If you check out MotorTrend‘s Buyer’s Guide for cars, trucks, and so on, you’ll eventually notice there are 10 segments for SUVs alone. It is easily the most diverse and most popular automotive assemblage. But perhaps the most perplexing of all is the subcompact SUV segment and its luxury subcompact counterpart.
These baby SUVs are very often based on budget-car platforms. Often, they’re really just cars masquerading as SUVs; we’re looking at you, Kia Soul. One might say the same of the 2020 Mazda CX-30 and the 2020 Buick Encore GX, which, raised ride height and available all-wheel-drive systems aside, are essentially a modern take on the classic hatchback formula.
CX-30 Vs. Encore GX: Lux Bucks
The Mazda is the cheaper of these two hatchbacks, err…crossovers, but you’ll hardly notice when you’re inside. At $5,195 less than the Buick, one might expect some sacrifice in the Mazda’s interior, but the CX-30 felt no less luxurious than the Encore. It’s also hardly any less spacious. The CX-30’s cargo bay offers up 20.2 cubic feet of storage compared to the Encore GX’s 23.5 cubes. For reference, the Buick’s extra 3.3 cubic feet of space translates to about two regular-sized backpacks.
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With eight materials and textures on its dashboard alone, the Buick’s interior is exceptionally busy—especially compared to the clean simplicity of the dash in the Mazda. There are half as many materials in use in the CX-30, and in this case, less really is more. Despite the Encore pitching itself as the luxury item in this comparison, the Mazda packs the higher-quality interior.
“The Mazda interior is clean and elegant for the segment; it really feels like a step above,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “I’m not a huge fan of the screen mounted on top of the dash and being so far away from the driver, but I do like that it sits low on the dash.”
The intuitiveness of the infotainment systems in the two SUVs, however, is a different story. The Encore benefits from residing under the General Motors umbrella and the latest iteration of MyLink is snappy, easy to figure out, and easy to use. The infotainment system on the Mazda, on the other hand, can make even something as simple as trying to change the radio station a challenge.
Because Mazda insists that drivers use the provided scroll wheel instead of just touching the screen to initiate whatever task they desire, the system takes significantly longer to get used to than the Buick’s. The screen is too far away to touch without a big reach, anyway, but we wish Mazda offered additional infotainment control options. Scrolling and clicking through menus can be just as distracting as having to use a touchscreen (if not more so), and the Buick’s solution is simply more elegant and requires a shorter learning curve.
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CX-30 Vs. Encore GX: Driver’s Choice
Infotainment alone does not make a complete car. How the vehicles perform on the road matters just as much, if not more. Under the Mazda’s hood sits the brand’s now familiar naturally 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 186 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. The GX we tested is the most powerful version of the Encore, and it’s still down more than 30 horses to the Mazda. Its little turbocharged 1.3-liter inline-three makes 155 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque.
Bingo night at your local senior home would be more exciting than a drag race between these two. In our testing, the Buick took 9.3 seconds to hit 60 mph, while the Mazda needed 8.3 seconds. The CX-30 crossed the quarter mile mark after 16.3 seconds at 83.6 mph with the Encore GX just behind it, running it in 17.0 seconds at 80.0 mph.
Rocket ships these two are not, and even though the Mazda has more power than the Buick, the gap between them on the road is still marginal. We know folks don’t buy these vehicles to drag race, but these relatively slow numbers reflect their difficulty in getting up to freeway speeds in a hurry.
At anything other than city cruising speeds, the CX-30’s four-banger feels stressed and unable to deliver on the athletic potential of its underpinnings. Although its steering is accurate and its chassis is well-balanced, nothing can distract you from the Mazda’s lack of power. The transmission doesn’t help, either. Exceptionally long gearing means you’re either lugging the engine or pinging it at high revs (where this engine makes next to no power). It also is reluctant to deliver timely downshifts.
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Cortina and I weren’t trying to drive the Mazda at its limit, but we often found ourselves stuck where the little four-pot had nothing left to give. We know a turbocharged engine is coming to the CX-30 for 2021, but for now, the Mazda simply doesn’t have the powertrain its well-sorted chassis deserves. And that’s a shame because the rest of the CX-30 is a joy. Its ride is firm but not uncomfortable, and both road and wind noise are minimal relative to the Buick.
Then we got in the Encore GX. Although the Buick’s ride is softer than the Mazda’s, its engine is downright gutless. The GX was one of the slowest cars we tested this year, and its lack of grunt shows up almost everywhere. Something as simple as merging into an on-ramp leads you to wonder, “Is this really everything the Encore has?” Asking the GX to do something as simple as get up to freeway speed is like asking an asthmatic to blow up a dozen balloons.
“From the moment I stepped on the throttle, I knew the Mazda was better,” Cortina said. “The Buick’s turbo lag feels interminable. That, along with a transmission that hates to downshift, makes for a powerless SUV that is undesirable to drive.”
The Buick also struggles with tasks as basic as accurately steering down the road. The rack is extremely overeager to self-center, almost like the car is constantly trying to take the wheel out of your hands in the middle of a corner. It’s also far too light and imprecise. That makes the process of driving a literal guessing game.
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Cortina referred to cornering in the Encore GX as “a mess.” You wonder if the Encore will go where you want it to—the steering is just that sloppy. The wayward steering, the amount of wind noise that finds its way into the cabin, and the stultifying effect the Buick’s engine has on the driving experience all need addressing before it can live up to the Mazda.
CX-30 Vs. Encore GX: The Verdict
Back to value for money. It’s hard to recommend either of these subcompact SUVs over many run-of-the-mill hatchbacks, which offer competitive cargo space, are priced similarly, and are undeniably better to drive.
Here are the numbers: For the $31,425 our all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-30 Premium rang in at, you could easily have a top-trim Mazda 3 Premium hatchback that costs $28,795. Our all-wheel-drive Buick Encore GX Essence, meanwhile, wore an as-tested price of $36,620. For that money, you could snag a 2020 Buick Regal TourX Essence—the oft-forgotten, quite-good, and soon departing wagon of the Buick lineup—that features more space and starts at $35,995 with similar equipment.
But if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably committed to getting a crossover instead of a hatchback or wagon, and the words on this page likely won’t convince you otherwise.
In that case, the CX-30 has the nicer cabin, offers nearly as much room behind the rear seats, and costs $5,125 less than the comparably equipped Encore. Provided you can live with the quirks of its powertrain, the CX-30 wins this comparison by a longshot. Now, Mazda, bring us the turbo.
2nd Place: Buick Encore GX
The Encore GX is a relatively handsome compact SUV, but it simply doesn’t deliver the goods. Sloppy steering, an unacceptable amount of wind and tire noise on the road, and an engine that is nowhere near adequate all hold it back in an evermore competitive segment.
1st Place: Mazda CX-30
The CX-30 might be a lifted Mazda 3, but in this case that’s no bad thing. Simply put, the Mazda is more refined on the road, carries the nicer cabin, is nearly as spacious, and is considerably less expensive. Not only is it the one we want to drive, it’s the one we want in our driveway.
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