The Buick Envision is the most notable average vehicle on the road.
The compact crossover from General Motors competes against a sea of rival models from virtually every automaker — including other GM brands — and does little to stand out in the group.
It’s comfortable for passengers, but not much fun to drive. That reinforces old consumer perceptions that Buick is boring even at a time when most of the brand’s range is made up of lively, dynamic vehicles.
Yet the five-passenger Envision is noteworthy for being one of only two light vehicles manufactured in China and currently sold in the U.S.
The success of the Envision could signal whether Americans are ready for a Chinese-built car.
Launched in May with sales of just 89 vehicles, the Envision is slowly gaining traction in market. Buick sold nearly 4,000 in December, bringing total 2016 Envision U.S. sales to just over 14,000.
At a time when most people carry Chinese-manufactured cellphones, use Chinese-built computers and buy Chinese-made televisions, driving a car from China shouldn’t be significant. But the auto market has long been subject to odd stereotyping and brand perception.
Most Ford F-150 pickup truck owners would never consider buying a Chevrolet Silverado. Many Toyota Camry and Honda Civic owners believe that Japanese-branded sedans are far superior to their American counterparts even though Chevrolet’s Malibu and Cruze offer equal driving dynamics, a quieter experience and better, simpler infotainment controls.
The Envision is likely just a U.S. beachhead for Chinese automotive manufacturing.
Volvo, owned by Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, is now exporting several thousand long-wheelbase S60 sedans from China to the U.S. annually and is considering bringing more models over.
Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., or GAC, displayed several vehicles at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week and said it plans to export the GS7, a five-seat sport-utility vehicle, to the U.S. two years from now.
The company has no U.S. dealer network and provided few details about its strategy. But the automaker said it will open a research center in Silicon Valley later this year, calling the move the “first step for GAC to enter the North American market.”
Probably only a trade war launched by President-elect Donald Trump or his threatened high tariffs would stop increased automotive imports from China.
“There was talk years ago about whether people would buy cars made in Japan, Mexico and South Korea,” said Alan Baum, a principal at the Baum & Associates automotive consulting firm. “Those issues turned out to be much smaller than expected.”
Asian-based brands accounted for 46.1 percent of the auto industry’s record 17.6 million light vehicle sales last year, according to Autodata.
Bringing the Envision to the U.S. was less about developing China as a source of autos for export than taking advantage of a unique opportunity, Alan Batey, president of General Motors’ North American Operations, told Trucks.com.
GM sells more cars in China than it does in the U.S., where Buick is a small brand and sold barely 220,000 vehicles last year for just a 2.9 percent market share, according to Autodata. But in China, Buick is GM’s largest brand, moving almost 1.2 million vehicles and accounting for almost a third of the automaker’s volume. That includes more than 223,000 Envisions.
Having a compact crossover already designed and in production that slots between the larger Buick Enclave and the smaller Encore created the economic impetus to bring it to the U.S. GM would not have invested in developing a crossover in that segment specifically for the Buick brand otherwise, Batey said.
“We would have never gotten the level of volume here required to do that,” Batey said.
The fact that it is Chinese-built is likely lost on most consumers because they are seeing it as a Buick, an American brand with roots that date back more than 100 years, Batey said.
A company such as GAC, coming into this market fresh, with no branding and no history and a new nameplate such as the GS7, would face much higher hurdles for consumer acceptance.
“The only thing that is common with the Envision is that they are both built in China,” he said.
The problem with the Envision is that it doesn’t have enough in common with Buick’s sporty Regal sedan or its elegant and practical Enclave as well as the rest of the brand’s models. It shares minimal content with vehicles from GM’s U.S. line up.
One week and 270 miles in a 2017 all-wheel-drive Envision in the Premium trim level revealed that it is a boring ride with significant flaws. The suspension is soft, providing a floaty, squishy drive. The steering tuning is loose, making it hard to feel the road or exact positioning inside a turn. There’s too much body roll in tight turns or curvy highway onramps and offramps, giving the Envision a rubbery sensation.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is a decent power plant, providing 252 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. But its potential is hidden by the fleshy feel of the vehicle. It achieved an average 20.6 mpg at an average overall test speed of 26 mph. The Envision has an Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in mixed city and highway driving.
Buick is positioned as an upscale brand. The interior, with leather-appointed seats was nice. But it had a too many plastic accents for a vehicle at a premium trim level with a sticker price that starts at $42,320. That compares with manufacturers’ sticker prices of $37,170 for an Acura RDX all-wheel-drive crossover and $41,250 for the 2017 BMW X3 xDrive28i. All three vehicles are within an inch of one another in length.
That’s not to say the Envision is a total bust.
Like other GM vehicles, it has an excellent safety suite that includes traffic-tracking adaptive cruise control, forward-collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot and lane-change alerts, rear cross-traffic alert, lane- departure warning and a safe-following-distance indicator.
There’s an 8-inch diagonal touch screen equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Just plug an Apple or Android phone in with a USB cord, and with one button on the screen the driver can initiate a phone call, request text message narration, tap into Apple’s map program and access music and podcasts. No need to sync Bluetooth, no need for passwords. It really is just plug-and-play.
Like other GM vehicles, the controls for infotainment and climate are simple and intuitive. There are even climate controls and USB ports in the rear seat.
Passengers found the Envision to be an exceptionally comfortable vehicle. They liked the rear seat space and leg room.
The Envision’s characteristics as a loose and soft vehicle to drive but great to be driven in are an echo of its Chinese roots and design, said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.
“In China, it is much more prevalent that the person who owns the vehicle is driven by someone else,” Fisher said. “So it is critical to have a comfortable back seat, but steering feel is less important.”
That’s why the vehicle might be competitive in China but doesn’t work as well meeting the expectations of American drivers, Fisher said. He said there’s no reason to believe its reliability will be worse than American-assembled vehicles. Indeed, the vehicle has a better-than-average 48-month, 50,000-mile warranty.
The shortcomings with the Envision, it turns out, are more about the market for which it is built than where it is built.