Judging solely on brand reputation, you’d think a Mercedes-Benz luxury SUV would beat any Buick hands-down. But surprisingly, the new Buick Encore ranks higher than the latest Mercedes-Benz GLA. Indeed, Consumer Reports gave the 2021 GLA a below-average score of 60 out of 100, based mainly on two significant flaws.
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA
The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA should rank higher, with an attractive and sporty exterior that makes it feel more car than SUV. It’s larger than the prior model year (which contributes to its spacious interior — more on that later). And with a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine that produces 221 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, it outpowers many bigger SUVs. Front-wheel drive is standard, but you can also choose a 4Matic all-wheel-drive option. The FWD version gets 25/34 mpg city/highway, while the AWD version yields 24/33 mpg.
Cargo space isn’t awe-inspiring, even for a subcompact SUV, at 15.4 cubic feet (50.5 with the back row down). However, headroom and legroom are notably generous because last year’s model was decidedly cramped. You’ll find 39 inches of headroom and 41 inches of legroom in the front row. The second row also boasts 38.1 inches of headroom and 38 inches of legroom. The cabin’s interior styling is upscale, as you’d expect from a Mercedes-Benz. You can take advantage of a 7.0-inch display cluster coupled with a 7.0-inch touchscreen. Upgraded trims upsize the screens to 10.3-inches. Other options include a 12-speaker sound system, a wireless charging pad, and a head-up display.
But where the GLA suffers is in difficult-to-use tech and visibility. Its standard MBUX system offers many features, but a hypersensitive touchscreen and a complex menu make it challenging to use while driving. Further, small side and rear windows, along with wide roof pillars, compromise driver visibility. These two flaws affected its Consumer Reports score significantly. And that was before the recall notices. The first covers this model, along with various 2016 to 2021 models, and results from a software defect that provides an erroneous report about the vehicle’s location in case of an accident. The second recall notice involves the potential for accidental airbag deployment.
The 2021 Buick Encore
Compare this to the 2021 Buick Encore, whose Consumer Reports score is a respectable 74/100. Not a sterling score, but high enough above the GLA’s to merit a second look. The latest Buick’s exterior styling hasn’t changed since 2017, and though it’s not leading the industry in design, it’s an attractive enough SUV for this segment. Its base model packs a 1.6-liter turbo-four engine that, when paired with a six-speed automatic, provides 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. It can hit 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, and its standard FWD version gets about 25/30 mpg city/highway.
Legroom is comparable, with 40.8 inches in the front and 35.6 inches in the back. The Encore has more space in the cargo hold at 18.8 cubic feet (although when you fold the back row down, there’s less than in the GLA, at 48.4 cubic feet). The cabin also has intuitive software on a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen, along with a six-speaker audio system. When you opt for higher-level trims, you can get a seven-speaker system, built-in navigation, and other features.
The Encore is a solid subcompact SUV, but it’s underpowered compared with many others in the segment. Its fuel economy also doesn’t impress. And like the GLA, the Encore suffers from compromised rear visibility, thanks to its wide pillars and small rear window. However, the Encore scores points for an upscale interior, with first-class wood paneling, chrome styling, and splendid stitchwork. And Consumer Reports notes its system is easy to use, especially when using voice commands. Further, there’s a recall on the Encore GX, but that’s a separate vehicle rather than a trim despite the similar name.
The GLA and Encore compared
Those looking for an affordable subcompact crossover will find plenty to like about the 2021 Buick Encore. Starting at an astonishingly affordable $23,200, it’s far less expensive than the GLA, which starts at $36,230. And the Encore’s features, especially the voice-controlled infotainment technology, are big selling points. The MBUX system’s voice controls, by contrast, are as sensitive as the touchscreen and easily activated accidentally. And unlike the GLA, the Encore is not subject to any recalls.
However, despite a valiant effort, the Encore ultimately can’t match the GLA’s luxuriousness. The Benz provides far better engine performance and highway mileage. It also edges out the Encore in passenger and cargo space. And, of course, it carries the inherent brand cachet of Mercedes.
Surprisingly, these positives weren’t enough for Consumer Reports to rank the GLA higher than the Encore. And this might be enough for budget-conscious shoppers to consider the Buick Encore instead. Still, for many prospective buyers, the Mercedes-Benz emblem will be enough of a reason to sign on the dotted line, recalls notwithstanding.