggressive than the mild-mannered Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, another good wagon/hatchback from General Motors Corp. The sedan-derived Malibu Maxx, for that matter, has a more powerful engine than the one installed in the Equinox -- a 3.5-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 in the Malibu Maxx versus a standard-for-all-trim-levels 3.4-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 in the Equinox.

That is not to suggest that the Equinox has substandard performance on the highway, or in hauling duties. It is commendably capable in both areas. It accelerates with competence and handles well within the context of its tall body structure and high ground clearance (eight inches above ground for the front-wheel-drive models). It can be equipped to tow up to 3,500 pounds -- at the expense of acceleration and handling. The Malibu Maxx, given its lower stance and different architecture, can be equipped to tow up to 1,000 pounds.

Purists would argue that a more sensible comparison would be between the Equinox and its designated market rivals -- the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Saturn VUE, Ford Escape and Jeep Liberty. But that would be missing the point: All of hose ersatz compact SUVs are nothing more than station wagons. They should be compared with bona fide wagons such as the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 325i wagon, Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Ford Focus.

It's a matter of marketing simplicity. The car-based, "compact SUV" and "crossover" and "sport wagon" and "touring" labeling -- all nomenclature ruses designed to fool buyers into thinking they are getting something more exotic than a station wagon -- is needlessly confusing.

It is past time to start calling these vehicles what they are -- wagons. Buyers won't care as long as they are attractive, affordable, useful wagons, of which the Equinox is one.