Launched in 2013, the Buick Encore was arguably the first near-premium subcompact crossover on the Canadian market. For 2020 it receives a sequel in the form of this 2021 Buick Encore GX Essence. We jumped behind the wheel to determine if this new entry is the quantum leap necessary to remain competitive or merely an evolution of a now-outdated model?
From the outside, the Buick Encore GX adopts a very safe form. It sports nothing daring like split headlamps or floating C-pillars, so it fits in well with Buick’s conservative M.O. However, there is a way to do conservative styling and this isn’t quite it. Instead of projecting gravitas, the Encore GX is very generic and normcore. It lacks a defined beltline to visually lengthen the vehicle and elements like the elongated chrome window trim and multi-contoured hood are so de rigueur in the segment that they don’t stand out. Derivative designs that work well due to good proportions and occasional daring flourishes exist in the car landscape, but this isn’t one of them.
While it may find favor with some buyers, the Encore GX falls flat for those seeking a touch of passion, or individuality. That being said, the wheels are quite nice. They have enough intricacy to be interesting and don’t fall into the hideous modern car design cliche of bright machined faces with dark painted pockets. Another bright spot is the restrained grille that carries a simultaneous sense of intricacy and subtlety. With a design landscape obsessed with oversized grilles on vehicles not sporty enough to justify them, it’s nice to see a bit of restraint.
On the inside of the Encore GX, things improve a bit. The fold-flat front passenger seat is an incredibly nice touch that allows long items to be easily carried inside the vehicle. The array of available tech is impressive, from a heads-up display to a panoramic moonroof. Passenger space is quite sufficient and the rear seat is comfortable and well-padded. The front seats are a slightly different story, with oddly-contoured backrests that are prone to digging into the driver’s shoulder blades. The attempts to ‘stitch’ fairly mediocre plastics on the dashboard feel cynically insincere, especially considering material quality elsewhere fails to make up for it.
Look a little less closely however, and certain elements begin to work. While the volume knob is a long reach away, the Encore GX offers a nice array of redundant controls for the infotainment, as well as HVAC controls that are very intuitive. The gauges are legible and the heads-up display doesn’t wash out when viewed through polarized sunglasses. Despite our tester being the top trim level, the premium Bose stereo is optional and ours was not equipped with it. As a result, we learned that the standard stereo is entirely unfit for the near-premium segment.
Out on the road, the Encore GX exists in the uncanny valley between perfectly sufficient and not quite good enough. The 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder makes the coarse notes of pea gravel being fed through a woodchipper when accelerating. It also makes 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft. of torque which feels entirely acceptable. The automatic transmission has nine gears, although it might as well have four or seventeen as it’s largely seamless.
While steering weight builds nicely mid-corner, ride quality is a little more than a decade out of date with noticeable choppiness over minor imperfections over anything larger than the cross-section of a nickel. Head-toss is pronounced and mid-corner freeway expansion joints are met with a spooky combination of pitch and roll. General road noise is also surprisingly pronounced for a Buick, necessitating cranking the aforementioned entirely inadequate stereo to cover up the ruckus. Our testing period consisted of mostly freeway driving and we observed 9.0L/100km, 0.5 L/100km worse than the official combined rating.
With such an unappetizing plate of dynamics, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing that stands out as great about how the Encore GX drives, but that would be wrong. The brakes are absolutely fantastic. Pedal feel is astonishingly firm and bite is absolutely immediate and surprisingly ferocious for such a mild, low-dust setup. The result is millimetre-accurate braking and a sense that the performance vehicle engineering team was lured under the premise of free beef jerky to fine-tune the Encore GX’s binders. These brakes deserve to be on every small crossover under the sun, full stop.
As far as active safety, our Encore GX tester came equipped with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control. We found the automatic emergency braking alerts to be a touch sensitive while changing lanes in heavy traffic, the blind-spot monitoring system to have a few inconsistencies and the lane-keep assist to have absolutely no idea what lane markings were on the DVP. For the most part though, the majority of the systems worked quite well but weren’t on the same level as the advanced driver assists found on pricier GM products or Nissan’s ProPilot Assist.
In the end, the 2020 Buick Encore GX is a mixed bag. Aside from the brakes, nothing else about it stands out strongly enough to be considered endearing, especially for such a price tag. $37,183 as tested is on the expensive side, particularly when a better-equipped Honda HR-V Touring is four grand less expensive and a significantly more premium-feeling Mazda CX-30 GT (reviewed here) is about $3,000 less expensive. Better luck next time, then, or stick with the GM portfolio and opt for the new Chevrolet Trailblazer.