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The 2020 Buick Encore GX.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

A Buick pickup truck? Unlikely. But even without going that far, Buick is now basically a truck company. Last year, its three SUV nameplates accounted for more than 90 per cent of its sales in Canada. And by far the best-selling of them all was the tiny, almost toy-like Encore.

Since SUVs are working for Buick, it’s no surprise the brand is expanding its market coverage. After all, there’s a wide space between the compact Envision and the full-size, three-row Enclave that would be filled nicely by, say, a two-row mid-sizer (anybody remember the 2004-2007 Rainier?).

Instead, the 2020 newcomer is another subcompact. So is the Encore GX a replacement for the no-suffix Encore? Apparently not. We’re told the GX’s role is to plug the gap between the Encore and the Envision. However, the GX doesn’t exactly “split” the difference – it’s actually much closer in size (4.35 metres long) to the existing Encore (4.28) than to the Envision (4.67).

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The GX is only slightly longer than the standard Encore.

Courtesy of manufacturer

On paper, the GX’s 1.2- and 1.3-litre turbo three-cylinder engines look like a downgrade from the 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder of the original Encore. The new triples are, however, state of the art; even the 1.2′s 137 horsepower is only one down on the older 1.4, and its 162 lb.-ft. of torque beats it by 14 lb.-ft. Respective outputs for the 1.3 as tested are 155 hp and 174 lb.-ft. Fuel-consumption numbers are not class-leading but better than average.

In Canada, the GX is offered in three trims. The smaller engine comes only in the base Preferred trim, with a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) and front-wheel drive, starting at $26,098; all-wheel drive (with a driver-selectable FWD mode) is paired with the 1.3 engine and a nine-speed automatic and starts at $28,098. Select and Essence grades start from $30,098 and $32,598 respectively.

Nicely attired 18-inch wheels help the Encore GX look less boxy.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Buick no longer aspires to purvey “motorcars” that are “distinctive, substantial, powerful and mature,” but Quiet Tuning is still one of its signature traits. So, how does that work out with a mighty-midget three-cylinder under the hood? Somewhat. The engine doesn’t obviously present like it’s “missing” a cylinder, and it’s never disagreeable. But neither is its sound signature anything like premium when working through the gears.

On the highway, it settles down nicely into the relaxed, long-legged stride of a much bigger vehicle. But don’t expect an old-style big-Buick pillowy ride. In the GX, involved drivers will enjoy quick, light-and-lively steering and relatively taut, responsive cornering, but the ride is stiff.

The all-black interior can be swapped for beige or, on the Essence trim, caramel colours.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

As for the cabin environment, the test sample’s all-black interior didn’t strike us as overtly premium, despite faux-carbon-fibre accents and some real white stitching. I suspect it works better with the alternative beige or (on the Essence trim) caramel interior colours – a level of décor choice rare in this corner of the market.

Despite Buick’s entry-premium aspirations, the Encore GX is priced much closer to mainstream subcompact crossovers than to premium European ones. That said, some plebe alternatives start for thousands less with manual transmission, while like-priced rivals may include more standard features.

With the possible exception of its laid-back highway cruising, there is no single aspect of the Encore GX that stands out from its peers, but solid ability across a broad range of attributes adds up to an appealing package overall. Just be careful that all the options don’t lure you into paying $40,000 (before taxes) for a fully loaded one. That may not be a lot of money for a Buick, but it’s a lot for a subcompact SUV.

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Tech specs

  • Base price: From $26,098; $37,183 as tested
  • Engine: 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo; 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbo
  • Transmission/Drive: 1.2: Continuously-variable automatic/FWD; 1.3: 9-speed automatic/AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 1.2 FWD: 9.0/7.7 city/hwy; 1.3 AWD: 9.0/8.0 city/hwy
  • Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Compass, Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Qashqai, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota CH-R

Looks

Raked screens and large, well-attired 18-inch wheels help the Buick look less boxy or dorky than most of the competition. To our eyes, it also looks bigger than it is.

Interior

Most functions can still be controlled with manual buttons and dials.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The 94.3 cubic-foot passenger volume is average for a segment that ranges between 88 and 100. Your average adult can sit behind your average driver without crowding, though smaller people may wish the rear bench was higher for a better view out. The driving position is also rather low, despite a standard 10-way power seat. Exterior sightlines could be better, ditto the readability of the analog gauges on a bright day (the digital speedometer in the centre 4.2-inch display is a welcome alternative). The integrated centre-stack touch screen is an 8-incher on all trims and, happily, most everyday adjustments can still be done with real buttons.

Performance

Over several hundred kilometres of freeway cruising, we admired how easily the little engine handled the long-legged top gear, showing 2,200 rpm at 120 km/h and only rarely needing to downshift. Then we realized it was topping out in eighth gear. To access ninth (1,800 rpm at 120), we had to upshift manually, and often, even that didn’t work. A shorter axle ratio would make ninth more usable while trimming the 10.3-second saunter from 0- to 100-km/h. Subjectively, the GX feels quicker than that. It launches very linearly, with no perceptible turbo lag, and in cut-and-thrust traffic, the transmission seamlessly picks the right gear at the right time. We averaged 7.9 L/100 km over a week of mostly highway driving with the A/C on.

Technology

Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and SiriusXM satellite radio come standard.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Standard safety tech includes forward-collision alert, automatic emergency and front-pedestrian braking and lane-keep assist. On the infotainment side, 4G LTE Wi-Fi capability, SiriusXM, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. The Select trim adds lane-change and blind-spot alerts, but adaptive cruise (standard on a $28,000 Hyundai Kona), navigation, automatic parking assist, head-up display and wireless charging require extra-cost packages.

Cargo

The seatbacks fold nearly flat, improving the usability of the cargo space.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Cargo volumes are a little above average, and usability is enhanced by seatbacks that fold very nearly flat; a bi-level cargo deck that lies flush with the folded seats when up; and a fold-flat front passenger seat. A hands-free power liftgate is standard on the upper two trims and the GX can tow 1,000 lbs.

The verdict

Stylish, functional and fun to drive. Base pricing is reasonable, but watch those options!

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The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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