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2021 Chevrolet Equinox: freshened styling, sporty new RS model

by Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

2021 Chevrolet Equinox RS

What changes will make the 2021 Chevrolet Equinox different?

Freshened exterior styling and the addition of a sport-themed RS trim level make news for the 2021 edition of this popular compact crossover SUV. The changes represent midcycle updates to an Equinox generation that debuted for model-year 2018 and is expected to be fully redesigned for model-year 2024.   

Chevrolet’s best-selling crossover, and its second best-selling vehicle after the Silverado pickup truck, this five-seater has been a brand staple since 2004. It initially was a midsize crossover with unimpressive interior room and underwhelming driving dynamics. Today’s third generation flipped the script, downsizing to compact-class dimensions and losing some 400 pounds, but making much better use of cabin space and improving road manners dramatically.   

Shoppers responded. Equinox demand increased in both 2018 and 2019 and it’s among America’s top-selling compact crossovers, along with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Rogue.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this preview are based on road tests of 2020 Equinox models provided by Chevrolet. In areas where the ’21 might differ, we reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 Chevrolet Equinox or buy a 2020?

2021 Equinox RS

Wait if you want the most up-to-date styling or fancy the special look of the RS trim. The interior and mechanical specs are unchanged, and there are not new features of note. So, if you’re unmotivated by the tweaked styling or the RS, a 2020 Equinox merits consideration — especially because dealers are likely to offer significant discounts to clear showroom space for the refreshed ’21 model.

If you are inclined to wait, you’ll have an opportunity to compare the updated Equinox to the all-new 2021 Trailblazer, a slightly smaller crossover poised to join the Chevy lineup with a name revived from a body-on-frame midsize SUV last sold in 2009. You’ll also be able to evaluate the ’21 Equinox against the refreshed edition of its underskin design twin, the GMC Terrain. The Terrain’s changes are mostly cosmetic, too, but instead of an RS trim, it gains an off-road-themed AT4 version. Equinox outsells the Terrain 3-1

The 2021 Equinox lineup will return L, LS, LT, and Premier grades. As with the RS version of Chevy’s larger Blazer crossover, the new RS resides atop the Equinox lineup. Under-hood choices remain two turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Every ’21 Equinox comes standard with front-wheel drive. Traction-aiding all-wheel drive remains an option on all but the L.

Will the styling be different?

2021 Equinox Premier

Yes. The RS coalesces much of the trendy black-themed look of the LT’s Midnight Edition option, while the Premier burnishes its gloss-black-and-chrome motif. For all ’21 Equinox models, biggest change is at the front, with a redesigned grille and reshaped headlamps that stretch further up the hoodline. New foglight housings crib a chunkier look Chevy’s full-size Tahoe SUV. A nip/tuck cleans up the taillights.

Unchanged in profile, the ’21 Equinox remains fairly nondescript, and certainly less racy than the Blazer and less youthful than the Trailblazer that bookend it in Chevy’s crossover roster.

The RS does stand out with a gloss-black grille, black-finished exterior badging and side rails, and 19-inch “Dark Android” alloy wheels. It’s the best-looking of the ’21 lineup, although expect it to come with a hefty price premium. The Premier also gets a gloss-black grille and for ’21, new machine-faced 19-inch alloys. Wheels continue as an Equinox model distinguisher, with 17-, 18, and 19-inch alloys available, depending on grade and trim.

2021 Equinox Premier interior with Brandy and Jet Black accents

Inside, the RS is set apart by red-stitched black upholstery, while the Premier gets French-stitched perfrrated leather. Unchanged otherwise, the interior continues to prioritize function over form, exactly what most buyers in this class want. Clean, simple instrumentation and intuitive climate controls continue, although GM would do well to update the design and layout of the infotainment system.

Expect 2021 Equinox L, LS, and LT models to come with a 7-inch central dashboard touchscreen. An 8-incher will remain available on the LT and standard on Premier and RS. Support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto are standard, as is GM’s fine OnStar telematics system. OnStar furnishes turn-by-turn directions over the air but requires a subscription. The 8-inch touchscreen setup includes imbedded satellite navigation that doesn’t depend on a connected smartphone or cellular data connection.

2021 Equinox 8-inch infotainment screen

All that software works well enough, but the screens are too far from front-seat occupants and are canted forward. Simple adjustments require a long reach. Putting the displays in a more vertical, tablet-like orientation would modernize their look and functionality.

With no changes to the cabin, passenger comfort will remain among the best in the competitive set. Headroom and legroom are generous. The rear bench seat accommodates three child safety seats, a boon to parents without the means or desire for a minivan or a larger crossover or SUV.

2021 Equinox Premier rear seat

Cargo volume should remain in the heart of the segment, with 29.9 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 63.9 with them folded. Expect a power liftgate to be optional on the LT and standard — with hands-free operation — on Premier and RS. New for ’21 and Exclusive to the Premier is a feature that projects the Chevy logo on the ground to indicate where to swing your foot to trigger hands-free opening.

Any mechanical changes?

2021 Equinox Premier

No. Returning as standard is a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower and 203 pound-feet of torque. Available on all but the L and LS will be a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 252 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

The 1.5-liter uses a six-speed automatic transmission, the 2.0 a nine-speed automatic. Chevy’s cutting costs but missing an opportunity with the six-speed. Linking the 1.5 with the slick nine-speed would almost certainly provide a smoother power deliver and potentially higher fuel-economy. Still, the 1.5 furnished adequate power for everyday commuting and probably will continue as the choice of three of four 2021 Equinox buyers.

Equinox models equipped with the 2.0 are rather pricey but the engine is a paragon of refinement. It accelerates from a stop with authority and has ample reserves for high-speed passing and merging. Many turbo four-cylinders suffer turbo lag, the troubling delay in throttle response before a turbocharger delivers its boost. Here, turbo lag is impressively minimized. The engine is also notably hushed, as is the rest of the cabin. Wind rush is well-muffled and road noise is nonintrusive, even with the 19-inch tires, making for pleasant travel around town and on long trips.

2021 Equinox RS

The ’21 Equinox RS is an appearance package with no underskin mechanical enhancements. And with no changes to suspension or steering on any ’21 Equinox, road manners will again be confident and polished, if still no match for the sharper sophistication of the CR-V or Mazda CX-5. The 19-inch wheels and tires do enhance grip and help Equinox respond more quickly to steering inputs. Curiously, we find steering feel with the 1.5-liter notably lighter than the meaty feel that accompanies the 2.0-liter engine.

Ground clearance ranges from 7.6-8.0 inches, depending on trim level. That’s not stingy but the ’21 Equinox won’t be suitable for off-road surfaces much more demanding than gravel roads. Look to the Terrain AT4 for rough-terrain competence in this package. Still, an AWD Equinox will provide a welcome extra dimension of traction on gravel and wet or snowy roads.

Will fuel economy improve?

2021 Equinox Premier

Unlikely. Expect 2021 Equinox EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 model, meaning just slightly below par for compact crossovers of comparable power.

Look for a ’21 Equinox with the 1.5-liter engine to rate 26/31/28 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 25/30/27 with AWD. With the 2.0-liter, expect ratings of 22/29/25 with front-drive and 22/28/24 with AWD.

All versions of the ’21 Equinox would continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline and employ a fuel-saving engine idle stop/start system. It shuts off the engine when the vehicle is stopped (accessories keep running), then automatically restarts it when the driver releases the brake pedal. GM’s implementation is one of the smoothest, with little hesitancy or vibration upon restart.

Will there be new features?

2021 Equinox Premier

Chevy had not released a final list of standard and optional equipment for the 2021 Equinox in time for this review. Rest assured a fairly comprehensive list of safety features will return as standard, including frontal collision warning and autonomous emergency braking designed to automatically stop the crossover to mitigate al collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian. Also included will be lane-departure warning with lane-maintaining automatic steering correction.

Expect the Driver Confidence II package, which contains blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert along with rear park warning, to be optional on the LT and standard on Premier and RS. The latter two models should also be available with the Driver Confidence III package, which includes surround-view video, adaptive cruise control, and GM’s Safety Alert Seat. We’d urge Chevy to make adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from traffic ahead, standard across the model range or at least an option on more than just the most expensive models.

Available on Premier and presumably on the RS, the Safety Alert driver’s seat is a novel feature that vibrates the bottom cushion when certain assistance features activate. For example, if you’re backing out of a parking space and the rear cross-traffic-alert system activates, the seat will vibrate on the side from which the other vehicle is approaching. The sensation on your back side is enough to get your attention, but not overwhelm you.

2021 Equinox Premier

Otherwise, expect the Equinox feature set to stand pat for model-year ’21. In addition to items already noted, all grades should continue to come with LED daytime running lights, active noise cancellation, keyless access with pushbutton ignition, heated exterior mirrors, and USB Type-A and Type-C data/charging ports. LS grades and above would add all-season floor mats, built-in WiFi hotspot capability, individual tire pressure readouts, and the handy Tire Fill Alert, which toots the horn and flashes the appropriate turn signal to indicate you’ve reached proper inflation. 

The 2021 LT would add upgraded cloth upholstery, a power driver’s seat, color information display in the instrument cluster, and eligibility for some extra-cost appearance packages.

Premier grades would get, heated front seats, driver-seat memory, dual-zone automatic climate control, additional USB charging points, remote engine start, and a wireless smartphone charger. Expect the RS to include all that, plus its exclusive appearance touches.

Will 2021 prices be different?

2021 Equinox RS

They’ll probably increase marginally but expect the L, LLS, and LT models to remain affordable, in keeping with the mainstream appeal that’s behind this crossover’s sales success. Premier and RS models likely will be among the more expensive compact crossovers, especially when heavily optioned, leaving them more questionable values.

For reference, here are 2020 Equinox prices; base prices include Chevy’s $1,195 destination fee.

Starting at $24,995, the L is primarily designed for fleet sales so you’re not likely to find many new examples available at your local dealer. With front-wheel drive, the 2020 Equinox LS started at $27,495, the LT at $28,695, and the Premier at $32,595. Anticipate RS grades to command an additional $2,500 or so over the Premier.

AWD added $1,600 to the 2020 LS, LT, and Premier and probably will for the 2021 RS. The 2.0-liter turbo engine should return as a $2,500 option on the LT and a $2,700 upgrade for the Premier and, likely, for the RS.

Expect to see some extra-cost paint colors ranging from $395-$995. A power driver’s seat should remain a $685 option on the LS.

The Confidence and Convenience Package ($2,045) on the 2021 LT will likely include remote engine start, dual-zone auto climate control, heated front seats, fog lights, and the power liftgate. Even with the RS model, Chevy may continue to offer the ’21 LT with dress-up packages, such as the Sport and Midnight edition ($2,230 each for 2020). Imbedded navigation with additional USB ports would be a $745 LT option.

On 2020 Premier models, the Infotainment II Package added a high-resolution touchscreen, HD Radio receiver, and Bose-brand audio system for $1,125. The Confidence and Convenience Package II ($1,650) should again include a power front-passenger seat, the Safety Alert Seat, heated outboard rear seats, and ventilated front seats.

Our nearly loaded 2020 AWD Premier 2.0 review sample carried an as-tested price of $38,545. That puts it near the very top of the class. As accomplished as it is, we’re unconvinced it’s worth that much. Fortunately, GM tends to be fairly generous with incentives. We’d guess you could take home a 2021 example for around $35,000. At that, it’s a far more attractive proposition.

When does it come out?

2021 Equinox Premier

Release date for the 2021 Chevrolet Equinox is fall 2020.

Best competitors

Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Compass, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]