by Frank A. Aukofer

Shoppers can be forgiven for thinking that the 2021 Buick Encore GX Essence is simply a new trim level, or version, in the Encore lineup of small crossover sport utility vehicles. 

It’s not. Introduced as a 2020 model, the GX Essence is still a small crossover SUV, slightly larger than the original Encore, which made its debut as a 2013 model. But it is a separate vehicle underpinned by a different platform, with its own trim levels.

It has a starting price of $25,195, including the destination charge, for the base Preferred trim. The midlevel Select starts at $26,795, and the GX tops out as tested here, with options, at $35,065 for the Essence — close to the average U.S. price of a new automobile. That was for the front-wheel-drive version; tack on $2,000 if you want all-wheel drive.

Yet despite its relatively low price, the Encore GX competes as a small premium crossover. It looks the part, too, with the tester’s classy brown and black interior, perforated leather upholstery, and rich features.

Among those on the tester: Full safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; forward-collision warning; lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and following distance indicator. Also: head-up display, surround-view rear camera, and navigation.

The Encore GX is a bit larger and longer than the Hyundai Kona, another small crossover. But it is smaller than the Subaru Crosstrek, a ‘tweener that slots between the little guys and compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. But any of these deliver the passenger room of a midsize sedan with way better cargo space.

Carved out of the GX’s length of 14 feet 3 inches and height of 5 feet 4 inches is a space of 92 cubic feet for five passengers, enhanced by a flat floor, so the center-rear passenger endures some hard cushion discomfort but not as much as on many cars and crossovers. There are 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, about double compact sedans. The rear seatbacks do not recline for comfort but fold flat to expand the cargo area to 50 cubic feet.

The 2021 GX is essentially the same as the original 2020 model, all-new at the time. But there have been a few changes and additions. SXM satellite radio now is standard on all trims; adaptive cruise control has been included on Preferred models, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on every version. Yet with that and some minor juggling of other features, the price escalated by just $100 across the board.

The tested GX Essence came with Buick’s upgraded engine, a tiny 1.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. Power gets to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The combination delivers an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 30/32/31 mpg using regular gasoline. 

A side note: Though the Buick name is as American as pizza and Budweiser beer, only 3% of the GX’s parts come from the U.S. and Canada. Engines and transmissions are manufactured in Mexico, and the vehicles are built in South Korea. That’s a recommendation. Vehicles from the southern Korean peninsula’s Hyundai and Kia consistently show up at or near the top of quality ratings. 

On the road, the GX is a pleasant, if leisurely, companion. Thanks to decent insulation and Buick’s noise-canceling technology, it cruises quietly, although the engine makes itself known under hard acceleration. 

Handling is capable around corners and on curving roads as long as the driver eschews aggression in favor of what is generally a smooth ride. The suspension, however, does get upset if the GX is pushed too hard on a road with uneven pockmarks. The supportive front seats absorb many minor shocks. But remember that this is no sports car.

Overall, the Encore GX Essence provides a stable though not outstanding ride and handling with decent fuel economy, good performance and quiet highway cruising, all with a dollop of what — for many people — would be something of a luxury experience at a middle-class price.

The Encore GX was nominated for North American Utility of the Year by an independent jury of U.S. and Canadian automotive journalists, of which this reviewer is one.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Buick Encore GX Essence FWD four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 1.3-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 155 hp, 174 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Continuously variable automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 3 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 92/24 cubic feet (50).
  • Weight: 3,094 pounds. 
  • Towing capability: 1,000 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 30/32/31 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $29,595.
  • Price as tested: $35,065.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Buick