The people at Holden NZ are as a chuffed about the new Equinox SUV as the townsfolk of Whangamomona were when Prime Minister Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon helped fix their main street around 117 years ago.
Holden hasn’t had a five-seat SUV since the Captiva5 was phased out in 2015. This at a time when roughly 40 out of every 100 New Zealanders have bought one SUV or another.
Time was when Whangamomona had to wait for what it wanted, too. Whangamomona? Resident population 12. It sits on a junction of State Highway 43, the road from Stratford, Taranaki, to Taumarunui, King Country.
Highway 43 is also known as the Forgotten World Highway. Has been for years, since Whangamomona declared itself a republic in 1989, after a wrangle over regional re-zoning. It holds a knees-up every couple of years to honour the self-styled proclamation.
It also has ‘presidential’ elections. The record shows the first president was elected without his knowledge. Held office for 10 years.
He was followed by Billy Gumboot the Goat, who ate challengers’ ballots and won by default. It was a filibuster of sorts. But it is not known if he had a co-conspirator. Billy Gumboot died in office.
Tai the poodle dog was the third president, but he left office after a year. Nervous wreck, apparently. Something to do with the likelihood of an assassination attempt.
The record further shows that the fourth president fought off strong competition from the first president and a cross-dresser called ‘Miriam.”
Whangamomona town is a scattering of buildings. One was once the blacksmiths, another once the general store, McCluggage Bros. There’s a church or two. A house here and there. The school closed in 1979; the cemetery in 1994. Some folks want the cemetery reopened.
There’s the pub, too, the Whangamomona Hotel. Licensee Richard Pratt (pictured below). He and his wife Vicki (the fifth president) run it. About 25,000 people a year stop by for a beer and bite to eat. Some stay awhile. “We sleep around 4500 people a year,” said Richard. “The hotel has 34 bedrooms. We’ll be able to sleep another 44 by Christmas in a new lodge.”
Anyway, the town itself might have been largely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the arrival around 1900 of PM Seddon.
The only street back then – the only street today, for that matter – was often a muddy thoroughfare. It had a makeshift surface railway track down the middle. Goods wagons pulled by either horses or bullock teams used it.
Seddon arrived by coach and horses. A hefty fellow, he was dressed in a period dark suit with waistcoat. “Seddon got out of the coach and fell into the mud,” said Richard. “He picked himself up and said ‘What this place needs is some gravel.'”
The PM returned to Wellington and cracked the whip. Whangamomona (‘bountiful valley’) needed help, he told his roads people. Working quarries were miles away from Whangamomona, but eventually teams of horses and bullocks pulled wagons of gravel into the town. Before long it had a year-round useable main street.
The railway track survived for some time. There’s a faded photo of it in the pub. It also shows a few buildings – pub, blacksmith, general store and so on – on either side of the track.
The photo was taken in 1912. It shows the second pub. The first burned down a year earlier – fire in the kitchen, they said. The Whangamonona Hotel is now 105 years old.
Richard, Vicki and staff fixed lunch the other day for journos and Holden NZ executives at the launch of the Equinox, the latest addition to the Holden fleet.
We had driven from New Plymouth. Up State Highway 3 to Mt Messenger. Turned right over narrow, heavily gravelled roads to isolated Ohura (there’s a faded Ford logo barely visible on a battered building in the former coal-mining town) and, after lunch, back down the Forgotten World Highway, through Inglewood to New Plymouth. Roughly 290km in all.
Holden now has seven five-seat SUVs, all called Equinox. A couple too many? Perhaps, but the medium five-seat SUV segment provides rich rewards: after 10 months of 2017 it accounted for 21,675 registrations, or 42 per cent of the 51,688 SUVs on the NZ Transport Agency books.
Equinox is built at General Motors’ plant in Mexico. The SUV’s name might be new to New Zealand, but it’s a big player in the USA, where it wears the Chevrolet badge.
It’s been the best-selling SUV in GM’s line-up since it appeared in the US in 2004. This latest Equinox is the third-generation model. It is built on GM’s Astra platform for global markets.
Equinox comes with plenty of goodies, including an active noise cancelling system across the range. They say it makes the cabin quieter.
There’s also something called the ‘driver seat alert’. Electronics send the cushion under the driver’s backside into a vibrating frenzy when cameras sense a potential collision. It’s a good touch. Elsewhere there’s the usual active and passive safety systems. Apple Car Play too. The seats, incidentally, offer generous support.
Pretty much the only electronic gizmo Equinox is missing is adaptive cruise control. Many of the Equinox rivals have it, but its absence doesn’t faze the Equinox lead engineer, Australian Tony Metaxas. “Personally, I don’t like it – never use it,” he said.
NZ buyers have the choice of three turbocharged engines: 1.5- and 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol units, or a 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel. Drivetrains run to two- (2WD) and four-wheel drive (4WD). Same as the USA. Gearboxes are the same, too: automatic six-speed or nine-speed.
What is different is the suspension set-up. Nothing major, said engineer Metaxas. Just a tweak here and there to suit Downunder conditions: stiffer bushes, retuned dampers and sway bar settings. The power steering got a tickle-up. So did the electronic stability control system.
The Equinox range starts with the $35,990 LS, a 2WD using the 1.5-litre unit. It delivers 127kW/275Nm to the front wheels via the six-speed ‘auto. The $39,990 LS+ is also 2WD. It uses the same engine and gearbox but gets a few more electronic aids. Both models ride on 17-inch wheels.
The LT variant introduces 18-inch alloys, the nine-speed ‘auto and the 2.0-litre engine, good for 188kW/353Nm through the front wheels. The LT costs $43,990.
LTZ Equinox gets a six-speaker Bose audio and comes with either the 2.0-litre petrol powertrain ($52,990) or the 1.6-litre diesel ($55,990), which delivers 100kW/320Nm via the six-speed ‘auto. Both have switchable 2WD or 4WD modes and ride on 19-inch alloys.
Top of the range is the LTZ-V, offering the same petrol and diesel options and 19-inch rims. The petrol is priced at $56,990, the diesel at $59,990. LTZ-V also offers wireless phone charging, among the many extra bells and whistles
More than 60km of the 290km was over some of the most unstable gravel surfaces a public NZ road has to offer. Keeping Equinox on line over the gravel required constant steering adjustments, whether straddling the crown of the road or off to one side.
It was a good test. Equinox’s helm was predictable and accurate and ride quality remained well settled. It was rattled at times by the demanding heavy gravel surfaces. But this was a new-vehicle test very much out of the ordinary. I can’t remember one as demanding, certainly not on a mapped road.
The 2.0-litre and its nine-speed ‘auto is the smoothest pairing, largely unstressed thanks to more than adequate power and torque. It’s the engine and gearbox the entry-level, German-built Holden Commodore sedan will get next year.
The 1.5-litre unit often needed an urgent throttle to get the six-speed ‘box to pick a suitable ratio. A manual mode would help here. But there isn’t one. The Plus (+) Minus (–) on the top of the gear lever are for locking in the suitable ratio while towing, the braked capacity of which is 2000kg.
It’s hugely competitive, the five-seat SUV segment. But Holden has a loyal fan base and Equinox will appeal. It may even lure new fans.
• Is the arrival of Equinox the first round of a renewed Holden/Ford rivalry? Equinox will go up against Ford’s five-seat Endura next May. Only one Endura will land here, the premium ST-Line, powered by a 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel and priced at $73,990. The top-line Equinox is $59,990. Advantage Holden, initially at least?