2020 Buick Encore GX Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Sep 14, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Buick deals!

Buick sees a sweet spot in the small crossover SUV market, and plans to exploit it with the new 2020 Buick Encore GX. 

Larger and more upscale than the established Encore model, the bigger Encore GX rides the coattails of the smaller Encore’s popularity to appeal to the same base of primarily female customers. At the same time, it straddles the line of demarcation between subcompact and compact crossovers, giving Buick a 3-SUV line of attack on the two segments the company claims account for a third of all new-vehicle sales in the U.S.

Built in South Korea, the new Buick Encore GX shares its platform and powertrains with the Chevrolet Trailblazer. It is a more upscale model, however, aiming to provide a premium offering along the lines of the Mazda CX-30 and Lexus UX. Prices start at $25,695 for Preferred trim. Select, Essence, and ST trims are also available, the latter the sporty one in terms of appearance.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Black Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an Encore GX Essence equipped with front-wheel drive, an engine upgrade, a paint upgrade, the Experience Buick Package, the Advanced Technology Package, the Convenience Package, and a hands-free power rear liftgate. The price came to $34,965, including the $995 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Buick deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Buick Encore GX, it is helpful to understand who buys small SUVs, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 58% of small SUV owners are female (vs. 40% for the entire automotive market), and the median age of a small SUV owner is 56 years (matching the market).

Owners say their favorite things about small SUVs are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, feeling of safety, setting up and starting, and getting in and out. Specifically, these five things about the small SUVs rank highest in comparison to the overall automotive market:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Ease of safely maneuvering the vehicle
  • Operating the vehicle remotely
  • Using voice assistance
  • Using navigation

Owners indicate their least favorite things about small SUVs are (in descending order) the fuel economy, interior design, infotainment system, driving comfort, and powertrain. Specifically, these five things about small SUVs rank lowest in comparison to the overall automotive market:

  • Power of engine/motor
  • Vehicle protection
  • Smoothness of engine/motor
  • Exterior styling
  • Sound of engine/motor

Due to low sample size in the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Buick Encore GX was not ranked in its segment.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Buick deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Buick Encore GX measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Buick builds appealing SUVs, drawn to design themes that originated in Europe with former General Motors brand Opel. The new Encore GX is no exception, equipped with more balanced proportions than the stubby Encore and fewer gratuitous flourishes than the bigger Envision.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Black Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

All but the Encore GX ST have dark gray plastic lining the lower perimeter of the body, ensuring that people recognize it as a crossover and not a car. Standard 18-inch aluminum wheels help with the SUV’s stance, too, giving this Buick a planted look.

As an option, a black roof treatment is available. And if the gray plastic doesn’t appeal to you, the Encore GX ST adds body-color lower trim, a mesh grille with high-gloss black and red accents, unique 18-inch wheels, and integrated roof rails in order to convey added sophistication and sportiness. 

Interior

If you’re familiar with modern Buick interior design, you’ll recognize the Encore GX’s approach to the interior’s appearance and layout. The infotainment display resides under a wide glass panel that makes it look bigger than it really is, while small gauges that are hard to read at a glance flank a comprehensive driver information center.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The test vehicle had the available head-up display, which shows information on a clear plastic pop-up panel in front of the driver. It is configurable, and it remains visible when the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses. But it vibrates when you’re driving on imperfect road surfaces, which does not inspire satisfaction with the Encore GX’s attention to detail.

Keep your eyes and fingertips above the cabin’s midpoint, and you’ll discover soft-touch materials, appealing trim and accents, and a sense of elevated quality. As should be expected of a small SUV, however, the lower half of the interior is composed mainly of plastic. 

The Ebony interior does this Buick no favors, in spite of its exposed contrast stitching. Either of the other colors, Whisper Beige or Signet (a saddle brown), adds upscale contrast against the dark carpets, console, and dashboard. With the available leather upholstery, these two hues also draw out the unique geometric perforations on the seat inserts.

Also, note that storage is generous for small personal items, because Buick carves out numerous spaces for stashing your stuff.

Getting In and Out

As is true of any crossover SUV, one of the benefits of a vehicle that sits higher off of the ground is easier entry and exit. That’s the case with the Encore GX, too, and with Essence trim the front passenger’s seat includes 8-way power adjustment, which helps in this regard.

Measured alone, the cargo area behind the back seat amounts to 23.5 cubic feet and includes a dual-level load floor that provides hidden storage if you prefer it. Maximum volume with the 60/40-split folding rear seat measures 50.2 cubic feet. All Encore GX trims include a flat-folding front passenger’s seat that allows the SUV to accommodate 8-foot-long items with the rear hatch closed.

A hands-free power liftgate is also available for the Encore GX, and it includes an LED Buick logo projection light that illuminates the ground beneath the sensor where you need to wave your foot to activate the hatch.

Setting Up and Starting

There isn’t anything special about setting up and starting the Buick Encore GX, aside from the fact that it’s easy and relatively effortless. You’ll need to get the hang of how the steering wheel controls adjust the menus in the driver information center, but otherwise the user experience is as seamless as the one for your smartphone. 

Note that when the Encore GX is equipped with a power rear tailgate, you can set a specific height so that it won’t hit an obstacle, such as a low ceiling in a parking garage.

Infotainment System

For the Encore GX, Buick employs my favorite version of the corporate GM infotainment system. The 8-inch touchscreen display is mounted beneath a flush piece of glass, and below that a simple power/volume knob is flanked by tuning buttons, a home-screen button, and a “back” button. It is simple and minimalistic while providing quick access to the functions you’ll use on a regular basis.

Highlights include Bluetooth that supports two devices at the same time; Apple CarPlay (will be wireless in 2021), wireless Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa integration; Buick Marketplace apps; and Buick Connected services with extra-cost Remote Access, Unlimited Access, and OnStar Safety & Security plans. 

You can bundle all three of the connected services plans together for about $60 per month, or you can choose them a la carte. Features of these plans include 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, remote engine starting, a vehicle location finder, automatic crash response, crisis assist, emergency services, and roadside assistance.

Teen Driver is standard, a driving report card technology that shows parents how the Encore GX was driven while in the possession of a young driver. Navigation is also available, as well as wireless device charging and a 7-speaker Bose premium sound system.

The test vehicle did not have the Bose stereo, and based on the quality of sound from the standard components, this is a worthy upgrade. The standard speakers produce brassy, muddled sound and lack both clarity and power.

That’s really the only ding against the infotainment technology. The system responds reasonably fast, provides crisp and clean graphics, is intuitive to operate, and offers a decent voice recognition system.

Keeping You Safe

To help consumers feel confident in the Encore GX, Buick equips every version with a standard Driver Confidence Package that includes forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, automatic high-beam headlights, and a following distance monitor. Additionally, the Encore GX has a rear-seat reminder system designed to prevent people from accidentally leaving a child or a pet in the SUV.

Options, depending on the trim level, include a camera-based adaptive cruise control system, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, lane-change assistance, a high-definition surround-view camera, and a parking assistance system that steers the Encore GX into parallel and perpendicular spaces. Buick also offers a rear camera mirror that shows an unobstructed view of what’s behind the SUV, though the vantage point is quite high.

With all systems set to medium sensitivity, where possible, I found the advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) effective. I even had a chance to sample the automatic emergency braking system when traffic ahead came to an abrupt stop and the Buick’s software decided I wasn’t pushing down hard enough on the brake pedal.

Buick spokespeople claim that camera-based adaptive cruise control is now sophisticated enough that radar is not necessary, but I found it could use more fine-tuning with regard to smoothness as it reacted to changing traffic conditions ahead. Notably, you can feel the lane-keeping assistance at work, but it’s not a source of irritation.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has not tested the Buick Encore GX for crash protection, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has. The AWD model earns a 4-star overall rating, mainly due to a middling 3-star protection rating for the front passenger in a frontal-impact collision.

Powertrain

Buick offers the Encore GX with a choice between two turbocharged 3-cylinder engines. That is not a typo: three cylinders.

The standard engine is a 1.2-liter turbo 3-cylinder good for 137 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,500 rpm. It pairs with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and front-wheel drive.

Chances are, you’ll want the optional 1.3-liter turbo 3-cylinder. It whips up 155 hp at 5,600 rpm and, more importantly, 174 lb.-ft. of torque from just 1,600 rpm all the way to 4,000 rpm. It also uses a CVT unless you get all-wheel drive, in which case Buick swaps in a 9-speed automatic. 

The test vehicle had the 1.3 turbo, CVT, and front-drive. Buick says it will accelerate to 60 mph in eight seconds flat, nearly a second faster than the 1.2 turbo, and that’s believable. But at higher speeds there isn’t much in reserve for, say, passing slower traffic on a two-lane road. Buick says the 1.3 turbo will tow 1,000 pounds, but if towing is on your agenda, you need a different vehicle.

In urban and suburban driving situations, the 1.3 turbo is adept, supplying fairly refined power and reasonably quick responsiveness. Under hard acceleration, the CVT can drone a bit, and it also exhibited a slight delay when accelerating out of corners and curves. This, in combination with the low torque peak, made power delivery feel a bit like an on-off switch while traveling the tight, winding back roads into Santa Barbara, California. In this driving environment, the Encore GX would regularly surge forward faster than expected.

Given that small SUV owners do not rate the powertrains in their vehicles high on their list of favorite attributes, if you’re buying an Encore GX, you’re going to want the 1.3 turbo.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, the test vehicle should have returned 31 mpg in combined driving. On a 135-mile testing loop, it averaged 28 mpg. With its 13.2-gallon fuel tank, this real-world average translates into almost 370 miles of range, or 320 miles if you leave yourself a cushion.

Driving Comfort

After powertrain, the least favorite thing about small SUVs, according to the people who own them, is driving comfort. Most likely, this is because small SUVs are small inside, but they’re also annoyingly noisy.

Buick attempts to solve for this with its QuietTuning approach, offering triple door seals, acoustic windshield and front door glass, and other measures to make the Encore GX quieter inside. And on Southern California’s 101 freeway, it does seem easier to carry on a conversation or listen to music from the lackluster speakers than it might in a typical small crossover.

At the same time, however, in other driving situations road noise does encroach on the Encore GX’s cabin. And on hot days, the available dual-zone automatic climate control system’s fan blows loudly as the air conditioning struggles to deal with temperatures in the 90s. The system does, however, include an air ionizer, and when temperatures are not so hot the available heated front seats and heated steering wheel are ready to soothe you.

The Encore GX Essence has a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, and it’s comfortable enough during hours spent behind the steering wheel, which, unfortunately, is unpleasantly hard and skinny. The leather isn’t of a particularly high grade of quality, either, and seat ventilation is not available.

Rear seat space is snug, but two adults can ride in the back without complaining thanks in part to softly padded front seatbacks. The test vehicle also supplied rear USB-A and USB-C charging ports.

Driving Feel

Every Buick Encore GX has a cheap and simple beam-axle rear suspension design, a compound crank implementation with front-drive and a more sophisticated Watt’s Link version with AWD. This approach is also taken by the Buick’s most direct competitor, the Mazda CX-30, and isn’t entirely satisfying in either vehicle. But Mazda does a better job of tuning its SUV to eliminate as many negative effects on driving dynamics as is possible.

Rocking and bouncy, the Encore GX’s ride isn’t great unless the pavement is smooth and blemish-free. On well maintained roads, like California 154 where it sluices down the Dennison Grade into Ojai, the Buick demonstrates a flat cornering attitude and good grip from the tires. Plus, while the steering wheel is unpleasant to grip, the steering itself is nicely weighted and accurate enough to place the SUV exactly where you want it in a lane.

Rather, it is on narrow and undulating California 192 as it winds its way from Carpenteria to Santa Barbara where the Encore GX’s ride and handling limitations are most evident. Also, like the Chevrolet Trailblazer did in the same situation, the Encore GX had trouble taking the speed humps near my child’s elementary school at a speed greater than 20 mph.

Occasionally grabby brakes also make it hard to bring the Buick to a smooth and clean stop, a shame since the Encore GX’s dynamics shine brightest in cities and suburbs where the brakes are required on a regular basis.

Final Impressions - Find the best Buick deals!

Stylish, useful, and filled with impressive technology, the Buick Encore GX holds real promise.

But as it stands, the only thing truly premium about it is the price tag. Collectively, the engineering, the driving dynamics, the execution, and the “everything costs extra” (including metallic paint) packaging approach struggle to justify what Buick charges for this small SUV. 

This dissonance might explain why, as the summer of 2020 draws to a close, Buick is offering a $3,250 rebate to Encore GX buyers. Remember, this is the automaker’s newest SUV competing in two of the hottest-selling segments of the market. And rebates of that size are only used to help sell vehicles that aren’t rolling off of dealership lots on their own.

Still, that discount helps to better align the Buick’s price with what serves as its nemesis – the Mazda CX-30. So perhaps more people will give it a try.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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