There are two generally accepted schools of thought when it comes to using pies as economic metaphors. In the first, the pie is growing, so there'll be enough for everyone, and you can achieve your business and financial goals just by going along for the ride. In the second, the pie is the same size as it always has been and always will be, and the only way to succeed is to take more of it for yourself. However, automotive executives in charge of crossover development have long been operating on a third paradigm: the idea that there are new pies being baked all the time and that grabbing a slice of a new pie is paramount.
The 2020 Encore GX is Buick's slice of a new pie. It shares its name with the tiny Encore, but it's a different vehicle altogether and plays in a new segment slotted above the old Encore, which continues on, and below best-sellers such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4. The GX offers a pair of three-cylinder powertrains, a comfortable interior, and plenty of cargo space. Buick reckons that the GX's new segment—er, pie—will have 1.5 million customers worldwide.
A basic front-drive GX with a 138-hp 1.2-liter three-cylinder starts at $25,195, but add all-wheel drive, the 1.3-liter engine, the top Essence trim level, and a few more options, and you can get to our test car's $35,720 price. Skip a few niceties, though, and it's easy to come in at less than $30,000 for a well-equipped GX.
The GX isn't very thrilling on paper. For starters, it's a small crossover shaped like a potato. And even with the most powerful engine—a 1.3-cylinder with a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel drive—you only get 155 horsepower. It just doesn't feel like that's enough, and a 9.3-second run to 60 mph and a 17.0-second quarter-mile time aren't even close to something we'd call quick. Merging onto a freeway from 50 to 70 takes a long 7.0 seconds, which is significantly slower than the far cheaper Hyundai Venue. At least the three-cylinder is quiet. At full throttle, it only raises its voice to 73 decibels, and a 70-mph cruise is a luxury-car-like 67 decibels, 2 quieter than the Chevrolet Trailblazer, which shares the Encore GX's underpinnings and powertrains.
We found ourselves working the tiny engine pretty hard to keep up with traffic. In our hands, it returned a lackluster 22 mpg, short of its EPA estimates of 26 city and 29 highway. It did better on our 200-mile loop at a steady 75 mph, where it hit 30 mpg.
Puny engine or not, the GX does shine in a number of areas. For starters, it's significantly more spacious than the regular Encore. The GX has 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, 5 more than the Encore. The load floor can be adjusted up and down. There's a movable and removable shelf in the cargo area that can make room for tall items. Our bet is most customers will leave that feature alone, but anyone who buys a ladder or moves across town will be grateful for the fold-flat front-passenger seat that allows long items to slide all the way to the dashboard. The GX also has a roomy rear seat, so the active-lifestyle buyer who Buick hopes will buy a GX can offer friends a comfortable ride to the trailhead, but a less Instagram-worthy life of Ubering seems more likely.
The GX comes equipped with the kinds of driver assistance and tech features that are increasingly expected. Forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, and automatic high-beams are all standard. Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross-traffic assist, and a smattering of other convenience and safety tech are available. Buick has also partnered with Amazon to bring Alexa features into the car. Drivers who pair their phones via Bluetooth can get directions, make phone calls, and select and play audio using Alexa's voice-recognition software. "Alexa, find the nearest pie shop."
There are plenty of rational reasons to like the GX, but it fails to connect on an emotional level. The GX is boring. The ride is smooth, and the handling is controlled—we recorded 0.84 g of grip from the GX in our skidpad test—but it would never even occur to a GX driver to seek out a twisty road just for the fun of it. The three-cylinder's torque peaks at 1600 rpm, so it moves off the line with some verve, but the engine's enthusiasm runs out by about 4500 rpm. The design is entirely inoffensive, but it's also bland. You'll never look back at it after you park and think, "Hey, that's a great-looking crossover."
We realize that a lot of people buy boring cars. So we have every reason to believe that the Encore GX will succeed in taking a slice of this new pie. But you don't have to buy a boring car. It's okay to want more from your vehicle, even when that vehicle plays in this segment. Having fun and driving a practical crossover don't have to be mutually exclusive. Just ask Mazda.
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