In the classic sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens come down to Earth and essentially start producing emotionless human duplicates. A similar, albeit much less sinister, scenario is happening with Buick, a brand that has now abandoned cars entirely and replaced them all with crossover SUVs such as the new 2021 Envision, which unconvincingly mimics more premium nameplates.
It's not that the completely redesigned, second-generation Envision isn't visually appealing or packed with popular features. That's true on both counts. But beyond those basic prerequisites, the Envision lacks the driving verve and sense of specialness that might help it transcend its position as a compact luxury SUV poseur.
Top-Tier Avenir Fails to Impress
To showcase Buick's latest effort, our Envision was a top-of-the-line Avenir trim. It's gussied up with an exclusive mesh grille design and shiny 20-inch rims. Inside, it has quilted leather-appointed seats and standard features not found on the lesser Preferred and Essence models. These include a driver's seat massage function, ventilated front seats, heated rear outboard seats, and wireless charging. It's also the only Envision available with adaptive cruise control, a camera-fed rearview mirror, and self-parking assist. Although these unique add-ons make the Avenir more desirable than the other two trims, most of this extra content is available on its peers as well as other non-luxury alternatives. Still, our fully loaded, all-wheel-drive Envision Avenir cost $47,105. That's at least cheaper than the fanciest Lincoln Corsair and Infiniti QX50, both of which crest $50,000.
Unfortunately, the Avenir's mediocre interior materials undermine Buick's luxury aspirations. When the seat stitching stands out as a nice touch, you know you're not looking at a particularly ambitious cabin. The center-console bin can be accessed by a split-folding armrest that we appreciate, and the new electronic shifter allows useful storage space under the center console, but the shifter's push/pull buttons aren't nearly as intuitive as a traditional lever. The plastic piano-black center console collects dust and smudges and isn't convincing anyone that it's 10 coats of lacquer on wood.
We're perplexed by the Envision's aggressively driver-centric dashboard, too. The Buick's overall vibe is relaxed luxury, but the cockpit wraps around the driver like the Envision wishes it were a Corvette. Our front-seat passenger said she felt neglected (we're not sure if that was the Buick's fault) and that the volume and tuning knobs for the infotainment system were awkward to access. Even from the driver's seat, we also had to reach forward and around the steering wheel. Otherwise, the big 10.2-inch touchscreen provided effortless interactions, and it comes standard with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Too bad the Envision's driving position was another disappointment. Despite 12-way power seat adjustments, the short reach of the steering column made it hard to get comfortable.
Tranquil Ride Quality, Indifferent Driving Dynamics
The new Envision might handle like an old Buick sedan, with its lifeless steering feedback and listless body control, but it rides with the smoothness and quietness of a legitimate luxury vehicle. While its predecessor also provided a refined ride, the latest version switches from a four-link independent rear suspension to a five-link setup for improved ride isolation. Our Avenir was also fitted with the newly available electronically controlled dampers (called Continuous Damping Control) that help further isolate the cabin. However, even though the new generation's ride is serene, at 70 mph its interior sound level is four decibels louder than that of the outgoing version, which registered a hushed 66 decibels.
Some of that extra noise comes from the Envision's new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is slightly louder at idle and wide-open throttle than the outgoing turbo-four. Paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission, the new 228-hp inline-four is also less powerful than before. The sprint to 60 mph now takes 7.3 seconds, 0.8 second slower than a 2019 Envision we tested. Still, the new engine now develops peak torque longer and at a lower rpm (1500 to 4000 rpm, versus 3000 rpm). It feels respectably responsive around town and eager when passing on the highway, completing the 50-to-70-mph acceleration test in 4.8 seconds, 0.4 quicker than before. Its combined EPA estimate has improved from 22 mpg to as high as 26 mpg when equipped with front-wheel drive.
Oddly enough, there's a dedicated manual mode for the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, and the transmission will hold gears to redline. Apart from that and the firm brake pedal, which helped the Envision stop from 70 mph in 162 feet, there's not much sporting DNA to be found. Even with the addition of selectable drive modes, including a risqué Sport setting, it's tough to get excited behind the wheel of the Envision. Well, it's difficult to get excited about the Envision at all.
As with the alien imposters in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 2021 Envision appears to be a handsome compact luxury SUV, but the uninvolved driving behavior and lack of legitimate luxury traits expose its emotionless core. Buick stresses the premium aspects of its models and names Infiniti and Lincoln as competitors, so this General Motors division clearly has higher aspirations than, say, Chevrolet or GMC. Like it or not, those higher expectations lead to tougher scrutiny.
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