The Tri-Shield’s latest subcompact crossover is a huge improvement.
Most new automobiles on the market today are at least decent. Compared to some of the truly hateful cars of yesteryear, the four-wheeled chariots of 2020 are generally comfortable enough, reliable enough, and capable enough to ferry you around safely. There are shades of gray, but generally, all new cars are adequate, at the very least. Finally, with the 2020 Encore GX, we can add a small Buick subcompact SUV to that list.
Adding those two capital letters to the Encore equation changes the formula entirely. The 2013-era small crossover – which Buick will mystifyingly still sell alongside the GX for the 2020 and 2021 model years – is one of a few exceptions to the rule that most new cars are good enough. Slow, inefficient, and unpleasant to drive, the Encore’s saving graces are its parking-friendly size and reasonable pricing (plaudits that also apply to any number of much better small SUVs). The Encore GX, on the other hand, is a wholesale improvement over its not-quite-predecessor, without sacrificing any virtues.
For starters, the Encore GX is far more attractive. Measuring 171.4 inches long by 71.4 inches wide by 64.1 inches tall, the Encore GX is longer, lower, and wider than the Encore – GM styling legend Harley Earl would be proud. And modern Buick styling features like a wing-shaped grille and swooping taillamps look great on the reshaped canvas. I especially liked the swirl-spoke wheels and artful roofline trim of this particular Encore Essence model, the latter of which avoids the overused floating-roof effect with a nice chrome flourish.
Those expanded inches also pay off with added shoulder room front and rear, curing the Encore’s narrow cabin that had even front-seat passengers sitting uncomfortably close to one another. Legroom is up on the Encore GX too, and although headroom drops somewhat, the rear seat still has ample space for two six-footers. Interior quality is a mixed bag, with soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard and front door panel uppers, while the rear seats get the shaft – hard plastic door panels with soft-touch armrest inserts. The lower dashboard is also pretty cheap, with a hard plastic corner where the driver’s knees would brace in a corner.
Cargo space is improved, measuring 23.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place (up from 18.8) and 50.2 cubes with the seats folded (up from 48.4). As an avowed Encore hater, I still had to respect such a large cargo bay in such a small body, and the Encore GX is better still. As before, Costco runs should be a cinch in the new subcompact SUV, even with two or three passengers on board. And the expanded interior doesn’t come at the expense of daily-driving convenience – even without using the Essence tester’s available automatic parking feature, the Encore GX fits into teeny spaces with ease.
Maintain Your Composure
What’s more, the Encore GX drives very nicely for a small crossover, particularly compared to the unsettling Encore. Buick’s “QuietTuning” efforts yield a hushed and comfortable cabin at freeway speeds. Bumps and potholes make their presence known with mostly damped body motions, with no untoward noises assaulting my or my passenger’s eardrums. That’s all the more impressive given the GX’s short, 102.2-inch wheelbase. Admittedly, certain road surfaces caused some unpleasant grittiness through the seats and steering wheel, imperfections that would likely show up in anything short of a full-size luxury sedan.
Not much can be said of the uninspiring steering, mated to an otherwise competent platform that soaks up midcorner bumps with little drama. My test vehicle’s optional turbocharged 1.3-liter inline-three offers decent low- and midrange punch with 155 horsepower and 174 pound-feet, but power drops off sharply as the engine spins higher – a 1.2-liter turbo three with 137 hp and 162 lb-ft is standard. Front-drive models with the 1.2- or 1.3-liter engine come with a CVT, while all-wheel drive is mated exclusively to the larger mill and a nine-speed auto. My CVT-equipped tester was reasonably unobtrusive but sporty the Encore GX is not.
Little Car, Big Spender
It’s also not particularly cheap. At $33,465 as tested, this mostly loaded Encore Essence still lacks all-wheel drive, though it does come with the aforementioned automatic parking aids, adaptive cruise control, leather, navigation, and a useful head-up display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as are automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and automatic high beams. That’s a whole lot of equipment, even at the Encore’s base $25,095.
Buick would have you make comparisons to the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA, similarly sized vehicles that offer lots more power at a much higher price. Nevertheless, nearly 34 grand for a subcompact SUV is a tough pill to swallow. For comparison, the turbocharged Kia Seltos SX offers all-wheel drive, more power, and a similar level of equipment for less cash, although its interior quality and noise-vibration-harshness quotient are clearly downmarket. The cheap and cheerful Hyundai Venue is another option in this size class, with far less power and only front-wheel drive, but a hard-loaded price of just $23,190.
Helping the Encore GX’s case is our observed fuel economy of about 35 miles per gallon over 800 miles, outstripping the EPA’s 30 city, 32 highway, and 31 combined rating (as well as the old Encore’s 25, 30, and 27 mpg). And curiously, the more powerful 1.3-liter three in my tester is more efficient than the Encore GX’s base 1.2-liter unit, which achieves 26 city 30 highway, and 28 mpg combined in EPA testing.
In truth, the Encore GX is one of the better subcompact crossovers out there, but as on the mechanically identical Chevrolet Trailblazer we recently tested, the greatest threat to any member of this class of car actually comes from one size up.
Small (but not subcompact) SUVs boast similar efficiency and pricing, more space, and a better reputation, with comparable equipment levels and even better performance. Relative to the fuel-friendly and economical Honda CR-V, for example, a subcompact’s only convincing one-up is its easier parkability. That said, the Encore GX is the first Buick I’d be comfortable recommending (or affirming) to friends in the market for a competent, comfortable small crossover.
Gallery: 2021 Buick Encore GX: First Drive Review
2020 Buick Encore GX Essence