PITTSFIELD, MA – Buick is not the first name that comes to mind when you hear about a major international brand tearing up the sales charts. But that’s exactly what it is doing, logging 1 million global sales through September, up 23%. U.S. sales were up 15.7% in October.

Buick’s biggest market by far is China, where it does about 80% of its volume. It has been a powerful brand there since the early part of the 20th century, when China’s top political leaders – including the last Emperor – fancied Buicks. But in recent years, sales have been surging in the U.S. too, thanks mostly to its CUVs: the midsize Enclave and ultra-popular Encore subcompact.

Between these two is a product gap you can drive a compact CUV through. Buick now is filling the hole by importing the Envision from its assembly line in Yantai, China, where it has been selling like hotcakes for more than a year.

It also has been selling well in the U.S. since it hit dealer showrooms in the summer with little fanfare. Buick sold 2,351 units in October.

Some in the media speculate Buick deliberately is keeping visibility low because it is one of a handful of vehicles being imported from China to the U.S., a potentially dicey public relations issue in a hyper-political election year.

Nevertheless, in late September Buick invited automotive journalists, including WardsAuto, to drive the Envision for a few hundred miles in the picturesque Berkshire Mountains near Pittsfield, MA.

Priced from $35,000 to almost $50,000, the Envision is a solid entrant in WardsAuto’s Middle Luxury CUV segment, and it has Buick’s sales momentum on its side, both in China and the U.S.

But crashing this segment isn’t easy. It comprises 23 other mostly stellar vehicles, including the Audi Q5, four BMWs, two Land Rovers, a couple of Mercedes-Benzes and the Lexus RX and NX. The good news for Buick is the automotive market around the world is shifting from cars to CUVs, creating plenty of room for growth in virtually every CUV niche.

The Envision is offered in five trim levels with front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive configurations. Powertrain choices are a 252-hp 2.0L turbo 4-cyl. making 260 lb.-ft (353 Nm) of torque and a direct-injected 2.5L I-4 making 197 hp and 192 lb.-ft (269 Nm). Both put power to the wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission. The upper trim levels are available with a more advanced twin-clutch AWD system with torque vectoring for an even smoother ride.

We drove two versions, the least- and most-expensive trims we could find in the test fleet: a FWD Essence with a base price of $37,720, which was $2,730 above the least-expensive trim level starting at $34,990. Including options worth $2,385, the sticker rose to $40,105 before the $925 destination charge.

The most expensive trim level we could put our hands on was a top-line Envision AWD Premium II with a base price of $44,960 and $3,435 in options running up the sticker to $48,395 before the destination charge.

The Envision primarily was designed to compete with the Audi Q5 in China, but in the U.S. the Acura RDX and Lincoln MKC are the main targets.

It’s a challenge to compete in a segment already loaded with attractive, practical products, but the Envision stands out with characteristic Buick features such as an extremely quiet and comfortable cabin, an impressively plush ride and advanced user-experience features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The interior is beautifully designed with an artistic flair that competitors such as the RDX lack, and most surfaces are soft with luxurious low-gloss finishes. There also is nice attention to details, such as running the carpet up a few inches in places such as the B-pillar trim, giving a more finished look.

It has been erroneously reported the Envision is based on the new General Motors Equinox architecture. GM sources say the CUV actually is underpinned by what amounts to a Buick-specific orphan platform, too expensively engineered to be spread across GM’s full global lineup.

The result is an accomplished long-distance cruiser, tight and quiet as a European luxury rival but with softer suspension and steering. Buick engineers did a lot of work to make it this way, from isolating vibration sources throughout the platform to implementing the brand’s elaborate “Quiet Tuning” strategy that involves lots of acoustic engineering and sound-deadening materials.    

One of the most noticeable interior design features is the center stack air vents mounted below the central 8-in. (20.3-cm) HMI display screen.

The purpose is to push the HMI as high up as possible to prevent the driver from looking down to view information and becoming distracted.

Heated front seats, rear seats and steering wheel are standard. Cooled front seats are available. In the back, a sliding 60/40-split rear seat offers increased legroom for second-row passengers.

The large center-console storage bin features damped dual wing-type doors that provide easy access to the driver or passengers, even those in the rear.

Electronic and user-experience features are another highlight. Connecting with smartphones and Bluetooth applications such as Pandora is fast and easy, as we’ve come to expect with GM’s systems. In addition, there is OnStar and 4G LTE with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot capable of supporting up to seven devices. There are four USB ports, four 12V outlets and a 120V outlet, too.

A new steering wheel for Buick also debuts in the Envision, featuring thumb-operated toggle switches that make it easy to scroll through the Buick IntelliLink menus and vehicle features in the driver information center.

Both trim levels are well executed, but we find ourselves liking the less-lavish Essence more. First, the naturally aspirated base 2.5L engine is surprisingly good, delivering nice sounds when pressed hard, and it exceeded its fuel-economy numbers.

Even though it’s rated at 22/29 mpg (10.7-8.1 L/100 km) city/highway, our trip computer showed 29.8 mpg (7.9 L/100 km) at the end of our 50-mile (80.5-km) leg, even though the route included a fair amount of stop-and-go driving.

Also, the $41,030 sticker is easier to swallow than the $49,320 we saw on the AWD Premium II version we tested, even though it was loaded with important features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and a stronger engine. For that kind of money, we’d at least like to see a larger central display and an 8-speed transmission.

But Buick says a whopping 90% of Enclaves sell with pricetags over $50,000, so it’s likely a fair number of Envision buyers won’t blink at that price on a luxuriously appointed Envision, even without a third row. Apparently we are among the many skeptics Buick is surprising every day.

dwinter@wardsauto.com