Value-packed little SUV completes Buick’s transformation
Detroit Free Press
Don’t look now, but Buick is the shape of the auto industry’s future, and that shape is an SUV.
Get used to it, because as the 2021 model year hits its stride, General Motors’ oldest brand no longer has a single traditional car in its lineup.
The final piece of the puzzle arrived earlier this year in the 2020 Encore GX, an appealing small SUV sure to become Buick’s best seller in a jiffy.
The Encore GX completes a transition that began nearly a decade ago, when some farsighted exec recognized the approaching flood of SUVs as a rising tide that could lift a moribund brand. Buick bet on SUVs early and big, though it was easy to overlook in the early days when the Encore was the first and only premium subcompact SUV sold in the U.S.
There will always be customers for sedans, coupes and convertibles, but the heart of the car market has shifted to taller vehicles with decent cargo space, commanding sightlines and available all-wheel drive.
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The remaining question is, how many sizes and types of SUV do people want?
Judging by the Encore GX, which arrived at dealerships in small numbers this year just before coronavirus blew a hole in everybody’s plans, the answer is “at least one more.”
The Encore GX is bigger than the Encore that’s currently Buick’s top seller. At 171.4 inches long, it’s 3 inches longer, with more passenger and cargo space. The base drivetrain is a 137-horsepower, 1.2L turbocharged three-cylinder engine linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission. That drivetrain is available only with front-wheel drive. Prices start at $24,100.
An optional 1.3L three-cylinder turbo produces 155 hp. It’s a $395 option on front-drive models and standard on all-wheel-drive GXs, which also get a conventional nine-speed stepped automatic. The AWD package drive costs $2,000.
The Encore GX’s size and price fit neatly between the Encore and Envision in Buick’s lineup.
I tested a well-equipped FWD Encore GX Essence with the 1.3L engine and CVT. It stickered at $28,500 before options, $33,120 as tested. All prices exclude destination charges.
Features on my test vehicle included:
- Adaptive cruise control
- Head-up display
- 8-inch touch screen
- Automatic parking
- Surround vision cameras
- 18-inch aluminum wheels
- Power tailgate
- Satin Steel gray metallic paint
- Wireless charging
- Front USB A & C ports
- Rear USB A & C charging ports
- 120-volt outlet
- Power front seats
- Active engine noise cancellation
- Memory for driver settings
- Heated steering wheel
- LED head, tail and running lights
Encore GX prices will only rise about $100 when 2021 model vehicles arrive later this year. They’ll have a welcome new standard feature: wireless Apple CarPlay, which isn’t available on ‘20s. SiriusXM satellite radio will also be standard, while adaptive cruise control will be available in the safety package on the base Preferred trim level. From bottom to top, the three trim levels for an Encore GX are Preferred, Select and Essence.
Encore GX prices compare well to similarly equipped models of competitors like the Audi Q3, Jeep Renegade and Lexus UX.
The little 1.3L turbocharged three-cylinder delivered better performance than I expected. Acceleration was more than adequate and there’s plenty of power for fast highway cruising. My FWD model had moments of torque steer because of it generating a rather impressive 174 pound-feet of torque at just 1,600 rpm. If you prize handling, I’d recommend a test drive in an all-wheel-drive model before choosing FWD.
The fuel economy penalty for adding AWD and foregoing the fuel efficient CVT is not inconsequential. The EPA rated my FWD/CVT Encore GX 30 mph in the city, 32 on the highway and 31 combined for a projected annual fuel cost of $1,050. The AWD nine-speed scored 26/29/38 for a projected cost of $1,200 at current fuel prices.
Three-cylinder engines are notoriously prone to vibration. Some shake and rattle like the paint mixer at Lowe’s, but my Encore GX was smooth and quiet, thanks to its active noise cancellation and Buick’s expected emphasis on sound insulation.
The Encore GX’s small size and direct steering make it easy to park and maneuver.
It’s 1.7 inches shorter, four-tenths of an inch wider and as much as 1.6 inches less tall than the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer with which it shares a platform and many systems. It is immediately recognizable as a Buick because of its unique sheet metal, LED lights, pronounced creases along its fenders and doors and a winged badge in a black grille with red highlights, part of the Sport Touring package on my test vehicle.
Interior comfort and controls
The interior is roomy and quiet, with plenty of headroom, attractive vinyl upholstery and soft materials on the dash and doors. The front seat has plenty of storage cubbies and legroom. Rear legroom is acceptable, headroom in both rows is fine and there’s usable cargo space.
My test car had wireless charging, but wireless CarPlay — an immensely useful feature — isn’t available on the 2020 model. It’s standard equipment for 2021.
The optional technology package includes a head-up display that projects speed and other information onto a clear plastic panel that rises from the top of the instrument panel when the HUD is activated. The display is clear, but I find the costlier units that project onto the windshield more useful because they’re closer to the driver’s line of sight. People who haven’t experienced those displays may find the GX’s cost-saving approach satisfying, but I turned it off after a few miles.
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