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February 5, 2013

With the Equinox, it's pick your poison

— There's a weird thing about car guys like me. We like power, almost to the point of absurdity.

We want to know all the details about horsepower, torque, displacement and how many cylinders are under the hood.

If an engine makes lots of noise, that's even better. It's no surprise, then, that the last time I drove a Chevy Equinox, I was giddy about the fact that it came with a 301-horsepower V6 engine. More horsepower equals more happiness. That's how the car-guy brain works.

This week, though, I drove a different Equinox that came with the standard, 2.4-liter engine that makes 182 horsepower. And I felt like the only person on Planet Earth who would have been disappointed.

Not a single person who saw the Equinox asked about how much power it made or whether it came with the monster V6 that's a new offering this year. Everybody I talked with did ask the same question, though: "What kind of gas mileage does it get?"

The answer is 32 mpg on the highway, which isn't that much worse than a four-cylinder Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. They're both rated at roughly 35 mpg.

Considering how much bigger the Equinox feels compared t geo a four-door sedan, that's absolutely remarkable. It has two rows of spacious seating, lots of leg and shoulder room, a high, king-of-the-road driving position, and an SUV-style cargo area in back.

Why it doesn't get gas mileage in the 20s is a mystery. Well, not quite. The base Ecotec engine was designed primarily to get good fuel economy using direct injection and variable valve timing — the current benchmarks for what constitutes a modern engine in this class. It also helps that the engine is coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission that's programmed to shift at the right time for optimum gas mileage with a special "Eco" mode.

While I realize this may put me on Greenpeace's blacklist, I still prefer the 301-horsepower engine over the four-cylinder base model. Yes, the V6 is a $1,500 option on the higher end trim packages. And yes, it drops the gas mileage all the way down to 24 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg in city driving. But it's powerful! It brings out the caveman side of me.

For those who have more brain cells than I do — virtually everyone, I suspect — the base engine makes a lot more sense because it's going to save you a ton of money. Either way, you'll have a strong contender. With the 301-horsepower version, you'll have one of the most fun-to-accelerate family vehicles on the road. And with the 182-horsepower version, you'll have a crossover that's wonderfully efficient and logical.

Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at carcolumn@gmail.com.

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