It’s not that long ago that it was easy to know where a car was made. All you had to do was know the nationality of the manufacturer, and that was almost always it. There were a few exceptions, usually the consequence of some fiscal regime which led to local assembly of a model outside its home country. All the Japanese marques set up assembly plants in Australia in the 1970s, for instance, and closer to home, Citroen assembled a small number of 2CV and DS models at Slough in the early 1960s, in an attempt to get around Import Duty, and hence make their cars price-competitive with locally produced rivals. But during the 1980s and 1990s, things started to change, with the creation of a small number of very large automotive giants who relied on economies of scale to remain competitive. More manufacturing plants allowed for the creation of additional models, and as the world globalised, so it became quite normal to look at what you would do where based on a whole of factors ranging from not just where the end product would be sold, but also to take into account regulation and legislation, tax regimes, labour rates, government grants and incentives and any number of other considerations. There is no clear and universal answer as to whether the same product can be sold in all markets around the world, either, so the handful of big car companies now have at least as much a challenge on their hands in deciding what to build where as they do in engineering their latest cars. And how does this all relate to the subject of this Road Test? Well, it’s a Buick, which as we all know, is a long-lived American marque that makes cars in America and sells them in, well, not just America any more, even though they don’t sell their cars in Europe. Because, actually, most of their current range are Americanised versions of models familiar to Europeans with a Vauxhall or Opel badge on them. But not this one. Oh no, it’s actually Chinese. Surprising though it may seem, the Chinese have been rather partial to Buick models for a while, liking the traditional luxurious sort of car that the Detroit-based marque has been producing. So much so, that Buick started to create models that they did not sell to Americans, but only to the Chinese, such as the GL8 luxury Minivan. And then, the once-unthinkable happened, the reverse export scenario came about, with this mid-sized SUV, called the Envision, being built by the SAIC Company in China, and being offered for sale in America. It was launched on the Chinese market in 2014, and made its American debut at the 2016 North American International Auto Show, where, needless to say, it caused a certain amount of controversy, as the Unions found out that GM had no plans to build the car locally but would ship it in from Shanghai when it went on sale in the middle of 2016. The range expanded for the 2017 model year, with front wheel drive versions and more trim versions now offered. The first Envisions appeared in the rental fleets in 2017, and I was interested in trying one. I got my chance when arriving on a late evening flight into Phoenix on a Tuesday – always the low point in rental car availability – and found a trio of newly registered models on offer. The one I selected, having studied the badges, had the more potent 2 litre Turbo engine, and it really was brand new, showing just 5 miles on the clock.
You can see the logic in bringing the Envision into the US range. Before its arrival, Buick had just two Crossover vehicles in the range: the Encore (an Americanised version of the Mokka X we see in Europe) and the Enclave, a large 7/8 seater that is based on the same Lambda platform as the Chevrolet Traverse, leaving a big gap between the two. And with Crossovers outselling traditional saloon models like the Regal and the LaCrosse. This was clearly a gap that Buick needed to fill. What is perhaps surprising is that they did not do this by creating a Buick version of the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, which are similar-sized products. The result is a vehicle that pulls off the trick of looking smaller than it is, and which is neat but ultimately rather anonymous looking. Indeed, the more time I spent with it, the more I could see a strong resemblance to the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer in the overall shape, a comparison which BMW would perhaps would not particularly welcome, although that model is not sold in the US. There are some distinctive Buick touches, though, with the three venti- ports on either side of the bonnet the most characteristic of the marque.
Two engines are offered, both of them 4 cylinder units. The entry level one is the larger in capacity, being a 197 bhp 2.5 litre unit, whilst the more potent is the 2 litre Turbo, and I guessed (correctly) from the T on the badge at the back that this was the one that powered my rental car. It develops 252 bhp, and is coupled to a six speed automatic gearbox. It’s a combination which scores much more highly on smoothness and refinement than it does for drama and excitement, which is probably just what the typical Buick buyer is looking for. That said, there is a decent reserve of power available for when the occasion calls for it, and if you press the accelerator hard, the Envision is quite brisk in the way it gathers momentum. Once the speed is gained, it will cruise quietly, with all sources of noise well suppressed, making this a refined cruiser. I covered 166 miles during the day, on a route which I have taken many test cars up on the 87, north east of Phoenix, towards Payson. The fuel gauge seemed to drop quite quickly and steadily, and I needed to put 7.5 gallons in to fill it up, meaning an average for the day of just 22.1 mpg US or 26.44 mpg Imperial, a rather disappointing figure considering that the car was not worked that hard, and I had left the Stop/Start system enabled, not that I sat in much traffic for it to be of huge benefit.
The other driving characteristics are pretty much what you would expect from a car of this class: perfectly acceptable, but ultimately unmemorable. Actually, this is not quite true, as the steering had some characteristics that I perhaps won’t forget immediately. There was a slightly sticky feeling just off-centre, but more noticeable was that when you wanted to change lanes, if you were not indicating, and thus the lane departure warning system was getting agitated, it seemed to add undue weight and resistance to the effort, as if to dissuade you from attempting the manoeuvre. Now, if you were just drifting off course, this would be a Good Thing, of course, but there are plenty of times in normal motoring where lanes come and go, for instance, when you do move over without indicating all the time, so it was a bit disconcerting. Otherwise, the Buick handles quite tidily, and it goes round corners well enough, with ultimately a tendency to understeer, as you would expect. There was not much body roll, though, and there seemed to be plenty of grip from the 235/50 R19 Hankook tyres. The ride was well-judged, with enough pliancy in it to make the car comfortable, without it feeling too soft. The brakes were well up to par, with decent feel from the pedal. A small button for the electronic handbrake is in the centre console. A generous glass area and relatively boxy styling mean that visibility is good. As well as a rear-view camera, there were blind spot warnings in the mirrors and the lane departure system not only beeped at you, it vibrated the seat, and if you were reversing, there were yellow and red markings on the display screen if it thought you were in imminent danger of being where you should not be.
This was a top spec Envision, which means that there is plenty of leather in the cabin, not just on the seats but also a significant portion of the dash and the door casings also use this as their trim. Sadly, there is also rather a lot of a particularly ghastly plastic wood, which was a sort of grey-brown colour, which I thought looked particularly awful, but no doubt plenty of American and Chinese buyers will think it wonderful. The overall cabin ambience was otherwise pleasant, with good fit and finish, and a nicely integrated design which avoided the over-fussy appearance that manufacturers seem to think is called for. The instruments are electronic, with three dials, the outer ones of which have a chrome ring, whilst strangely the middle one does not. The central one is the speedometer, whereas the left hand one combines rev counter and oil temperature, whilst the right hand one has three gauges: fuel level, water temperature and an ammeter. The graphics of all of them were crisp and clean making them easy to read. In case the traditional speedometer with digital repeater in its centre is not enough, there is also a Head Up Display in this version of the Envision, which projects your speed and the prevailing speed limit, plus other info that you can select by pressing the button on the dash somewhere over your left knee. I quite like Head Up Displays, so saw this as a useful and slightly unexpected feature in a car of this class and price. There are two column stalks, and they were nicer to use than the standard GM US ones that had featured in a more costly Cadillac I had driven a couple of days earlier. Lights are operated from a rotary dial on the dash. There are buttons on the steering wheel spokes for cruise and audio repeater functions. The centre of the dash contains the Buick IntelliLink infotainment system. There is an 8″ touch sensitive colour display screen, and functions include not just AM, FM and Satellite radio, but navigation, car settings, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, a weather forecast feature which seemed pretty comprehensive in what you could get, and there is a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot in the car. As well as the touch screen, there are some buttons beneath the unit to select more common functions. I found it a lot easier to use than the CUE system in the Cadillac CTS that I sampled a few days prior. Beneath this are a small array of buttons for the dual zone climate control, again, easy to use, and quite neat looking.
There is electric adjustment for the leather-trimmed front seats, with switches on the side of the seat, as well as separate lumbar control. This trim included seat heating and cooling, though the ambient temperature was such that I felt no idea to try either of these luxuries. The controls for this are located with the climate control buttons. The steering wheel telescopes in/out as well as adjusting up/doiwn. The seat proved comfortable, though I was not actually behind the wheel for long periods at a time during the test, but I have no reason to suspect that a longer journey would evidence any issues. There is ample space for front seat occupants and the SUV styling means that there is plenty of headroom. Those in the back will find this quite a spacious vehicle, too. There is a completely flat floor, and although there are controls for rear climate control and two AUX connectors on the back of the centre console, this unit does not deprive occupants here of leg room. The rear seat bases are on sliders, so if you set the seats well forward and the front seats well back, then leg room starts to become tight, but otherwise there is plenty of space here. The rear seat backrests can be reclined, but even in their most upright position, there is plenty of headroom. There is a drop down armrest, with cup holders in its upper surface.
The boot is a decent size, regular in shape, and there is plenty of space for odds and ends under the boot floor, where you will find various styrene mouldings that sit on top of the spare whee . More space can be created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests down. They fold flat so that the extended load area is completely level. Inside the cabin, the glove box turns out to be a lot smaller than the size of the lid would lead you to believe, there are bins on the doors, there is a small lidded cubby over the driver’s left knee and a deep one under the twin-lidded central armrest. Rear seat occupants get map pockets in the back of the front seats as well as door bins.
The base Buick Envision, with the 2.5 litre engine and front wheel drive starts at $34,015 and comes standard with an 8-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, satellite radio, six speakers, Bluetooth, two USB ports, a Wi-Fi hot spot, a power liftgate, cloth upholstery, heated front seats, and dual-zone automatic climate control. That makes it pretty good value, as long as you are happy with that engine, of course. Next up is the Envision Preferred, which is priced at $35,870 and adds no additional standard features. This is the first trim level available with all-wheel drive, which costs $1,850. Starting at $37,720, the Essence model comes with leather upholstery, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, tri-zone automatic climate control, blind spot monitoring, lane change assist, and rear cross traffic alert. A panoramic moonroof is available for $1,495, and navigation is a $495 option. The $42,320 Premium model comes standard with the 2 litre turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive, as well as forward collision warning, front parking sensors, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, and the safety alert seat. A panoramic moonroof and navigation are also available in this trim. The range-topping Premium II trim is priced at $44,960. It comes with navigation, a head-up display, active park assist, and ventilated front seats. The panoramic moonroof is once again optional in this trim, and a Driver Confidence package, which adds adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and a 360-degree camera, is available for $1,545.
Objectively, it is hard to dislike the Envision, as there are no significant weaknesses, and it goes about its job of being able to convey people and luggage where they want to go in an honest and effective sort of way. It is nicely trimmed and in this top spec version, well equipped. However, subjectively, I can’t help feel that there is something missing. There’s no spark, no flair at all in the design, and nothing really stands out in the way it drives, or indeed what it offers. For plenty of people, that will be just fine, of course, as that’s all they are looking for. Many will select this Buick, thinking that it is a cut above more mainstream rivals which include GM’s own Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain, the big-selling Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue, Ford’s Edge and the Korean duo of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and Kia Sorento, and believing that they are even being patriotic in the process. Of course the reality is that this is actually a Chinese made car, and it is more “upscale” than “premium”, lacking some of the sort of final polish that you would get in an Audi Q5 or a Volvo XC60. For some, that will fit the bill perfectly, but for those who want something a bit more than just a sort of luxury version of inoffensive, you probably need to look at some of those alternatives to see which suits best.