Car manufacturers spend billions creating a brand identity. Think of Ferarri and it’s a sexy sports car. Think of BMW and it’s a sleek “driving machine”. Think about VW and it’s the people’s car. Subaru? Outdoors fanatics. Toyota? Reliability, perhaps at the cost of being less design-oriented than other manufacturers. But think of Buick and, well, the company knows the uphill journey it’s on with its old “It’s not your father’s automobile” slogan. No question, when David Dunbar Buick founded his namesake automotive company back in 1908, he never envisioned it would end up being identified as a rather staid and sleepy lineup of vehicles. Particularly when it’s no longer true. Buick has a pretty snappy lineup of cars that have one foot in classic American car design and the other immersed in all the most modern vehicle safety and performance technologies.
Enter the 2021 Buick Envision Essence FWD. It’s a lot sexier than you’re thinking, and when I first saw my loaner car parked in the driveway, I immediately drew a comparison with the Porsche Panamera, a similar long-hood, low SUV. Here’s the Envision in Cinnabar Metallic Red:
With those big air scoops on the front and the sleek lines of the front windows, it’s definitely got some serious curb appeal. The car’s also fun to drive, powered by a 2.0L Turbo Ecotec engine and 9-speed automatic transmission. No hybrid, no EV, just decent fuel efficiency (it’s EPA rated at 24/31, though I saw about 26-27 in my own driving).
Back even a few years ago, the tech-based safety features were limited to the most expensive of vehicles but now they’re a reasonable expectation on every car regardless of price. The Envision Essence definitely has its own set, notably including my biggest must-have for any car I drive at this point: adaptive cruise control. It’s just magic in even light traffic, slowing down your vehicle and speeding up to the speed you’ve set automatically, without you having to be focused on any changes in the velocity of the vehicle in front of you.
But Buick’s standard equipment features all the other tech car buyers have grown to expect, from front pedestrian braking to lane keep assist, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot alert, and a tire pressure monitor system. Remember the old days when someone would pull up next to you, gesticulate for you to roll down your window, then tell you that you had a flat? That’s years back in the rearview mirror at this point!
Moving into the interior, the car was well apportioned and the controls all where you’d expect, with one notable exception:
I’ll get back to that exception in a moment, but if you’ve driven an American car in the last twenty years, you can definitely slip behind the wheel and get going in just seconds. Certainly, at this point in my life, the locations of these controls are tucked into muscle memory. I was stymied by the rear hatch, however: I pushed the open button on the remote but nothing happened. Turns out that the rear hatch can be set to open 3/4 or full, or, with the turn of the dial, disabled. As I learned, that also disables the automatic rear open controls too. Where’s that little control? On the driver’s door, below all the side mirrors and window controls. You can see it in the above pic.
So what’s the exception? The weird gearshift. Once car buyers started to accept that gears didn’t need to be “shifted” with the rise of automatic transmissions, car designers have really run with it and keep trying different alternatives. Knobs, sticks jutting off the steering wheel, buttons on the dash, and the Envision, with its weirdly sculpted column of buttons on the middle console:
Remember, this vehicle has paddle shifters for people who want a more manual (albeit without a clutch) driving experience. That’s “M”. And the rest? Well, once you’re in Drive, do you ever need to change gears? I will say that the strange shape is more ergonomic so you can tell by feel what gear you’re moving into, but it also is mirrored by one of the more modern, well, futuristic design features of the interior: Sweeping curves.
This is most obvious when you look at the center console and front dash area from a side:
The storage areas are much appreciated, but these sweeping lines feel a bit like they’re out of a retro design, more Flash Gordon than Blade Runner 2049. It’s not unattractive, but after looking at these, you can’t help wonder why they didn’t just shape the dash straight down and leave this center area more accessible by the passenger?
Speaking of the center area, it’s very nicely appointed with various charging and power options:
Notice the unused buttons on this row too. I always wonder “what could these be controlling?” Fact is, it’s probably more about standardized Delco parts used across the GMC line than about secret features of the Envision, sadly. Sorry, Mr. Bond, this model doesn’t include the eject button anymore.
Speaking of geeky technology, I found the infotainment system entirely functional and easy to work with, and appreciate its combination of touchscreen interface and dedicated physical control buttons:
This 10-inch screen is part of Technology Package I, a $2500 option that I imagine 90% of buyers add to their vehicle. It also adds a heads-up display (always helpful), Bose 9-speaker premium sound system, wireless CarPlay, wireless Android Auto, HD radio, and the addition of a universal home remote for your garage door opener. Of course, the display itself is rather boring, as shown above, particularly with the audio content, but boring and function beats visually complex and baffling any day.
This homage to classic design is repeated in the main gauge display, which definitely doesn’t break any new ground with design:
Still, entirely functional with all the information you want – even that beastly 100F temperature indicator for the exterior temperature! – quickly and easily identified. As always, having a tachometer with an automatic seems a bit odd, but you can drop it in manual and use the paddle shifters, at which point that can be helpful (though I’m pretty sure that most performance drivers listen to the pitch of the engine to decide shift points). Also note that 26.3mpg fuel efficiency at an average speed in the last 206 miles of 29.4 mph. Definitely not a lot of highway driving!
Stepping out of the vehicle again, here’s legroom with the driver’s seat about halfway back:
Not great, but if you’re a back seat passenger, you’ve always hoped for a short driver, right? 😁
Finally, stepping around to the back, one nice thing about this design is a generous rear storage and cargo space:
Also appreciated is the tonneau cover with hooks so you can either unhook the strings and have it sit over the storage area for security or leave it tethered so that it lifts automatically with the rear hatch. Either way, keeping your cargo out of sight is smart. In a classic American carmaker approach, however, it’s not standard equipment, but rather is known as the “rear cargo compartment cover” included in the optional $1,325 Sport Touring Package.
I say “American car”, and you undoubtedly think of Buick as an American manufacturer, but in fact, only 1% of the Envision Essence components are made in the United States or Canada, while a whopping 94% comes from China. Next time someone decries Toyota or Subaru as a foreign carmaker, it’s good to keep in mind that foreign carmakers now assemble their most popular vehicles in the USA while American carmakers have some of their vehicles produced overseas or assembled almost exclusively foreign parts.
And, finally, the rear of the 2021 Buick Envision Essence FWD, with that hatch closed:
All in all, there’s a lot to like in this sporty, mid-priced SUV. From its smooth and enjoyable drive experience to the many smart amenities and design touches inside the vehicle, it’s just enough a Buick to appeal to older buyers, while modern enough to please a younger crowd.
CONFIGURATION: 2021 Buick Envision Essence FWD in Cinnabar Red with Ebony interior. Powered by an Ecotec 2.0L turbo engine with 9-speed automatic transmission. MSRP: $35,800.00. OPTIONS INCLUDED: Technology Package I, Sport Touring Package, Cinnabar Red surcharge. AS DRIVEN: $41,315.00.
Disclosure: GMC loaned me this Buick for a week in return for this candid writeup. Thanks, Buick!