General Motors jams a lot into a small package with its Buick Encore GX SUV.
The all-new model, only the second spawned from GM’s VSS-S architecture that also underpins the Chevrolet Trailblazer, is a technological tour de force of sorts for the automaker, packed with advanced driver-assistance systems and state-of-the-art infotainment. But it’s not so much what’s on the Encore GX – most of these features are not new; it’s that you can have it all at a reasonable price.
The Encore GX slides into Buick’s lineup between the Encore and the Envision, straddling the Small and Compact SUV segments stocked with such competitors as the Honda HR-V and Nissan Kicks at one end and the Ford Escape and Hyundai Tucson at the other. Dimensionally, it’s not much bigger than the base Encore but that extra few inches in wheelbase and overall length add up to more-interior room and cargo capacity.
It’s no surprise Buick sees SUVs as critical to its future. The segment accounts for 90% of its U.S. sales and is drawing first-time customers to the brand. Last year, 74% of buyers were new to Buick, including those who migrated from other GM brands.
By adding the South Korean-built Encore GX into its SUV mix, Buick now has three models to cover the ground that accounts for 30% of U.S. light-vehicle sales and repesents a 1.5 million-unit market opportunity.
In designing the car, Buick focused mainly on style and technology. The GX features a lower profile than the base Encore. Its more-chiseled contour, sporty body-colored bumpers and trim, more aggressive grille, strong character lines and standard 18-in. wheels make for a better-looking vehicle with a much more solid stance.
Inside, the GX takes a significant step up from the base Encore as well. Three trims are offered: Preferred ($25,095), Select ($26,695) and Essence ($29,495). Our top-line Essence tester featured leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 8-way adjustable passenger seat and air ionizer, extending a healthy list of standard equipment.
The vehicle’s all-black interior was one of its few drawbacks. But buyers can get a splash of color if they opt for one of the more adventurous two-tone interior packages.
Upfront seating is comfortable and supportive, and the driver’s bucket includes an adjustable lumbar support. The 40/60-split back row is roomier but lacks the ability to tilt or slide, making those seats less comfortable than they could be.
The GX is powered by a new 1.2L turbocharged 3-cyl. rated at 137 hp and 166 lb.-ft. (225 Nm) of torque, but our front-wheel-drive tester’s optional 1.3L ratchets up output to 155 hp and 174 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) along a wide band from 1,600 to 4,000 rpm.
Stepping down to a three-port engine might worry some Buick owners who may have resisted even a 4-cyl. But it shouldn’t. Those opting for the 1.3L won’t be left wanting for power when merging onto freeways or accelerating to pass slower vehicles.
Although the 1.3L adds $395 to the sticker, it gets slightly better fuel economy, at 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) combined, saving an estimated $150 annually in fuel costs over the base 1.2L.
The 3-cyl. is mated with a CVT in FWD models. Often that’s a cringe-worthy combination, but not here. The Encore GX’s transmission shifts smoothly, gearing down quickly when needed without the rubber-band effect that can plague CVT performance.
The bigger engine is standard with all-wheel drive, where it is combined with a conventional 9-speed automatic transmission and equals the 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) combined fuel efficiency of the base 1.2L.
Ride and handling are about on par for vehicles in its size and price class, but Encore GX’s cabin is above-average quiet.
The new model makes up for any minor deficiencies by bundling in the content. Our $33,465 test vehicle was equipped with an optional $1,790 Advanced Technology Package that includes surround-vision camera; head-up display, adaptive cruise control camera, the Buick infotainment system and navigation.
Particularly interesting is the ACC, which is a cost-saving camera-only system that doesn’t use radar. It can take the vehicle to full stop and relaunch in traffic, and it performed flawlessly in a short stint on the freeway.
Also included is a 5.4-in. (13.7-cm) full color pop-up head-up display. It shows status for the ACC, forward collision alerts, lane-departure and pedestrian warnings, vehicle vitals such as low oil pressure, tachometer readings, radio channels and turn-by-turn navigation.
An optional $770 Convenience Package adds wireless charging, rear-camera mirror, rain-sensing wipers and power hands-free liftgate.
The GX gets the full GM infotainment treatment that includes superfast pairing and apps such as GM’s Marketplace that lets you order food and pay for gas at the pump.
Connectivity includes CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa. Alexa enables drivers to download directions using the embedded navigation or via OnStar’s Turn-by-Turn; play music, audiobooks or podcasts by calling up available streaming services; and interact with smart home devices connected to Alexa.
The Small and Compact SUV segments are competitive, but the Encore GX presents a pretty compelling package. Its Goldilocks positioning between those two groups in size may make it an interesting option for some. And its emphasis on tech bells and whistles means Buick buyers looking to step down in size needn’t fear missing out.