The verdict: The redesigned 2021 Buick Envision premium compact SUV is stylish and refined, and has easy-to-use tech features, but poor brake-pedal feel degrades the driving experience.
Versus the competition: Sized like a compact SUV but priced below subcompact luxury models, the 2021 Envision gives shoppers who aren’t concerned with having a traditional luxury badge a lot of value for their money.
The 2021 Buick Envision newly shares its platform with the Cadillac XT4 compact luxury SUV, and it’s wider, lower and slightly shorter than the model it replaces. Despite the redesign, it remains one of the few vehicles sold in the U.S. that’s built in China.
The 2021 Envision is also less expensive than its predecessor; a base Preferred trim level with front-wheel drive starts at $32,995 (including a $1,195 destination charge), which is $1,700 less than the starting price of the 2020 Envision. Our test vehicle was a mid-level Essence trim with front-wheel drive, and its as-tested price of $41,315 included a $2,500 Technology Package and a $1,325 Sport Touring Package, the latter featuring black exterior accents and 20-inch aluminum wheels. All-wheel drive is available on any trim for an extra $1,800.
How It Drives
All Envisions are powered by a 228-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that works with a standard nine-speed automatic transmission. The engine is smooth, refined and delivers adequate acceleration, and it produces a bit of a growl when you really step on the gas pedal. With nine forward gears, the automatic makes frequent upshifts when accelerating from a stop. The shifts are smooth, but there’s a short pause between gear changes. Part- and full-throttle kickdowns, however, happen without delay.
The SUV steers with a light touch, and the suspension deals swiftly with impacts from broken pavement. Body motions are well controlled overall, but the suspension tuning is on the firm side. This was especially noticeable on one stretch of road with small buckles in the asphalt, one after the other, that resulted in a choppy ride. Our test vehicle’s 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires likely didn’t help matters, and it’s possible the standard 18-inch wheels with taller-sidewall tires offer more comfort. Ditto for the top Avenir trim level’s available adaptive suspension, though experience has revealed that advanced suspensions don’t always compensate for large wheels.
The Envision’s brake-pedal feel was disappointing on a number of fronts. Pedal feel is numb, and it suffers from poor linearity on top of that. We’ve experienced this unpleasant combination in certain gas-electric hybrids, but it’s less common in conventionally powered vehicles like the Envision. Like many hybrids and a growing number of conventional vehicles, however, the Envision has a brake-by-wire system with electric assist rather than traditional vacuum-assisted power brakes. (We reported similarly disappointing braking feel in our review of the XT4, the Envision’s platform mate.)
The front-drive Envision is EPA-rated at 24/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined, while all-wheel-drive versions are rated 22/29/25 mpg. More powerful compact luxury SUVs like the Acura RDX and Lincoln Corsair get slightly worse estimated gas mileage, but the smaller BMW X1 has slightly better ratings (see fuel economy estimates for front- and all-wheel-drive versions of these SUVs).
Interior quality is good overall with soft-touch surfaces closer to eye level and hard plastic near your feet. Our test vehicle’s all-black color scheme, however, looked a bit dour to my eyes. A beige interior is also offered.
Frequently used controls are within easy reach of the driver, and the center of the dash is dominated by the optional 10.2-inch touchscreen (an 8-inch touchscreen is standard in the Preferred trim). The big screen is responsive, has an intuitive interface and looks great. There are also handy volume and tuning knobs to the left of the screen.
Both touchscreen systems include wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, but only the Avenir trim includes wireless device charging. Connecting my iPhone to the multimedia system was easy, and the wireless CarPlay connection seemed just as responsive as the more common wired setup.
One of the more unique elements of the interior is the gear selector, which consists of a column of buttons and pull switches that go where a conventional shifter channel otherwise would. It didn’t take long to get accustomed to the system, but the design doesn’t result in any additional storage space on top of the front center console; there’s a small forward bin, two cupholders to the right of the shifter and a storage bin under the front center armrest. The design does, however, eliminate the obstruction a lever would represent, and its electronic nature allows for an open lower storage area below the console.
The Envision’s front bucket seats are comfortable, and they’re finished in cloth and simulated leather (Preferred) or perforated real leather (Essence and Avenir). The seats have modest side bolsters that don’t hold you in place when taking a corner quickly, however.
There’s surprisingly good rear-seat space for adult passengers. The bench seat is comfortable and there’s good headroom. The standard 60/40-split backrest folds flat with the cargo floor, extending the luggage area, but the seatback doesn’t recline.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash-tested the 2021 Buick Envision as of publication. The list of standard active-safety features includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist and automatic high-beam headlights. A head-up display, 360-degree camera system and adaptive cruise control are optional.
Value in Its Class
The Envision doesn’t fit neatly into the mainstream or luxury compact SUV classes, but to hear Buick tell it, that’s an opportunity. Rob Peterson, the brand’s marketing manager, said Buick serves shoppers moving up from mainstream brands and has both the Envision and the smaller and less expensive Encore GX to offer small SUV shoppers.
There are still some mainstream elements like cloth upholstery and manual air conditioning in base Envisions, but the mid-level Essence trim swaps them and more for upscale amenities without significantly ballooning the price tag. It’s a value recipe that seems right for the times.