The Chinese Experiment | 2017 Buick Envision First Drive


The 2017 Buick Envision is a very good five-passenger crossover. The “but” you should anticipate will come in good time. First it’s worth understanding why it exists at all.

Out of the ashes of GM’s bankruptcy a few flowers blossomed and the carmaker is doing exceptionally well, certainly far better than Chrysler has done in the wake of its free fall into Chapter 11. But of all the surprises at GM’s turnaround, Buick surely ranks highest, without question the least likely player to thrive if you only study the North American market. Look farther than our shores, to China, however, and you won’t be shocked. Note that the Envision, which has been on sale in China for a year and a half, will reach about 200,000 units this year; the entire Buick portfolio in the US only totaled 223,000 cars in 2015.

Not only is China Buick’s primary market, but what it makes there, like the Envision, is intended for a different sort of buyer. Here, we’d call it a compact crossover. In China the Envision is a relatively large car, and the buyer there is far more likely to use it as a tall limo, or at the very least, as a big-time status statement. That buyer is also very likely to be in his or her mid-30s – the average Buick buyer in the US is getting younger, but, at 58, is hardly a millennial.

You don’t have to spend that much. The base price of $34,990 gets you a front-wheel-drive model with the 2.5-liter engine. It comes standard with a sliding rear seat, where we found plenty of headroom for a six-foot-one-inch passenger, and even decent knee room behind another six-footer. Plus all four outboard seats are heated, standard, and the rear seats recline as well.

From there, a little spec or status shopping argues against Buick easily winning over new customers. Yes, standard equipment like rear park assist and eight-way power front seats are dandy, but you can get into a roomier Jeep Grand Cherokee with AWD for $31,290. Or a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport with AWD for $26,495. Like the Jeep, the Hyundai is roomier than the Buick, and it offers features like automatic-follow cruise control, pedestrian detection, around-the-corner headlamps, and lane-departure warning. Get all of that sweet tech and still Hyundai wants only $38,945 from you for its roomier rig – cheaper than a loaded Envision, which goes all the way up to nearly $50,000.

If the Q5 is the genuine target for the Envision it’s both pricier (starting at $40,900) and just a hair stingier on front and rear headroom, while the Buick and Audi just about tie on cargo room with the rear seats folded as well as upright. (Envision: 26.9 cubic feet with second row up, 57.3 folded; Q5: 29.1/57.3 cubic feet.)

Still, the interior of the Buick is a definite step up for the brand and is cleanly executed, with little evident GM default to cheap plastics you can even find in brands like Cadillac. However, it’s just not quite as tech-cool as what Audi has achieved.

Probably most challenging to Buick on the Envision is that the good stuff, like the more refined engine and the HiPer Strut front suspension, is only available at or above $40,000, and when you’re playing in that sandbox most buyers start to look beyond Buick’s “attainable” luxury and toward the genuine article.

Don’t forget, though – this barely matters. Buick’s crushing it in China. And in 2016, big in China is far more important to the success of the brand than being born in the USA.

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