Tariff tiff complicates future for China-built 2021 Buick Envision crossover

2021 Buick Envision

What changes will make the 2021 Buick Envision different?

Expect little aside from new paint colors and loftier sticker prices. However, there’s an outside chance this premium compact crossover could be fully redesigned for model-year 2021, with new styling over a next-generation architecture. That possibility hinges, oddly enough, on geopolitics.

Envision went on sale in North America as a 2016 model and fits into Buick’s crossover lineup between the smaller Encore and Encore GX and the larger Enclave. One of the first vehicles imported to the U.S. from China, it competes most directly with the Lincoln Corsair, Acura RDX, and Infiniti QX50 rather than with higher-priced premium compact crossovers such as the Mercedes-Benz GLC, Audi Q5, and BMW X3.

Encore’s assembly in China has much to do with its American future. Buick has long been among China’s most prestigious automotive marques, admired there as Audi and BMW are in North America. Indeed, Buick sells five times as many vehicles in China than in the in the U.S.

As of early summer, 2019, though, the trade dispute between China and the U.S. threatened Envision with a 25 percent import tariff. If imposed, it could compel Buick to raise starting prices from around $33,200 to $40,000 or more, erasing Envision’s U.S.-market value proposition. In response, some reports suggest General Motors will continue the crossover in its present guise for China while accelerating the launch of a redesigned variant for North America.

Likely be built in Mexico or South Korea, the replacement might even adopt a new name, the Enspire. The clean break from its China counterpart could give sales a needed boost. After an impressive debut, Envision demand in the U.S. plummeted, dropping 27 percent in 2018 and down another 10 percent through the first quarter of 2019, even as the segment enjoyed healthy growth.

Note that our driving impressions here are based on road tests of the 2019 Buick Envision. A 2020 model was not available for test in time for this report, but it had not changed enough to alter our subjective conclusions. Assuming Buick does not replace it, the 2021 model will be materially like the 2020. In areas where it might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy a 2020?

Wait for the ’21 to see how the tariff dispute plays out. Buy a 2020 if you’re looking for a great deal on a more-than-competent premium-compact crossover.

As of this writing, the U.S. had denied GM a tariff exemption for the Envision. If the extra tax is passed along to buyers, it could increase the base price of the least costly 2021 Envision to around $41,500, with fully loaded examples ballooning to more than $60,000.

Without price interference, Envision deserves serious consideration. It doesn’t have the athleticism of the top European-brand competitors but acquits itself remarkably well against comfort-minded rivals from the likes of Lincoln, Infiniti, and Volvo.

If the 2021 Envisions carries over, expect its model lineup to consist of Base, Preferred, Essence, Premium, and Premium II trim levels. Base, Preferred, and Essence would likely come with front-wheel drive and a 197-horsepower four-cylinder engine. All-wheel drive (AWD) would be optional on the Essence and Preferred. It’d be standard on the Premium and Premium II, accompanied by a 252-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder.

Apprehensive about Envision’s quality and reliability, given that its built in China? Don’t be. Our review samples exhibited good workmanship with class-appropriate materials quality. And in independent surveys, customer evaluations have been almost universally positive, with no unusual quality or reliability issues.

Will the styling be different?

Not until a full redesign — or a reintroduction. Envision got a significant refresh for model-year 2019 that’ll see it through the end of this current design generation. Buick added a chrome bar to the grille that intersects the brand’s logo, similar to the look of the Encore and Enclave. It fit slightly more aggressive-looking headlamps; Base, Preferred, and Essence grades with standard xenon illumination, both Premium trims with full LED lighting. The tail was tweaked for a tauter look.

The wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) is a couple inches shy of the class norm, contributing to less overall interior volume than that of most competitors. Still, you aren’t liable to feel cramped inside. Legroom is fine front and rear, as is headroom, even beneath the housing of the available panoramic sunroof. Envision’s seats are built for comfort, not body-hugging support, and plush padding leaves you feeling unfatigued after a long road trip.

The rear seats slide fore and aft to favor passenger or cargo volume. Luggage space is maxes out at 26.9 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks raised and 57.3 with them folded. That’s toward the bottom of the competitive set but is balanced generous interior storage thanks to large center console and big door pockets.

Don’t expect changes to the 2021 Envision’s dashboard. An 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto and four total USB ports will continue standard on all grades. Buick bucks a trend, integrating the display within the dashboard rather than mounting it tablet-like. Traditional buyers might like that, but it precludes deployment of wide and ultra-high-resolution screens available on many rivals. Imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t require a smartphone to be connected will likely remain standard on the Premium II and a reasonable $495 option on the Essence and Premium.

Any mechanical changes?

No. The ’21 Envision would continue with several updates that came on line with the 2019 refresh, most notably, powertrain upgrades for the Premium models.

The ’21 Base, Preferred and Essence grades with continue with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 197 horsepower and 192 pound-feet of torque. They’ll use a six-speed automatic transmission. None of these models has been made available for testing, but don’t anticipate particularly quick acceleration, given the modest torque and relatively hefty curb weights of 3,755-3,929 pounds.

Stepping up to a 2021 Envision Premium or Premium II would be a worthwhile investment. They’re 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has 252 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque, and teams with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Power delivery is smooth, with little perceptible turbo lag (delay in throttle response before a turbo kicks in). It’s impressively strong, too, with more than enough punch for confident high-speed passing and merging.

Handling is stable but not in any way athletic. The steering is rather lifeless, and you’ll experience a fair amount of body lean when taking turns at anything more than moderate speeds. Envision balances this with a smooth ride and one of the quietest cabins in the class. The turbocharged engine produces a refined growl when accelerating and recedes into silence at cruising speeds.

Will fuel economy improve?

Unlikely until a redesign. Expect 2021 Envisions to match their 2020 EPA ratings. That means Base, Preferred and Essence should rate 22/29/25 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 21/27/24 with AWD. Premium and Premium II are AWD only and would rate 20/25/22 mpg. A 2019 Premium II review sample averaged 22.5 mpg in our suburban test loop.

All Envisions employ engine idle stop/start capability, and for 2019 Buick thankfully added a dashboard button to disable this feature if the driver so chooses. Buick would recommend, but not require, premium-grade 91-octane gasoline for the Premium models’ turbo engine while specifying 87-octane regular for the other models.

Will there be new features?

No. The ’21 Envision will continue to benefit from several tweaks and new features that were part of its 2019 freshening. We mentioned the revised headlights. It also added LED taillights across the board. The standard heated seats warm up more quickly, and the rearview camera enjoys boosted resolution. The only changes to the 2020 Envision were some new paint colors; we expect the same will be true for 2021.

Returning as standard equipment for all models would be active noise cancellation, 8-inch infotainment display with CarPlay and Android Auto support, GM’s OnStar telematics with built-in 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, four USB charging ports, heated power-adjustable front seats, keyless access with pushbutton ignition, remote engine start, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a hands-free programmable power rear liftgate. Preferred grades would add rear-obstacle detection.

The ’21 Envision Essence would again come with such useful features as blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, three-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, driver-seat memory function, heated steering wheel, and heated outboard rear seats.

Look for the Premium model to build on that with forward-collision warning, lane-departure alert with automatic steering correction, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a Bose-brand audio system. The 2021 Premium II would again have hands-free parallel park assist, imbedded navigation, ventilated front seats, and a head-up instrument display.

Probably returning as a Premium II exclusive would be the $1,545 Driver Confidence Package, which adds autonomous emergency braking, adaptive radar cruise control, and a surround-view camera. We’d urge Buick to make these key driver aids available on more models for 2021, but that’s unlikely until the next-generation Envision or a replacement Enspire debuts.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Setting aside the specter of tariff-related increases, 2021 Envision prices are likely be marginally higher due to year-over-year inflation. Buick raised base prices just $200 for 2020, for example. For reference, here are 2020 Envision base prices, including Buick’s $1,195 destination fee.

The front-wheel-drive-only 2020 Base model was priced from $33,190. The Preferred started at $34,695 with front-drive and at $36,445 with AWD, the Essence at $36,995 and $38,745, respectively. With AWD standard, base price was $41,895 for the Premium and $44,795 for the Premium II.

Key options for most models will again include a panoramic sunroof ($1,495) and a number of paint colors ($495). The $2,195 Appearance Package would add specific wheels and body-side assist steps to the Premium or Premium II.

When does it come out?

Look for 2021 Buick Envision release date in summer 2020.

Best competitors

Acura RDX, Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Cadillac XT4, Infiniti QX50, Jaguar F-Pace, Land Rover Discover Sport, Lincoln Corsair, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Porsche Macan, Volvo XC60

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]