2017 Buick Envision First Drive
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 preWorld 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 the U.S. 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.