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Buick Encore GX: Bigger and stronger, but is it really much better?

The Encore GX gives Buick a contestant in a coveted slot. Though the performance is pretty good, its fuel economy doesn’t seem three-cylinder engine-ish, and some aspects are just dated.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX is a slightly stretched version of Buick's baby SUV. But its performance and roominess are far better.
The 2020 Buick Encore GX is a slightly stretched version of Buick's baby SUV. But its performance and roominess are far better.Read moreBuick

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence: A bigger round of applause?

Price: $34,965 as tested. Advanced Technology Package adds adaptive cruise, surround camera, and more for $1,790; Experience Buick Package adds a moonroof and 18-inch wheels for $1,500; Convenience Package adds parking assist and rear camera mirror for $520. Red paint, $495. More mentioned below.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that it’s “spacious inside,” with a “subdued three-cylinder, comfortable ride,” but not that it’s “slow, not that much nicer than its less-expensive Chevrolet Trailblazer twin, a general lack of enthusiasm for existence.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Meet the first-ever Encore GX.”

Reality: Not quite a standing ovation.

What’s new: With the Encore GX, Buick adds a new step in its luxury SUVs. Slightly larger than the Encore, it offers new standard safety technologies as well, according to Buick’s press site.

A lasting first impression: I managed to grab half an hour for an errand on the first day I had the Encore, and it impressed me on mountainous country roads. The main road out of the township was closed after Hurricane Isaias barreled on through, and the more challenging alternate route told me almost everything I needed to know.

Up to speed: The Encore came with the 1.3-liter EcoTec turbo three-cylinder ($395, a 1.2-liter four is standard). It offered a peppy start like many small vehicles, but with decent acceleration on the way up, unlike most of them.

The 155-horsepower engine gets the Encore to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds, according to MotorWeek, so it’s not a rocket.

But in addition to the solid performance throughout the power curve, hill climbing — tested on a long, steep incline — is also a breeze in the Encore GX.

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On the road: The tall, skinny little SUV should be called the Treehouse. It’s a small perch riding way up high, so corner a little more slowly until you’re accustomed to it.

But on slightly curvy country roads, the Encore shines. It just floats over the little hills and zips around the turns — a pleasant companion. It’s not a butterfly-including good time on my fun routes, but maybe I’m joining the Buick demographic — it’s time to slow down a little.

On later journeys, I found the baby Buick to be like most small vehicles on highways, a little dancy on the uneven surfaces, and crashing into road seams hard. But that little turbo engine squeezes the most out of three cylinders.

Shiftless: A CVT powers the front wheels (an all-wheel-drive version is available, with a 9-speed automatic powering the higher-end versions). But Buick is not letting you select any gears easily; there’s a lower setting on the lever, and then an up-down button on the shifter as well. This could have been so much more fun with a shifter.

But the transmission takes care of its work reliably, so smoothly I didn’t know it was a CVT until after the test was over.

Driver’s Seat: The small SUV still provides a comfortable seat up front. But the dashboard has got to go. The Encore GX sticks with the skinny type on the speedometer that makes it difficult to read. I’ve whined about this before, but GM is not paying attention, the fools.

The look is also very Buicky, with chrome and leather, and a highly angular dashboard design, in the design of the vents, display, and other features, and also in pitch from vertical.

Friends and stuff: Surprisingly, rear-seat passengers won’t be calling this the “baby Buick.” With just three inches added to the overall length, the Encore GX seems yards longer than the regular Encore.

The backseat features a surprising amount of legroom, headroom, and foot room, and even allows for a little bit of stretching out. Middle seaters might feel side-to-side squeeze more than front to back.

Cargo space is 23.5 cubic feet with the rear seat up, 50.2 with it folded. A power hands-free lift gate added $520.

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Play some tunes: Another upfront interior disappointment comes from the infotainment interface. A single knob in the middle controls volume, while buttons skip up and down, varying functions depending on the mode. After that, it’s head into the touchscreen.

As alluded, the touchscreen also sits at a weird, glary angle, picking up lots of sunshine and making it hard to read in almost any weather.

It’s worth noting here that my review of the 2015 Encore focused mainly on infotainment troubles throughout the test week, but this stereo is a major upgrade from that.

Keeping warm and cool: Dials control the temperature and buttons control everything else. But the buttons are easy to follow and to see at a glance, and the touchscreen also changes to HVAC mode.

Fuel economy: I averaged a fairly sad 22 mpg in a short, mostly low-speed week.

Where it’s built: Bupyeong Gu, South Korea.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts reliability to be a three out of five for the Encore GX. Still, I’m wary; that’s a lot of work from a tiny engine, and it seems natural that the strain could affect longevity. Plus, well, it’s a Buick. From Korea. The old Daewoo plant.

In the end: Today, almost 90% of U.S. Buick sales come from SUVs. While that’s a marketing decision as much as consumer choice, the Encore GX offers some good reasons to add to that repeat performance. But the price, fuel economy, and dashboard quirks have me leaving the show early, though.