ATLANTA – “We’re in the fashion business,” executive chief engineer Rick Spina told us as he introduced the 2019 Buick Envision. “Except with a lot of technology.” Spina was referring to the changing whims of new-car buyers, which have prompted Buick to give the compact Envision crossover its mid-generational update early — just 18 months into its lifecycle — and drop its prices across all trim levels.
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As with much of our consumer goods, the Envision is made in China. That doesn’t seem to have hurt it in the market, even though it wears the badge of one of the most quintessentially American brands out there. It even aced the IIHS crash tests, putting it in league with Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
There’s good news and bad news about how the Envision is doing. It’s now the third-best-selling model in the Buick portfolio, behind the three-row Enclave in second place and the surprise hit Encore subcompact crossover in first. Sam Russell, Buick’s director of marketing, reported 73 percent growth in the past nine months versus the first half of its market life. A full 60 percent of Envision buyers are new to the GM family, too, and Russell says that nearly half of those are likely to buy another Buick SUV when the time comes to trade in the Envision.
And yet, the Envision trails in luxury compact-crossover sales, behind mainstays such as the Audi Q5 and Acura RDX, even amid crossover demand in the U.S. that has companies like Nissan posting record sales numbers and Ford canceling a redesign of the Fusion.
Our test of the 2017 Envision found it competent, but lacking that “X factor” that would send buyers of German and Japanese marques flocking. Instead, we compared it to the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, and deemed those both better values.
Perhaps Buick feels the same, because the base 2019 Envision now starts at $ 32,990, a $ 2,000 cut from last year. The Preferred trim level sees a greater drop of $ 2,400, to $ 34,495. Rounding out the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter grades, the Essence’s price falls $ 1,900 to $ 36,795. The turbocharged 2.0-liter Premium and Premium II trims get a discount of $ 1,600 and $ 1,400, respectively.
With those prices come changes that Buick hopes will make the Envision a more compelling prospect. Outwardly, the Envision sports a new grille, a winged affair to replace the 2018’s waterfall and bring it in line with the rest of Buick’s lineup. HID headlights are now the default on all 2.5-liter models, while bifunctional HIDs are the standard for the top two turbo 2.0-liter trims. The lower area of the front fascia has been repenned as well, with cleaner but less sporty lines.
The rear sees the biggest visual change, with a more sculpted tailgate and slimmer taillights. Gone is the word “Buick,” a decision that spans the entire Buick line for 2019. Without the brand lettering, observers will have to rely on the tri-shield emblem to identify the cars. Either that, or they’ll have judge by the shape of the vehicle itself, and we’re not convinced the design is distinctly Buick enough. If the Envision truly is a fashion item, it will need more distinguishable styling.
Perhaps what’s under the hood will make it more enticing. We thought the 2017 Envision’s six-speed automatic was fine, but noted that it paled against the competition’s eight-speed transmissions. Buick has come back with its new quick-shifting nine-speed automatic, a unit we recently sampled on the Regal GS and were impressed with.
As icing on the cake, the new transmission allowed for a torque increase of 35 lb-ft to 295 lb-ft, improving the turbo Envision’s 0-to-60-mph time by just less than half a second. Horsepower stays the same at 252 on the 2.0-liter turbo four, and the 2.5-liter engine remains mated to the six-speed automatic and keeps its 197 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque.
Beyond the quicker pickup, the driving experience stays largely the same. The steering is sedate, comparable to an Infiniti QX60, but that’s fine because if you corner too hard, you’ll slip right off its cushy leather chairs. If a spirited driving experience is what you want in a crossover, the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring maxes out at just $ 32,610. The Envision’s braking now requires less pedal pressure, thanks to a single-rate brake booster, but braking performance doesn’t change.
It seems the goal was to make the mechanical functions of the car as unobtrusive as possible. The Envision’s stop/start function is a perfect example. Buick has refined it for 2019 to the point where it’s one of the quieter systems in its class. There’s even what engineers called internally a “drive-through-window algorithm” to prevent start/stop jolts during crawls — after an initial stop, the engine will not shut off again until the car exceeds 6 mph or 7 mph. As a last resort, drivers now have the option to turn off stop/start completely via a button on the dash, a function Buick says was included because Chinese customers demanded it.
The cabin carries over from the 2018 model, quiet and comfortable as ever. Behind the curtains, Buick has made incremental enhancements. For example, drivers can now switch between adaptive and traditional cruise control. There’s an available air ionizer that pumps fresh air into the cabin and reduces funky smells. It has a tire fill alert that tells you when a tire has reached its proper pressure.
Tech-wise, Buick offers a suite of class-leading connectivity options. For 2019, the Envision comes with next-generation wireless charging with improved wattage capacity and iPhone8 and iPhoneX compatibility. As with 2018 models, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported, and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot is included.
The 2019 Envision’s improvements are certainly welcome, but they register as a walk when Buick really needs a home run to draw buyers away from its benchmark, the Audi Q5, and crossovers of its ilk. Buick has the tech part down, and the updates and new pricing structure address the gripes we had with the Envision’s transmission and value, but these seem more like calculated moves rather than a brand-defining stand.
In fact, the price drop actually pulls the Envision closer to a pool that includes the aforementioned Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mazda CX-5, both of which offer just as many amenities, are better looking and have designs that make them recognizable as strong marques. The Envision is still missing an “X factor,” that unique style and clear identity to help it stand out in the crossover crowd. For better or for worse, in fashion, brand and style still count for a lot.