Crossovers accounted for 90% of Buick's US sales last year, and with statistics like that, it makes sense that Buick will soon stop selling sedans altogether. But before that happens, Buick needs to bolster its SUV lineup. That's where the Encore GX comes in.
It might sound like just a trim level of the subcompact Encore crossover, but the GX is in fact an entirely new vehicle, riding on a platform shared with the Chevrolet Trailblazer -- for better or worse. It squeezes in between the ever-so-slightly smaller Encore and the ever-so-slightly larger Envision, the latter of which will be replaced by a sharply styled successor in early 2021.
The GX is certainly more handsome than the little potato that is the Encore, with standard 18-inch wheels and LED headlights. The version you see here wears Sport Touring duds -- a $1,100 package that adds body-colored side moldings, unique bumpers and a whole bunch of red accents in the grille. I could absolutely do without the red stuff, but the rest of the Sport Touring getup is actually rather nice. Still, you're likely better off skipping this package and saving some money; I think the Encore GX is just as attractive with its standard gray exterior trim.
Stepping inside reveals a handsome, nicely organized cabin, although the closer you look, the more flaws you find. Don't forget the $25,095 Encore GX (including $995 for destination) is based on the $19,995 Trailblazer, and it doesn't take long to find evidence of those budget roots. If something looks like cheap plastic, it is cheap plastic. And even the more upscale-looking materials on the dashboard feel weirdly rubbery. Specific items like the turn signal and windshield wiper stalks are the same low-rent parts General Motors has been using for years, and the rest of the controls are all just kind of meh. Buick maintains it's a premium brand, and its larger vehicles are actually quite nice inside -- even the smaller Encore can be decidedly more plush -- but the GX's interior is no better (or in some cases, worse) than what you'll find in non-luxury competitors like the Hyundai Kona or Kia Seltos.
Happily, the GX redeems itself in terms of overall passenger volume. Since it's bigger than the standard Encore, there's plenty of room for adults in both front and back, and the upright shape means headroom is hardly an issue. The leather seats of my Sport Touring tester are comfortable, though they're rather narrow and lack any real side bolstering. With the driver's seat set for my ideal driving position, I have lots of space to sit behind myself (although at 5 feet, 8 inches, I'm not exactly what you'd call tall).
Unfortunately, cargo volume suffers, with the Encore GX offering just 23.5 cubic feet of space with the rear seats upright, or 50.2 with them folded flat. Those numbers just slightly best the smaller Encore but lag behind other subcompact CUVs, including the aforementioned Seltos or even the tiny Nissan Kicks. A hands-free power liftgate is optional, and it can be set to open to different heights.
The best thing about the Encore GX's interior is the multimedia tech. Every GX comes standard with Buick's incredibly easy-to-use infotainment system, housed on an 8-inch touchscreen. This is essentially a rebranded version of the Chevrolet Infotainment 3 suite found in Buick's corporate cousin, and that's a good thing. All of the icons are easy to read, the system responds instantly to inputs and the menus are a cinch to navigate. If you prefer to rely on your own tech, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as is a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and Amazon Alexa integration is available. Embedded navigation is optional on all Encore GX models, but you could also just skip it and let Google Maps or Waze do the heavy lifting.
Standard driver-assistance systems include forward-collision warning with pedestrian braking, automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning. It's an impressive roster of tech for this price. Curiously, though, adaptive cruise control remains optional, even on the most expensive Essence model, where it's bundled into the $1,790 Advanced Technology Package that also includes a surround-view camera, head-up display and navigation. The HD camera is the only part of that package worth paying for; the head-up display is one of those dashboard-mounted ones where a small screen flips up, and you can hear how cheap this thing is by the groan of its motor and the click as it snaps into place. It's a shame Buick doesn't allow a desirable option like adaptive cruise control to be purchased on its own. (Or, you know, just make it standard, like so many other non-premium competitors are doing these days.)
The Encore GX is available with either a 1.2-liter or 1.3-liter I3 engine, both of which are turbocharged. Front-wheel drive is standard, and if you want all-wheel drive, you're forced into getting the larger inline-three. I can't speak to the smaller 1.2-liter I3 and its 137 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, as my South Korea-built Sport Touring tester has the larger 1.3, which brings 155 hp and 174 lb-ft to the party. Regardless of engine, front-wheel-drive models use a continuously variable transmission, but the 1.3/AWD pairing gets a nine-speed automatic.
The nine-speed transmission operates smoothly and seamlessly, and with the engine's full torque punch coming on strong at just 1,600 rpm, there's plenty of low-end power for scooting around town. But this engine isn't perfect. Little triples like this are often rough by nature, and Buick's 1.3-liter is no exception. It kind of chugs like a diesel under hard acceleration, and the engine vibration at idle is strong enough that you can feel it through the seat and the steering wheel.
The GX's most efficient powertrain combination is the 1.3-liter engine with front-wheel drive, which the EPA says should return 30 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Adding all-wheel drive reduces those numbers to 26 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, and if you go for the smaller 1.2T, you're looking at 26 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Across the board, these aren't exactly stellar figures, especially when a larger, more powerful Honda CR-V will return 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Still, they're relatively easy to achieve; I had no problem seeing about 30 mpg highway in my AWD tester (though I only ever drove it in FWD mode).
Like many other small SUVs, the Encore GX's all-wheel-drive system isn't an always-on affair. In fact, the GX defaults to front-drive unless you press the "AWD" button on the center console, just ahead of the shifter, at which point torque is sent to the rear axle. I really like that the Encore remembers your setting when you shut the engine off -- if you had AWD selected, it'll be turned on when you start the vehicle again. The handling characteristics don't really change between FWD and AWD, either, at least on dry pavement.
On the road, the GX is mostly fine. The steering is incredibly light and equally devoid of feedback, but the chassis is nicely sorted. The Encore has no trouble soaking up the bumps on Los Angeles' crummy roads and smooths out the often jarring expansion joints on the 405 freeway. Body roll is about average, and the brakes are strong but easy to modulate. The GX will largely spend its life running errands and commuting in traffic, and for that, it's perfectly suited.
Yet the more time I spend behind the wheel of the Encore GX, the more I struggle to find its appeal. My Essence 1.3T AWD Sport Touring tester retails for $36,320 including destination, and adding the rest of the available options brings it up over $38,000. Sure, that's several thousand dollars less expensive than a similarly equipped Audi Q3, but the Audi's a real luxury vehicle with a significantly better interior, nicer on-road manners and a larger suite of tech. For my money, I'd just pick up a fully loaded Honda CR-V Touring which, again, is larger, more powerful, more fuel-efficient, nicer inside and offers more driver-assistance tech, all for a lower price ($35,870). Or I'd just get a Chevy Trailblazer, because it's essentially the same car for less money.
The GX might be positioned between Buick's Encore and Envision, but it doesn't seem like it was originally designed to fill that role. The less expensive Encore has a more refined powertrain and nicer interior materials. The GX, meanwhile, just feels like the higher-cost Trailblazer it is.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the GX, but aside from being a little bigger and slightly better looking than the standard Encore, it doesn't really seem to improve upon that package. Still, Buick needs as many new utility vehicles as possible in order to keep momentum. And until fresher offerings arrive, the Encore GX is at least another option.