Encore GX

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2021 Buick Encore GX Test Drive Review

Due to its premium positioning in the small crossover SUV market, the 2021 Buick Encore GX faces competition from all directions. In some ways, it is not prepared for the onslaught.

6.3 /10
Overall Score

Buick should have named this SUV the Enigma. It would fit with Buick family monikers including Encore, Envision, and Enclave, and it would describe the genuine confusion surrounding the small SUV, which debuted last year. Of course, the confusion is due in part to its actual name, which is Encore GX.

Larger, more powerful, and better looking than the standard Encore, the Encore GX sounds like it’s nothing more than a new trim level for an existing model. But it’s a totally different vehicle from the Encore. And, strangely, it has a lower base price than the smaller and older Encore.

See? Quite the enigma.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

One of the best things about the 2021 Buick Encore GX is the styling, and to the people who buy this SUV, it might just be the most important thing. Especially in comparison to the original Encore—which GM insiders referred to as “the shoe” when it debuted for the 2013 model year—the Encore GX hasn’t got an awkward proportion or dissatisfying line on it.

The SUV comes in base Preferred, mid-grade Select, and top-shelf Essence trim levels. If you want the racy-looking Encore GX Sport Touring (ST), that’s an option package available with all three trim levels.

Additionally, you choose between front-wheel drive (FWD) and all-wheel drive (AWD). Two turbocharged three-cylinder engines are available, too. The 1.2-liter comes only with FWD, while the 1.3-liter is available with FWD and AWD. Pricing starts at $24,200 for the Preferred FWD with the smaller engine and rise to $30,600 for the Essence AWD with the bigger engine.

Our test model had Essence trim and the 1.3-liter turbo 3-cylinder, but not AWD. Upgrades included extra-cost paint, a power hands-free rear liftgate, and three option packages: Advanced Technology, Experience Buick, and Convenience. Including the $995 destination charge, the MSRP came to $35,065.

Buick knows this number is too high. As this review is written, if you’re a current General Motors customer, Buick is heavily discounting the Encore GX by thousands of dollars. If you’re not already in the GM camp, there is a 24-month lease deal for non-GM owners.

Erase the window sticker’s bottom line from your memory banks, and the Encore GX’s cabin offers the expected levels of quality for the small SUV segment. The interior design isn’t quite as clean as the exterior, and Buick locates the analog gauges—already hard to read due to small markings—inconveniently to the sides of the instrumentation display in order to make space for a 4.2-inch driver information center.

More concerning, when the sun shines directly on the fuel gauge indicator lights, you cannot see them. And the head-up display (HUD), projected on a piece of plastic that rises from the top of the dashboard, vibrates on anything but glass-smooth pavement, serving as a constant reminder of the Encore GX’s overall lack of refinement for the asking price.

Performance

5/ 10

Turbocharging helps any engine to feel sprightly, and the Encore GX offers the proof. The standard 1.2-liter 3-cylinder engine generates 137 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 162 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. That low torque peak helps the 3,000-lb. Encore GX to accelerate out of its own way.

Still, you’re probably going to want the turbocharged 1.3-liter three-cylinder engine. To get it with base Preferred trim, you’ll also need to upgrade to AWD. Alternatively, you can get the 1.3-liter with FWD if you choose Select or Essence trim. In any case, the larger engine supplies 155 hp at 5,600 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm.

Even with the 1.3-liter turbo, though, the best way to describe the Buick Encore GX driving experience is adequate. There is enough power here to get onto the freeway, where it has no trouble cruising at 80 mph. With FWD, if you’re not careful, torque steer can even twist the steering wheel a bit. The engine’s lack of cylinders isn’t an obvious disadvantage.

Encore GXs with FWD have a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that operates in an unobtrusive manner. Get AWD, and a conventional nine-speed automatic transmission is responsible for delivering the power to all four wheels. The Encore GX AWD also uses a Watt’s linkage rear suspension, which is a slight improvement over the standard solid rear-axle setup with the FWD models.

Our FWD test car’s ride quality felt too brittle over poorly maintained urban roads, too soft over speed humps, and too bouncy over bumps and dips taken at higher speeds. Plus, in spite of Buick’s QuietTuning efforts, including an acoustic laminated windshield and active noise cancellation, the Encore GX isn’t particularly quiet inside.

As a result, the Encore GX comes across as lacking refinement, especially given its premium-brand positioning over its corporate twin, the jaunty and genuinely likable Chevrolet Trailblazer, in which these traits are almost expected due to its lower price and mass-market brand.

If Buick is serious about making the Encore GX a premium player, it needs to do a better job of compensating for the low-cost engineering underpinning this SUV. For example, Mazda uses a torsion-beam rear-axle suspension in the CX-30, but its ride and handling characteristics rarely call attention to this fact.

At least the Buick corners with a flat attitude, and the brakes perform well even if the pedal is sometimes hard to modulate in traffic. Unsurprisingly, steering effort is light, making the Encore GX effortless to drive and maneuver.

Believe it or not, the driving loop environment in which the Buick felt most at home was on the back roads leading from Carpenteria, California, through Montecito and into Santa Barbara. Narrow, winding, and necessitating lower speeds under 50 mph, California 192 is a perfect match for the Encore GX’s nimble size, engine torque, controlled body roll, and decent tire grip thanks to standard 18-inch wheels.

As for fuel economy, we averaged 28.2 mpg on our testing loop, coming up 2.8 mpg short of the official EPA estimate in highway driving. This result is not due to typical automotive journalist driving behavior. The Encore GX isn’t that kind of vehicle.

Form and Function

7/ 10

You sit up high in the Encore GX, and though they are small and narrow, the front seats are supportive enough for multi-hour drives. They offer no lateral bolstering, but there isn’t much need for this. The test vehicle had a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, 8-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel. The places where elbows tend to rest were padded.

The back seat is not quite as hospitable. Your feet will be happy, but the rest of your body will count the minutes until the trip ends. Taller people will find their legs flush against the soft front seatbacks. The bottom seat cushion is low, flat, and lacking in thigh support. The rear seatback shape is also flat and is reclined at an odd angle. There are no rear air conditioning vents.

Interior storage is quite good, even if a glance at the interior doesn’t suggest it. The trunk measures 23.5 cubic feet, a figure that includes storage space under the floor and the well to the right of the load floor. Fold the back seat to create 50.2 cubic feet of volume.

The test vehicle had a pricey hands-free power liftgate option. Skip it. You don’t need it. It also had a standard fold-flat front passenger’s seat, which exists so that you can carry long items inside the Encore GX with the hatch closed. That’s a thoughtful, useful detail.

Tech Level

9/ 10

In addition to its vibrating HUD panel and rearview camera mirror technology, the Buick Encore GX Essence is equipped with an infotainment system with an 8-inch touchscreen display and numerous useful features and functions.

For 2021, it gains new wireless versions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Additionally, the system features Bluetooth connectivity for two devices at the same time, Buick Connected Services including a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, and useful stereo controls mounted on the backs of the steering wheel spokes. It sounds strange, but in practice is a great alternative to buttons on the front of the wheel spokes.

Thanks to its Advanced Technology Package, the test vehicle also had a navigation system, natural voice recognition technology, SiriusXM 360L satellite radio, and a high-definition surround-view camera. Wireless smartphone charging is part of the optional Convenience Package. Despite the added packages and the sticker price, the test car still didn’t have the available 7-speaker Bose premium sound system.

Like other versions of this infotainment technology in various General Motors products, the Encore GX’s system offers quick response to input, impressive voice recognition, pleasing graphics, and a simple user interface. In addition to the steering wheel stereo controls, there is a volume knob, tuning buttons, and both Home and Back functions on the dashboard below the display screen.

Overall, the Encore GX’s infotainment system provides an excellent user experience.

Safety

7/ 10

Buick Driver Confidence is standard equipment for the Encore GX, installing forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and automatic high-beam headlights.

Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is optional with Preferred trim and standard with Select and Essence. Adaptive cruise control is also available and offers a standard cruise control setting for people who don’t want the SUV to automatically adjust speed to traffic conditions ahead.

Additionally, Buick equips the Encore GX with Teen Driver technology. This provides the SUV’s owner with a report card detailing how the vehicle was used while in a young driver’s possession. With an active connected services subscription, automatic collision notification helps rescuers to find the Encore GX following a collision. And to help owners keep proper tire pressures, a Tire Fill Alert system makes this unpleasant but important task easier.

During testing in moderate to heavy traffic, we discovered that the adaptive cruise control’s stop-and-go function doesn’t go if you’re stopped for more than a few seconds. Instead, the driver must manually resume travel. This is not unusual, but as technology advances, many newer systems offer up to 30 seconds to idling before requiring driver reactivation.

Also, finding the right distance-management setting proved challenging. On its closest setting, the Buick couldn’t brake hard enough to stop in time. On its medium setting, it had trouble recognizing vehicles that cut into the gap ahead until the last second and then would brake abruptly. On its farthest setting, it turned the Encore GX into a rolling traffic cone. Also, the lane-keeping assist felt unnatural in operation, though it was effective.

In crash tests, the Encore GX earns a five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has not performed testing on this Buick. The ratings the IIHS publishes for a Buick Encore apply to “the shoe,” so don’t confuse the two.

Cost-Effectiveness

2/ 10

It’s a strange time in the automotive industry. Mainstream brands such as Kia and Volkswagen are selling legitimately luxurious and upscale vehicles like the Stinger and Arteon.

Luxury brands such as Cadillac and Infiniti are selling barely disguised versions of mass-market models like the XT6 and QX60, hoping brand cachet will save the day.

And then you’ve got premium brands like Buick and Mazda trying to carve out some real estate and bridge the gap between the mainstream and luxury camps with products like the Encore GX and CX-30.

More than any other brand, Mazda is the one Buick must contend with, and from a disadvantaged position. Buick needs to be “nicer” than a Chevrolet, but not as “nice” as a Cadillac. Mazda, seeking to move its brand firmly into premium territory, need not worry about such constraints, which gives it more freedom to build a truly premium product.

As a result, the Mazda CX-30 delivers more than you expect for the price, never feeling like a compromise. The Buick Encore GX delivers less than you expect for the price, and almost always feels like a compromise.

There is one more challenge facing both Buick and Mazda: the certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle market. As I write this, multiple examples of Mercedes-Benz GLCs that are just a year or two old can cost less than loaded examples of both the Encore GX and CX-30.

That leaves a really tough needle to thread.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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