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2021 Buick Envision First Drive | A successful sequel

The 2021 Buick Envision inaugurates the second generation of what GM’s premium division hopes will become the staple of its all-crossover lineup. The original Envision, while reasonably competent, suffered from ungainly styling and struggled to separate itself from its reputation as the built-in-China Buick. Bundle that with a brand that has (at best) an on-again, off-again relationship with being interesting and you have a recipe for “Who cares?”

No longer, says Buick. While it’s still assembled in China, the 2021 Envision gets a new platform, a new powertrain, and a complete styling overhaul. Feeling a little déjà vu? That’s reasonable. Buick gave us a promising first look at the new Envision last summer, but thanks to, well, you know, 2020, we’re only now getting our hands on the final product, and if we were intrigued in June, we’re impressed in February.

Buick’s first attempt at a compact CUV was not particularly impressive, especially when it came to design. The Equinox-in-a-dinner-jacket thing never really worked and we’re happy to say that the second effort is a huge improvement. The new look is genuinely attractive. Like the Enclave, the Envision borrows cues from the Avenir concept whose name Buick’s product planners appropriated to denote the brand’s top-trim variants. It works.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-four producing 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque as its only available engine. Front-wheel drive is standard; a twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system is optional. Both setups utilize a nine-speed automatic transmission. Your author managed an average of 23 mpg over the course of a 60-mile test loop against EPA estimates of 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined. FWD models are rated at 24/31/26, respectively. 

Size-wise, the Envision is a bit of an odd duck. One could teach an undergrad course on GM’s two-row crossover ecosystem, but suffice it to say that it’s a bit more closely related to the Chevrolet Blazer than it is to the Equinox this time around, despite being closer in size to the latter. Within the luxury realm, its length and wheelbase are a few inches shorter than those of larger compact models like the Volvo XC60, Acura RDX and BMW X3, but its rear legroom is greater than them all. It’s actually closer in that measurement to the midsize Lincoln Nautilus. The fact that the Envision’s 25.2 cubic-feet of cargo space is less than them all could indicate where Buick found all that extra sprawl-out space in the back seat. 

So, the Envision’s size is a bit unusual and its engine is, well, not. Fortunately, that conservative powertrain choice and ‘tweener footprint help keep its curb weight under control. A base model weighs just 3,692 pounds. Even with all the goodies and all-wheel drive thrown in, it stays below 4,000. We applaud the restraint. Buick says this choice of platform also means the ’21 Envision is lower and wider than the car it replaced. We’re not sure whether that’s a good thing, strictly speaking, but it is true.

The updated interior feels like a scaled-down take on the Enclave’s, and that’s no bad thing. The 8-inch infotainment system comes with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with wireless versions (and wireless device charging) available on higher trims, which also feature a 10.2-inch screen to accommodate the extra goodies (and look better doing it). 

Standard safety tech includes lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, rear parking sensors and GM’s Safety Alert seat that vibrates your butt to attract your attention to all those safety systems. You can also add a 360-degree camera, front parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot warning, a head-up display and GM’s rearview camera mirror.

With a few exceptions, GM’s recent interiors have been functional and feature-rich, if a bit bland. That pattern continues here, where the materials appear to be reasonably high-quality and the design itself pleasant, but not exactly titillating. The push-/pull-button transmission controls seem awkward and cluttered, but they work. Our “Essence” test vehicle represents the Envision’s middle grade, incorporating a heated steering wheel and heated front seats, a power liftgate and a cabin air ionizer.

The Envision’s driving experience is a mix of old and new. The turbocharged 2.0 provides enough power for confident merging and around-town acceleration. Our Essence lacked the Avenir’s fancy adaptive dampers, and we consequently found the ride a bit too plush for our tastes, but not sloppy. It’ll hold its own on a curvy back road and pulls straight and true on the highway without constant corrections, which alone is a win. The Envision isn’t meant to carve corners; this is a Buick, after all, not a BMW.  

One of our biggest gripes here is common to all of GM’s AWD crossovers. Rather than the all-wheel-drive system constantly being at the ready to send power rearward as conditions demand (as almost every other AWD crossover does), the GM system requires the driver to turn on this capability every time they get in the car. This is done via the drive mode selector. Unfortunately, the Envision won’t remember that you previously engaged one of its all-wheel-drive modes and will default back to “Tour” (and therefore front-wheel-drive-only) the next time you get behind the wheel. We have to wonder how many owners of Envisions (and other GM crossovers) are driving around thinking their AWD crossover is powering all four wheels when it’s in fact not — or, how many know but will forget to engage the system?

Since we got to sample the Envision in late February, it was in our care for some of the worst weather Michigan has seen so far this winter. The traction and stability control systems are quick to intervene when the surface gets sloppy and they can be somewhat heavy-handed about it. We tried powering through a couple of snowy corners, only to find our precious throttle control taken from us. With the nannies dialed back, we had much finer control in the slop, but that wasn’t really the Envision’s happy place.

That would be on the highway, at a steady cruise, with the radio going at a reasonable volume, but even there, our experience wasn’t flawless. Buick makes a big deal about its “QuietTuning” approach to interior noise control, but either because it can only do so much (or maybe because the cabin is just that quiet), we noted a surprising amount of wind noise intrusion from the driver’s side A-pillar. We couldn’t pinpoint the source or identify any complicating factors (ice build-up, etc.) that might explain it. It’s just there. 

That exhausts our list of quibbles, and its brevity is refreshing. The last-generation Envision was a bit of a mess, made only slightly better by a hasty refresh that solved most of its drivability problems but did nothing to improve its frumpy exterior. The 2021 model is the real deal, earning its place alongside the Enclave, which your author would name as GM’s most appealing three-row crossover.

Appeal comes at a cost, of course. An AWD Essence model like this one checks in at $38,795 (including $1,195 for destination) before you add any options. Throw in the Technology package to get the upgraded infotainment and whatnot and you’ve crossed the $40,000 barrier. The Avenir, even with just two driven wheels, starts at $41,395. Both are significantly more expensive than the “equivalent” (a very generous use of the term) Chevy Equinox and a couple thousand cheaper than a similarly equipped Cadillac XT4 (the Envision’s platform-mate). In the latter context, the Buick is a solid value.

If nothing else, the 2021 Envision elevates the nameplate from being an also-ran to, at minimum, the second-best car Buick has to offer. Playing second fiddle to the Enclave is nothing to be ashamed of, and we’re taking this as a sign that GM remains committed to putting Buick back atop is previous pedestal. Considering it was little more than punchline a mere decade ago, we’re encouraged.

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