1. home
  2. news
  3. Unrefined Performance: 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Is a Car to Avoid

Unrefined Performance: 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Is a Car to Avoid

Finding the bright side isn’t supposed to be this hard.

Billy RehbockWriter, Photographer

LOS ANGELES--Modern cars are good. That's a common phrase that goes around our office, when we're actually able to be there in person. We know we live in a golden age of automaking where most cars are built well and relatively quick when compared to cars two or three decades ago. It's in this context that some cars stand out as being well-below average compared to their contemporaries, even if they'd have been just fine at the turn of the millennia. Such is the case with the 2020 Buick Encore GX, which slots between the egg-shaped regular Encore and the larger Envision crossover.

Confusing as it may be, the 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence we subjected to a test drive recently is a totally separate product from its more diminutive Encore compact crossover SUV sibling. Filling empty space isn't enough, however; we wanted to see if this Buick could fill its niche and hold its own.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence: Tiny Turbo

The test-subject 2020 Buick Encore GX arrived in top-trim Essence guise. It's powered by a turbocharged 1.3-liter three-cylinder engine, an option for $395, driving only the front wheels by way of continually variable transmission. This engine is actually more fuel efficient than the 1.2-liter engine Buick offers as standard, thanks to its efficiency-management technology. EPA testing yields 30 mpg city and 32 mpg highway for FWD cars equipped with the larger engine, and 26/30 mpg for the turbocharged 1.2-liter.

Refinement is the price paid for the moderate amounts of power, torque, and efficiency from this tiny engine. Buick cites figures of 155 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque, which scoot the little car along at a decent chuff off of the line. However, the lack of guts becomes apparent on the freeway, unfortunately. The initial gusto gives way to wheezy inefficiency as the Encore GX screams along, three-cylinder engine working hard to muster all of the speed it can as it approaches freeway limits. Passing power is adequate but torquesteer gets pretty atrocious during more enthusiastic runs off of the line. The fairly significant CVT drone gets old in a hurry, too. The good news is, Encore GX models optioned with all-wheel drive get a nine-speed automatic transmission.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence: Depressing Dynamics

The thrashy powertrain is joined by some of the sloppiest steering I've experienced while test-driving a car in the last couple of years. Turning the wheel feels overly electrically boosted, but there is also a ton of slop around the center. This initial vagueness gives way to subsequent hypersensitive responsiveness after about 10-15 degrees of steering-wheel angle, where the car suddenly takes an interest in changing direction. Normally we'd disregard moderate amounts of lackluster steering as a non-issue for the target demographic of a car like this, but the steering tuning's inaccuracy here is entirely frustrating. It translates to poor handling, as the car's response to driver inputs yields unpredictable behavior from the chassis.

The chassis itself is actually pretty impressive when you get used to adapting your driving style to accommodate for the rest of the Encore GX's shortcomings. Suspension tuning damps road imperfections well, keeping the worst jitters out of the cabin, and there isn't too much body roll in the low-challenge environment of day-to-day city and freeway driving. Brake calibration is initially quite sensitive, providing little room for modulation at the top of the pedal's travel. After getting used to this stiff and sensitive threshold, I found the aggressive feel mellows as the braking input progresses.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence: A Pauper Prince's Appointments

The 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence shares its platform with the Chevrolet Trailblazer, its down-market sibling. Buick did little to mask this relationship on the interior, even if the handsome exterior does a great job of hiding the familial ties. As such, the interior has some nice materials here and there, but plastic dominates throughout the cabin as the predominant material.

Some additional quirkiness inside threw me off during this test. While it's great that the large, slightly above-average infotainment screen is standard, the display is canted up at an angle making it slightly less accessible for the driver. During my time in the driver's seat, I lost audio playback from every source, including my preferred SiriusXM and Apple CarPlay. To remedy this, I had to turn off the car, open the door, and restart the ignition. I've never had this issue before in a Buick or other GM product but, piled on top of my other frustrations with the Encore GX, it was significantly irritating.

The Encore GX managed to save some dignity thanks to some well-executed features. The added Advanced Technology Package, a $1,790 option, brings a super-useful HD surround-view camera into the mix, along with a head-up display that projects onto a plastic retractable combiner that hides in the dash when not in use. The motorized system pops up and down with some whirring, a less-than-refined sound emblematic of what it's like to live with this car. This package also includes adaptive cruise control plus navigation; Buick structures these options in a way that prohibits buyers from getting the HUD or the 360-degree separately, adding another irksome reality to the pile.

Our test car came with the $1,500 Experience Buick Package, which adds 18-inch wheels and a powered moonroof. It also carries the $770 convenience package which tacks on a mishmash of features, including automatic parking assist with braking, wireless charging, a rear-camera mirror with a washer, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. It got a powered and hands-free liftgate for $520, and finally Ebony Twilight Metallic paint for $495. In fact, only white is a standard color.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence: No Bad Cars? Well …

Frankly, this 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence infuriated me throughout my test in a way cars typically do not. The main problem doesn't seem to be with the car's components but instead with its tuning. Add a drab and cheap interior with a glitchy infotainment screen, and there's little left to praise aside from the suspension and chassis.

For a car specified exactly how this test car was configured, you're looking at a total MSRP of $34,965, or a starting price of $29,890 (factoring in the better engine). It costs less than the average transaction price of a new light vehicle in the U.S. ($38,378), but that's still not a bargain when stacked up against the likes of comparably equipped competitors such as the Fiat 500X, Mazda CX-30, Mini Countryman, or other larger crossover SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota Rav4.

Compared to economy cars or even premium cars from previous eras, the 2020 Buick Encore GX Essence might be a perfectly fine car. But compared to other modern competitors, or even other Buicks, it is one of the few new vehicles I'd make a passionate plea to change a friend's mind if they told me they wanted to buy one.

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Pros

  • Punchy engine with decent fuel economy
  • Lots of features
  • Good chassis and suspension

2020 Buick Encore GX Essence Cons

  • Thrashy engine
  • Interior doesn't qualify as premium
  • Poor tuning for steering and braking
2020 BUICK ENCORE GX ESSENCE SPECIFICATIONS
ON SALE Now
PRICE $29,890/$34,965 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 1.3L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3/155 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 174 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 30/32 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 171.4 x 71.4 x 64.1 in
WHEELBASE 102.2 in
WEIGHT 3,025 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A mph