Premium subcompact crossovers, already popular in Europe, look to be heading en masse to the North American market. Making their rounds of the U.S. auto show circuit are, for example, the Mercedes-Benz GLA-class and its hot AMG variant, the Audi Q3, and the soon-to-be-produced Infiniti Q30 concept. These crossoversoffer much of the practicality that's made crossovers of all sizes so popular -- tons of useable space, a high seating position, versatility, and a modicum of rough road capability (Don't even think about going off-road: all-wheel-drive is included only as a favor to Snowbelt buyers and in recognition that shoppers expect crossovers to power both axles.) But what premium subcompact crossovers promise that larger, generally cheaper compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape cannot is prestige. Think of it as the perfect vehicle for a hip, young, well-educated couple and their newborn's Maclaren stroller as they fight for parking space in Brooklyn's Williamsburg -- and in all the Williamsburgs in metro areas across the nation.
The crossovers we have here, the BMW X1 and Buick Encore, represent the leading edge of this trend. Both are small enough for the city parking space, thrifty enough for $4-a-gallon gasoline, and are flashier than similarly priced compact crossovers. The X1 is significantly smaller (6.5 inches shorter, 3.3 inches narrower) than the X3, less thirsty (22/33 mpg to 21/28 mpg), and, with a starting price of $31,825, nearly $6350 cheaper.The Encore starts for $25,085 and clearly hopes to mimic the appeal of the three-row Enclave in a cutesy B-segment footprint.
Despite gunning for the same type of new customer, BMW and Buick offer wholly dissimilar vehicles. The first clue comes when the cars are parked nose-to-nose. The X1, based on the last BMW 3-Series, is a leanstation wagon with an increased ride height. The Encore, built in South Korea on the bones of the Chevrolet Spark and Sonic, is 4.4 inches taller than the BMW but has a smaller footprint than Buick's own Verano, resulting in an awkward hatchback shape.
Each employs styling cues that have trickled down from other models in the range. The Buickflaunts a waterfall chrome grille, chrome wheels, blue-tinged headlights, and, naturally, "ventiports" on the hood. The BMW wears sharp body creases, geometric taillights, and a steeply angled rear windshield. It is taut, precise, and tidy in comparison to the Buick's soft curves and squished proportions.
The BMW feels tauter than the Buick from the behind the wheel, too. Communicative steering and a positively sporty suspension allow you to place the X1 exactly where you want it, making for big fun on winding roads. It's the polar opposite of the Encore, which is let down by numb steering that aggressively springs back to center, a ride that floats and bounces, and body roll exaggerated by the high seating position. On the other hand, the Buick has a smooth, comfortable ride that soaks up every bump, and its light steering enhances maneuverability in the city.That makes us all the more frustrated with the way the X1's busy suspensiontelegraphs every pavement imperfection to the cabin. It's jarring on all but the most perfect roads. The weightysteering, so rewarding on twisting two-lanes,becomes a chore on tight downtown streets.
The X1 is likewise the more athletic in a straight line, thanks to its 240-hp,2.0-liter turbofour-cylinder. The engine and eight-speed automatic transmission make short work of any speed limit. If anything, it's unnecessarily fast for this type of car.No one will think that's the case with theEncore. A healthy amount of low-end torque helps it squirt through city traffic with ease, but the 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbo quickly runs out of steam as speed builds. At least the engine is quiet and its attendant six-speed automatic issmooth.
Ultimately, either car drives well enough for buyers who will spend their time traipsing around cities and suburbs. The more important test is whether the crossovers have adequate space for carpooling with friends and transporting Costco binges.Though the BMW offers more cargo capacity than the Buick on paper, with 27.6 versus 18.8 cubic feet, the Encore is roomier than it appears on the outside. Two suitcases fit in the cargo area even with the back seats raised, and tall rear-seat passengers suffer neither scraped knees norbanged heads.
Those passengers may suffer vehicular envy, however, when they see the BMW X1's handsome interior. Black, gray, and silver materials fit together perfectly to produce an air of sophistication. In theBuick, burnt-orange plastics elicit comparisons to spray-tanned skin, contours on the door panels and dashboard don't align, and visible gaps betray ill-fittingtrim pieces.Buick's bright, legible Intellilink display is let down by an annoyingly small joystick. The Encore's interior is pleasant, but just less cohesive than the BMW's.
Though we prefer the BMW X1's looks, performance, and interior, we find the Buick Encore is more in tune with this fledglingsegment's mission. Its isolated cabin and tidy dimensions are better suited to urban driving than the BMW's hefty steering and stiff suspension. The Encore is easier to drive in traffic, quieter, less punishing over rough roads, and nearly as spacious inside as the X1.Last but not least, there's the matter of price. Equipped with every option save a sunroof, our Encore's $32,320 sticker is still $1165 less than the starting price of an X1 xDrive28i. Adding equivalent features -- navigation, heated front seats and steering wheel, backup camera, satellite radio-- pushedour BMW tester's cost to $45,095. Is the prestige of parking a Roundel badge in your driveway worth the $12,865 leap between these models? Perhaps it is for empty nesters downsizing from a bigger crossover. But for members of Gen Y with an entry-level paycheck and five-figure student debt,the Buick -- despite the brand's geriatric reputation -- may be the right choice.
That the Encore isa legitimate contender to the X1 shows how much easier it is to improve a cheap car than to hold a luxury model down to a price. Starting with cheap, Korean-market underpinnings allowed Buick to keep the sticker low despite adding upscale trimmings. It was a greater challenge for BMW to craft an affordable car while preserving the qualities of its other models. The good news is that the X1 will not dilute BMW's brand cachet because it's just as rewarding to drive, look at, and ride in as the rest of the lineup. The bad newsis that the Encore is nearly as good for a whole lot less money. The Germans should be offended; the Americans, flattered.
Both companies, however, should feel vindicated for their decision to be the first on the U.S. market, where customers traditionally want as big a vehicle as they can afford. BMW sold 26,512 X1s in calendar 2013, the model's first full year in the U.S. market. Buick sold 31,956 Encores. That's not the smashing success both cars have enjoyed in Europe (where the Encore is sold as the Opel Mokka), but shows there is potential. Hipster parents, rejoice.
2013 BMW X1 xDrive28i
Price as tested: $45,095
Engine: 2.0L I-4 turbo, 240 hp and 255 lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 22/33/26 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Cargo space (seats up/down): 27.6/63.6 cubic feet
2013 Buick Encore AWD
Price as tested: $32,230
Engine: 1.4L I-4 turbo, 138 hp and 148 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 23/30/26 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Cargo space (seats up/down): 18.8/48.4 cubic feet