Auto review: Buick Encore GX is a big style statement in a small package

Tribune Content Agency

CHARLEVOIX, Michigan — The new 2024 Buick Encore GX may be petite. But it has presence.

Parked in the middle of downtown Charlevoix over a busy Memorial Day weekend, the premium brand’s entry-level compact SUV turned heads. “Never seen that before. What is it?” said one passerby. “That’s a Buick?” said another, echoing the brand’s catchy ad campaign.

Buick has come back from the dead thanks to an SUV model-line makeover — and the entry-level Encore and three-row Enclave in particular. The 2024 models continue the momentum with all-new designs inspired by the Wildcat electric coupe concept. Encore and Enclave are not electric, which is a good thing since EVs are not ready for prime time (will they ever be?) when it comes to road trips.

I left Oakland County with a full tank of gas and 370 miles of range, enough to get me nonstop to Charlevoix with fuel to spare. And that was a good thing since I hit a traffic-choked I-75 at 3 p.m. Friday headed north. Normally, a 3 ½-hour journey, it would take us five hours in traffic, and my wife and I were in no mood to spend more time sitting at electric chargers for another 35-60 minutes refueling the battery as we would in, say, a similarly-sized Chevy Bolt EUV. And that’s assuming no wait lines on a busy holiday weekend.

Like the Wildcat (and recently redesigned Enclave), GX sports thin cat’s-eyes running lights at the top of the front fascia and a low grille across the chin. The effect is a futuristic Transformer robot face — echoed by the rear lights and diffuser — with nicely scalloped sheetmetal in between. Headlights are almost unnoticeable — the small mid-mounted beams are like dimples on either side of the wide-mouth grille.

In keeping with this spare new design (look, gramps, no more portholes on the side of the hood!), the Encore GX is badged with the new, simplified three-shield Buick logo that was first seen on the Wildcat. The cabin’s lines are also easy on the eyes with a sculpted 19-inch display engorged with an 8-inch gauge cluster and 11-inch infotainment touchscreen display.

Driving the Encore GX is as serene an experience as viewing its lovely aesthetics.

GX purred along I-75 headed north with a quiet cabin insulated from the 1.3-liter three-banger up front. When needed to merge into traffic or make a quick passing maneuver, the turbocharged mill provided a healthy 174 torque managed by a liquid-smooth nine-speed automatic transmission.

This is no BMW X1 or Mazda CX-30 Sport, however — your lead-foot reviewer’s preferred vehicles in class — but the Buick brand is not seeking motorheads. It wants customers longing for style and comfort — not G-forces and stoplight launches.

Indeed, underneath its new wardrobe the standard GX is basically a last-gen Chevy Trax. Same 102-inch wheelbase, same 1.2-liter or 1.3-liter 3-banger, same front-wheel-drive-based platform, same cramped rear seats. For the same price, you could get the new, handsome Chevy Trax Activ — on an updated chassis — that adds four more inches of wheelbase and two more inches of rear legroom. Ooooo, I like that new Chevy.

Which is why you should start your Encore GX shopping with the all-wheel-drive version — a $1,500 option (available on all three trims: Preferred, Sport, Avenir) that’s unavailable on Trax.

Starting at $29,350 on the base Preferred trim, the GX AWD will allow you to navigate Michigan’s endless winters with confidence. Just don’t go drag-racing any BMW X1s out of stoplights. Bimmer earns its $8K premium over the Encore by throwing mud on you with its 295 pound-feet of torque.

If that doesn’t concern you, then my top-trim Avenir tester suits Buick’s country-club vibe just fine. Load its comfy interior with leather seats, auto windshield wipers and cell-phone charger, and it’ll ring the register at $39K. That’s in the affordable premium luxe sweet spot — eight grand south of a comparable BMW X1 and 12 grand north of a Chevy Trax Activ.

Despite giving up legroom and cargo space to the remade Trax, the Encore GX has a neat trick that Trax lacks: A forward-folding front seat.

In downtown Charlevoix, my wife spied a big, wide rug she wanted to take home. No problem.

I flattened the front passenger seat, flattened the second-row, 60-40 split seat, then opened the hatch and shoved the rug all the way through the cabin to the front dash. Mrs. Payne sat in the left rear seat for the ride home next to the rug. That magic front seat can also be used as an ottoman for, say, a leg that’s been operated on. Like when I had a knee replacement a few years back and my wife drove me home — my stiff right leg laying over the flattened front seat.

Such attention to cabin detail is typical of GM products, and the Buick shares the intuitive steering wheel controls found in other vehicles from the automaker. Those ergonomics extend to the back side of the wheel, where you can adjust radio volume with your right hand — and scroll stations with your left.

Alas, that ergonomic attention is missing when it comes to rear visibility, and the Encore has one of the worst C-pillar blind-spots of any compact vehicle I’ve driven. A standard 360-degree view would be a nice solution to this problem — especially given the Buick’s premium luxe market.

Alas, GM (and Buick) are stingy when it comes to tech. The 360-degree camera will set you back an additional $1,095 as part of an advanced technology package that also includes adaptive cruise control. For a company trying to lead the industry into a self-driving future with its Cruise and Super Cruise technologies, the lack of standard ACC is another, ahem, blind spot. Especially when you consider that ACC comes standard on a Mazda CX-30 for just $24K.

With the demise of the base Encore, Encore GX is Buick’s entry-level offering. For now. That will soon change with the introduction of the fastback Envista compact SUV starting just below $24K.

But Envista will be FWD only. If it’s an entry-level premium compact you’re looking for with AWD below $40K, then Buick is a compelling choice. Especially if your hubby is planning knee surgery.

2024 Buick Encore GX

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV

Price: $26,895, including $1,295 destination fee ($38,980 Avenir model as tested)

Powerplant: 1.2-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder; 1.3-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder

Power: 137 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (1.2L); 155 horsepower, 174 pound-feet of torque (1.3L)

Transmission: Continuously variable (1.2L FWD); nine-speed automatic (1.3L AWD)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver)

Weight: 3,273 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA, 30 mpg city/31 highway/30 combined (1.2L FWD); 26 mpg city/29 highway/27 combined

Report card

Highs: Attractive new styling; fold-flat front seat

Lows: More standard tech, please; blind spot the size of Rhode Island

Overall: 3 stars