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Los Angeles – Once left for dead as a stodgy sedan-maker, Buick has transformed itself in the last decade as an SUV pioneer with a full lineup of high-riding utes.

General Motors' premium brand is keeping its pedal to the metal this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show with the introduction of its fourth SUV, the Encore GX.

The wee ute slots into the market between the subcompact Encore and compact Envision – splitting the two hottest segments in the SUV market. Just as the Encore was the first subcompact offering in the market, the Encore GX is one of the first “subcompact-plus” models to join the Jeep Compass, Nissan Rogue and Mazda CX-30 (which also debuts this week in LA).

“Filling the spot between the smaller Encore and the larger Envision and Enclave models, the GX is another proof point that Buick is the premium SUV brand,” said Buick Vice President Duncan Aldred. Ninety-percent of Buick sales are now SUVs. “Just as we did with the Enclave in 2008 and the Encore in 2013, we identified a growing market niche and moved quickly to introduce a new vehicle to fill it.”

Though its shares a name with the popular Encore, consistently one of the Top 3-selling subcompact models, the new ute is much more than just a a GXtra-large Encore. With two more inches of wheelbase for more rear legroom, the GX loads a trunkload of new tech and engines to the Buick lineup.

The Encore GX features a more upscale wardrobe with lights integrated into a big, grinning black grille. Sport Touring models add some racy red lipstick to the mouth which is punctuated by Buick’s signature tri-shield logo. Rear taillights are more expressive and a black roof is optional.

The upscale look matches the suite of technology available in the GX. A standard safety suite called “Driver Confidence” — including forward-collision alert, automatic emergency-braking, lane-keep assist, and automatically adjusting high/low beams  — is introduced for the first time on the Encore GX. Adaptive cruise-control is also available, as is a Buick first – hands- and feet-free self-parking.

GM has been slow to offer standard safety features like Honda and Toyota. And the Ford Escape has beat Buick to market with self-park functionality. But priced under $30,000, the Encore GX indicates that GM wants to be more aggressive.

Marketing chief Sam Russell says the new SUV did not get a brand new badge because the Encore has proven so popular in the market. “Introducing a new name is a huge challenge,” he said. “It can take a decade to build new name-awareness, whereas we have already been successful with Encore in the small compact space.”

There is more innovation under the hood as the Encore X debuts not one but two engines – a turbocharged 1.2-liter and 1.3-liter, both four-cylinders. The latter engine promises 155 horsepower. The Encore GX is built on GM’s flexible, small front-wheel drive architecture which allows for the GX’s longer wheelbase.

It will roll off the same manufacturing line as the Encore in Korea with an eye on both the Chinese and U.S. markets.

The interior is moved upscale from the Encore with sweeping lines reminiscent of the late Buick Lacrosse sedan. The center console is a step up with armrest and substantial storage for phone and keys under the center console display. In addition to useful adaptive-cruise not available in the Encore, the GX options a head-up display and camera mirror; those luxury items were innovated years ago by top-shelf Cadillac and are now trickling down.

With 25 feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, the Encore GX is closer to the Envison’s 27 cubic feet than the Encore's 19. Like the Encore, however, the GX’s front passenger seat folds flat — and with the 40/60 folding second row putting the wider section behind the passenger, 8-foot objects like lumber or a surfboard can fit trunk-to-dash.

The Encore GX comes in Preferred, Select and Essence trims, and goes on sale in early 2020 at an estimated $27,000 between the $23,000 Encore and the $33,000 Envision.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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