Mountain Wheels: Buick’s not-so-compact Encore GX offers inexpensive gloss
As a bookend to last week’s big story about a small Chevrolet, I realized I probably should have crafted a two-for-one piece also addressing the new small-but-not-tiny member of the Buick family: the Encore GX.
Buick’s ongoing push for a renewed profile in the U.S. market comes as the brand remains wildly popular in China, where it is a certified status symbol. Here, we remain a bit confused as buyers have seen an unusual mixture of cars and SUVs in the company’s portfolio, including the entirely Chinese-made Envision SUV and the (sadly) about-to-be-discontinued Regal TourX wagon, a cool, German-made alternative to the Subaru Outback.
Like last week’s Trailblazer, the new Buick Encore GX is made in Korea, with a Mexican-made transmission and, yes, another pair of three-cylinder engine choices. It’s designed to be a larger option than the existing Encore, which has been a popular luxury compact crossover offering in the U.S. since its introduction almost eight years ago — though international audiences will be getting a revised version of the smaller Encore before we will. A higher-level Essence model I drove had a base price of $28,500 and was stickered at $33,465 with options.
The original Encore remains Buick’s best-selling vehicle in the United States and Canada, which itself tells you a bit about the brand’s odd new niche in the GM family. And about its buyers, many of whom I suspect are boomers or empty nesters who find themselves no longer needing the extra space of a full-sized SUV or crossover but still appreciate something distinctively stylish.
The GX is not quite the very tight fit that the super-compact Encore requires for its passengers, with a 102.2-inch wheelbase and overall length of 171.4 inches, up from Encore’s 168.4-inch overall length. That means slightly more leg room in the back and a reasonable 50.2 cubic feet of storage if you drop the rear seats. The vehicle also has the capability of pulling 1,000 pounds of trailer weight. Rear seating is quite comfortable, with very tall seatbacks, though the vehicle’s still-small stature meant my head got caught in the door well when I tried to exit.
And yes, like the Trailblazer, the Encore GX’s turbocharged engine options certainly seem minuscule by American standards, but the mileage and overall power is not so bad if you go with the larger 1.3-liter, three-cylinder, good for 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque and EPA-rated mileage of 32 mpg highway in the front-wheel drive model I drove. Its smaller 1.2-liter companion is standard, generating 137 horsepower.
Adding the larger engine was just a $395 option and seemed like a good idea. In the real world, that 1.3-liter, connected to a continuously variable transmission (a nine-speed automatic is available on the premium Essence model I sampled), will do everything you need it to do. I found it more than adequate for Interstate 70 inclines, though the “low” gear doesn’t do a whole lot to slow you down on steep highway inclines. I got as much as 35 mpg during my drives.
It is kind of hard these days to identify any old-school Buick attributes to their vehicles, but I would say that sound-deadening (enough to hear Taylor Swift quite clearly at highway speed, in a small vehicle with a three-cylinder engine) and a driver’s seat that automatically slides back and forth on entries seem like the most classic elements.
Instead, Buick now focuses on things like Amazon Alexa compatibility and tech bits including a sharply rendered heads-up display, a high-definition surround-vision camera, and a full range of standard safety tools: forward collision and pedestrian alert, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and automatic headlamps. Other options include parking assist, lane change and cross traffic alerts.
It’s also one of the first times I’ve used a digital rear-view mirror; in standard mode, it’s a conventional mirror, but flip it up and you get a wider, digitized image. You can also opt for a power liftgate — something of a rarity at this price/vehicle level.
Like the rest of the family, it is undoubtedly stylish — something the Chinese diplomats dig — though practically every crossover of this ilk can seem identical. Jazzier bits such as busy nose details (a long hood, rectangular headlamps and actually sparkly paint on a faux skid plate) and surprisingly strong creases on the body line all help set Encore GX apart.
I found the elbow rest to be really, really tall for some reason; the cabin is otherwise low-drama upscale, with perforated leather seats, a glossy mix of trim and an attractive iteration of GM infotainment controls.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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