Driving Buick's RDX- and Q5-Fighter
There’s always an inherent risk when bringing a vehicle primarily designed for a foreign market to the United States. For all this talk about globalism, there’s no accounting for national tastes; vehicles such as the reborn Pontiac GTO—a rebadged Aussie-spec Holden Monaro—didn’t work, whereas the Volkswagen Type I Beetle—designed for pre–World War II Germany—was a huge success story. Although sales will ultimately measure the success of the new 2017 Buick Envision in the eyes of GM, the made-in-China Buick will have an uphill battle among consumers in an entrenched compact luxury crossover segment.
On sale in the People’s Republic of China since 2014 and available in limited quantities to North America last year, the new Buick Envision represents the end of sorts to Buick’s pivot to focus on the Chinese market, where it’s tremendously successful. Buick will tell you the Envision was designed from the ground up as a global vehicle in the United States (even going so far as to list it as the first line item on the window sticker), but there’s no denying that the Chinese market heavily influenced the Envision’s design, including features such as its big back seat and humpless floor. To be fair, why shouldn’t it? Buick sold upward of 130,000 Envisions in China last year, a small part of its almost 1 million in sales in the country. Meanwhile, in the North America, Buick sold a hair over 220,000 vehicles. Buick expects most of its American Envision buyers to come from within the brand, either downsizing from the three-row Enclave or upsizing from the Encore cute-ute.
Built on GM’s compact new D2 platform, which underpins the new Chevrolet Equinox and Cruze (among other things), the Envision is Buick’s entrant in the profitable and high-selling luxury compact segment. Benchmarked against the Audi Q5 (its primary competitor in red China) and the Acura RDX (Buick’s target in America), the Envision is about the same size as a Mercedes-Benz GLC but with a slightly smaller wheelbase. Power in the States comes from two engines: the base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I-4 producing a modest 197 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque and an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 good for 252 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Both the volume 2.5-liter engine and its turbocharged counterpart are paired with a six-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard on the 2.5-liter (all-wheel drive is optional), and the turbocharged engine is currently all-wheel drive only. The 2.5-liter engine is EPA rated at 22/29/25 (10.7/8.1/9.4 L/100km) and 21/28/24 mpg (10.7/8.4/9.8 L/100km) city/highway/combined in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive forms, respectively, and the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is rated at 20/26/22 mpg (11.8/9.1/10.7 L/100km).
Over a day spent driving the new Buick Envision around the Bay Area and Napa Valley, it isn’t hard to imagine most buyers being satisfied with the 2.5-liter engine. The engine, sampled in a front-drive midlevel Envision Essence, is paired well with the transmission. It feels torquey off the line, and the transmission shifts willingly to make the most of the engine’s limited power output. That said, with so little relative power driving the 3,700-pound crossover, the engine is often working pretty hard to keep the Envision moving. It feels it, too; noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) control is severely lacking. The four-banger is coarse and loud on throttle and unrefined off throttle, vibrating the driver’s seat.
The turbocharged engine is a little better in the NVH department. The good news is that the 2.0-liter engine’s turbocharger helps quiet things down a bit. It’s still coarse above 2,500 rpm or so, but the turboed engine makes enough power down low that Envision drivers likely won’t be spending much time exploring their tachometers. The optional engine, sampled in a loaded all-wheel-drive Envision Premium II feels diesel-like in its torque characteristics, getting the Buick up and going quickly and offering up plenty of passing power. As is the case with the 2.5-liter engine, Buick deserves credit for how smartly tuned the six-speed automatic is; it shifts quickly, is willing to downshift, and doesn’t hunt gears.
Unfortunately, the Envision’s driving experience doesn’t really get any better from there. I could call out the lack of steering feedback and feel, but in all honesty it’s appropriately tuned for a Buick. What isn’t, again, goes back to NVH. For the first few miles as you drive down the road, the Envision’s suspension feels pretty softly sprung, floaty even. But as you spend more time in the driver’s seat, it quickly becomes apparent that the Envision’s suspension is still dealing with bumps long after you’ve gone over them. In other words, its tires will float over the bump, the suspension will iron it out, but the Buick will never actually settle down—the rest of the impact is transferred from the suspension to the body of the car, resulting in gentle (but still present) head toss and gut jiggle. What’s more is the Buick actually isn’t all that quiet, either. For all its acoustic laminate glass and active noise cancellation, there’s a surprising amount of wind and tire noise inside, especially at freeway speeds. Bigger expansion joints on the freeway also revealed creaks made by the optional panoramic sunroof, adding to the symphony.
The Envision’s cabin does little to distract from the lackluster driving experience. At first glance, it seems to hit all the luxury crossover marks. It’s got nice leather, your requisite wood trim, a solid infotainment system, and a big back seat. That back seat, actually, is particularly noteworthy, as it’s comfortable, it aces the 6-footer-behind-6-footer test, and it folds flat with the pull of a trunk-mounted release lever, just like the Honda CR-V. The lack of a drivetrain hump, even on all-wheel-drive versions, is a packaging marvel, as well.
Look past the wrapper, though, and the Buick is pretty disappointing. Most of the materials below the armrests are grainy economy-grade plastics, the kind that makes the cringe-inducing scratching sounds as you run your fingernails along it. The same hard plastic frustratingly even covers the back of the front seats instead of the usual practice of wrapping the entire seat in fabric. Above your beltline, the materials aren’t up to snuff, either. The wood trim, though it looks stellar, is lacquered to the point that it feels like plastic. The little iPhone-sized storage cubby on the passenger’s side of the dash flexes and creaks like Styrofoam with the lightest of touches. The shiny, black plastic surrounding the infotainment screen is particularly perplexing, too, given that it’s surrounded by more plastic, just in a different shade of black. GM’s bean counters really were hands-on in this interior.
That’d be fine if the Buick Envision had a price to match its quality. Starting at $35,020 USD, yeah, maybe that iffy interior quality doesn’t look so bad compared to vehicles such as the BMW X1, which has similar interior quality but is far smaller than the Buick. The issue is that the lightly optioned midlevel Buick Envision Essence 2.5 FWD I tested stickered for $41,030 USD, and the lightly equipped top-trim Envision Premium II 2.0 AWD went for an eye-watering $49,320 USD. A comparably equipped Mercedes-Benz GLC300 4Matic can be had for about $2,000 USD more, and Audi will sell you a similar Q5 for $2,000 USD less than the latter Buick. Both Germans offer up better driving experiences, better fuel economy, and overall better quality than the Envision.
In a vacuum, the Buick Envision may make sense. The Buick buyer who won’t consider any other brand will probably think the Envision is the best thing to come from China since gunpowder. But in a day and age where luxury crossover buyers have more choice than ever before, the Buick’s bourgeois pretensions won’t be enough to stop more informed buyers from walking down the street and driving off with a more complete package that offers up a much more luxurious experience for their buck.