2017 Buick Envision First Drive: A thoroughly multilingual crossover

November 1, 2016

You don't have to be a math whiz to see why Buick sought to plug the most glaring hole in its lineup with a new five-seat crossover. Anchored at the bottom end by its (very) subcompact Encore, the Buick crossover range was as wide open as Interstate 80 through Nebraska until  the massive three-row Enclave.

Enter the Buick Envision, a five-seat crossover designed to square off against segment heavyweights like the Lexus RX and the Acura RDX. 

But not all is what it seems with the Envision. Like almost everything else in the Buick lineup, its heritage isn't as American as one might expect from a Detroit brand that has been around since 1903. The Envision was designed first for the Chinese market—and it bears the distinction of being the first mass-market vehicle to be built in China and exported to the United States. 

For the most part, it doesn't feel Chinese—and it shouldn't, since parent company General Motors designed it primarily in Detroit. But there are some subtle ways in which it reveals that it was intended first for the world's largest new car market and second for Buick's ancestral home.

Here, the Envision is available in five different trim levels powered by two engines and it offers a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. On paper, it's pretty conventional, sticking for around $35,000 to start before topping out at nearly $50,000 all gussied up in Premium II configuration. 

Base, Preferred and Essence trim levels serve as the entry into the lineup, and they're powered by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder rated at 197 horsepower. Step up to the Premium and Premium II and you'll net a 2.0-liter turbo-4 checking in with 252 hp and 260 lb-ft. of torque. All turbos are all-wheel drive, but the 2.5 can be paired with front- or all-wheel drive. 

2017 Buick Envision

2017 Buick Envision

Found in translation

With its waterfall grille and trio of faux portholes tacked onto its hood, the Envision fits in well with the rest of the Buick lineup. There's a vaguely European look to its side profile courtesy of a delicate line of chrome trim around the windows, as well as a nice kick-up to the rearmost pillar that's somewhat reminiscent of the BMW X3. At the rear, its tail lamps are blobs floating in space, but overall the look is inoffensive and, frankly, rather uninteresting. 

Up against rivals like the Lexus RX and Nissan Murano, which deliver bold styling, the Envision certainly doesn't move the bar for the segment. But it's pleasing and should appeal to a wide range of buyers, which is just what Buick, with its big dealer network compared to, say, Lexus, will need.

Climb aboard and the Envision is a mish-mash of GM corporate switchgear. Our Envision Premium's interior was swathed in brown leather and wide panels of fake wood on its dash and doors. Black and tan interiors are also on offer, but the brown is a little more distinctive even though the leather trim doesn't feel particularly nice. Sitting high on its dashboard is an 8.0-inch touchscreen that displays Buick's Intellilink infotainment with standard Apple CarPlay compatibility. Although some of its graphics are a little busy, Intellilink remains one of our favorite systems for its simple menus and plug-and-go CarPlay.

Below that sits a separate climate control panel with capacitive touch switches for individual temperature controls. Premium models include heated seats, but harsh sunlight revealed that Buick uses this same panel on Premium II models with air conditioned seats; little pictographs with fans showed up in bright daylight to remind buyers that they could have spent a few more bucks.

Up front, we found the leather seats to be comfortable over a few hours of driving, and there's plenty of head room. The rear seat proved similarly commodious with good stretch-out room for two. Stretching just over 70 inches wide, the Envision is roomy—but not as wide as its rivals, a concession to urban China's congested streets. GM counters that feeling of narrowness with lots of headroom, something exacerbated by our tester's solid (non-moonroof) roof panel.

At the rear sits a cargo area nicely finished with minimal intrusion from the rear wheel wells and suspension.

2017 Buick Envision

2017 Buick Envision

If it plays in Shanghai...

We haven't had the opportunity to try out the 2.5-liter Envision, but its 4-cylinder has proven to be a decent, if not particularly upmarket-feeling engine in other GM products.

The 2.0-liter turbo is a similarly familiar unit, used in a variety of cars—from the Chevrolet Malibu to the Cadillac CT6. In the Envision, it is muffled and distant, emitting only a light thrum under hard acceleration. There's a little bit of turbo lag, but power comes on smoothly afterward, and the 6-speed automatic that's the exclusive gearbox regardless of engine choice delivers smooth shifts. 

On a gravel road, the Envision had no problems with grip. Its all-wheel-drive system is a twin-clutch system that should transfer power quickly between the axles, although it primarily sends grunt to the front wheels in an effort to maximize efficiency and not outright traction. It's worth noting that 2.5-liter models with all-wheel drive use a less sophisticated setup to apportion power.

The Envision's chunky, three-spoke steering wheel hints at performance, but ultimately this crossover errs far more on the side of comfortable, casual driving than corner carving. There's not much lean into corners, and the wheel does a nice job of keep the crossover as on track in a wide sweeper as a tight switchback. All turbocharged Envisions include Buick's HiPer strut front suspension system, a sophisticated setup designed to counter torque steering primarily on front-wheel drive models. 

To be fair, no five-seat entry-luxury crossover is especially fun to drive—and that's a hat that the Envision definitely does not wear, either. 

What it does do well is soak up choppy pavement. Even on our tester's standard 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Kumho all-season tires, there was little road noise and pockmarked pavement was absorbed quietly. 

2017 Buick Envision

2017 Buick Envision

Configuration

Pleasant if thoroughly unremarkable, the Envision would be worth a spot on your shopping list if only it offered a better value proposition. Our test car came in just over $44,000, but it lacked any "wow" features. Leather seats with power adjustment up front and heat at all four corners is nice, as is a Bose stereo—but the Acura RDX with the Technology Package comes better equipped for about $42,000.

Perhaps even more egregious is the fact that an Envision with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control lists for over $47,000. 

No matter where it's made, that's big money and not an especially good value. Perhaps the Envision makes more sense closer to its $34,990 base price, but even that is deep into well-equipped, V-6-powered Nissan Murano and Ford Edge territory. 

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