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2021 Buick Encore GX first drive: So many Encores, so little drama

May 26, 2020

You’ll be forgiven if you shop for a new Buick Encore and get confused. For 2020 there are two Encores: the familiar Encore with a standard engine and transmission and a choice of all-wheel drive, and the new Encore GX with a choice between two engines, two transmissions, and front- or all-wheel drive. 

The complexity baked into the Encore lineup confounds the usual small-car formula of limiting the number of models to make it simpler for buyers and for the people who build the car. 

The choices here still are relatively easy. With prices so close between the older and newer Encores, and with some newly available technology, it’s a no-brainer to pick a moderately priced version of the newer model.

Here’s what you need to know.

2020 Buick Encore

The Encore crossover, minus any initials behind its name, is the carryover vehicle. On sale for a few years now, it’s only been lightly updated since it was introduced. We rated this 2020 Encore at 5.0 out of 10.

The older Encore, offered in front- or all-wheel drive, comes with a 1.4-liter turbo-4 with 138 horsepower and a 6-speed automatic transmission.

This Encore lacks some of the refinement and value of the newer entry. It’s a strong seller, and comes with good standard features, but seating for four is about all it can handle. It handles acceptably well, and it’s perfectly sized as a city vehicle or airport runner.

This version costs $24,195 and comes with power features, keyless start, a power driver seat, and 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

Interior space doesn’t fall much below the Encore GX, but the styling isn’t as well sorted as the newer Encore. Where it falls flat is in active safety technology: crash-test scores have been above average, but the older Encore doesn’t offer automatic emergency braking or adaptive cruise control.

Buick says it will stay in the lineup as a price-leader crossover for an indefinite time. With the small price difference between it and the Encore GX, there’s little reason to choose it.

2020 Buick Encore GX

2020 Buick Encore GX

2020 Buick Encore GX

Slightly bigger than the Encore, the GX solves the premium crossover puzzle in a different way. It’s more convincing, from the finer details on its body (like the chrome band that outlines its roofline) to the soft curves of its LED taillights. Inside a trimmed-out Encore GX, metallic bands contrast with upholstered dash panels and an 8.0-inch touchscreen to throw off premium vibes.

For reasons that only GM can adequately understand and explain, the Encore GX comes with a choice between a 1.2-liter turbo-3 and, for $395 extra on Select or Essence models, a 1.3-liter turbo-3. Spend the extra to get the “bigger” engine’s 155 horsepower and stronger low-end torque. 

Then you’ll want to skip the available all-wheel drive, a limited-use feature in a front-drive vehicle to begin with. It costs $2,000 extra anyway, and though it comes with a conventional 9-speed automatic, the CVT that pairs with front-drive Encore GX crossovers is very well executed. It doesn’t dither or lag like so many CVTs, and even has a simulated set of low ratios, chosen through a shifter-mounted switch.

You may not notice the extra interior space in the Encore GX—the cargo hold’s less than a cubic foot larger—but its passenger layout offers more rear-seat room and better back-seat comfort than the older Encore. It’s a shame the GX’s narrow front seats aren’t also better.

The major divide in Encore and Encore GX comes in technology. Every Encore GX has automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and active lane control, while adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitors are available. 

Buick charges $25,095 for the 2020 Encore GX Preferred edition, $26,695 for the Encore GX Select, and $29,495 for the Encore GX Essence. Prices include $995 destination fee. We’d select a Select with front-wheel drive and the larger engine.

2020 Buick Encore GX

2020 Buick Encore GX

2021 Buick Encore GX

The GX is the Encore you want to drive, thanks to gains in styling, safety, and features. Offered in Preferred, Select, and Essence versions, the 2021 Encore GX earns a TCC Rating of 5.8 out of 10.

You’ll see them in showrooms in the next couple of months, but there’s not much different about the 2021 Encore GX model versus the 2020 edition, save for the standard wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, and more widely available adaptive cruise control.

Our bottom line: The 2021 Buick Encore GX steals the parking spot left between the smallest mainstream and luxury crossovers. We think the Encore GX Select with the 1.3-liter, which comes with automatic emergency braking and a few choice features, is the best buy at about $27,000. 

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