First Drive: 2013 Buick Encore
The Buick Enclave revolutionized the brand from Flint, Michigan, when the three-row, seven-passenger package hit the market in 2007. With the sensibilities of a family crossover yet the trappings of an upscale luxury car, the Enclave drew parents into Buick showrooms that had for years attracted more grandparents than the early-bird roast beef special. In fact the Enclave set the stage for a subsequent overhaul of the entire Buick lineup, and the average age of a Buick buyer dropped to 57 from 64.
Now, Buick is reaching even lower -- in price and size, as well as the age of the customer - with the 2013 Buick Encore. Based on same Gamma architecture that General Motors employs to underpin pint-sized cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and the Chevrolet Spark, the all-new Buick Encore is a full two sizes smaller than the Enclave.
By combining uncommon smallness with upscale aspirations, the 2013 Buick Encore effectively evades any competition. The BMW X1 is longer, lower and snappier, but it also has a base price that's $5000 more than that of the Encore. The Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke come close in size, but are cheekier and don't suggest upscale refinement. That leaves larger but less luxurious alternatives like the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan as the 2013 Encore's closest competition.
Small outside, just right inside
While the Buick Encore is smaller than most compact crossovers (it's ten inches shorter than the Ford Escape), GM's smallest crossover doesn't feel cramped from the inside. The driver and passenger will find plenty of head- and legroom, although they might find their elbows occasionally touching. Thanks to a large windshield and a tall seating position, the Encore also offers excellent forward visibility. The front seats are on the stiff side, and it's worth noting that Buick's definition of power seats encompasses fore and aft adjustment but includes a manual recline.
Rear seat occupants predictably should be of the smaller persuasion, and the middle position of the rear seat is really only suited for the elbows of the outboard passengers. At the same time, there's plenty of room in the cargo area for a few full-size suitcases, while the front passenger's seat folds flat to make way for items up to eight-feet long.
Overall, the Buick Encore is probably best suited for young, childless couples seeking a refined utility-style ride to the mall or the lake, yet it'll accommodate the youthful rear-seat passengers that inevitably find their way into the lives of young couples (although it's best if the kids don't exceed pre-school size).
Slow but steady
This subcompact crossover draws power from an appropriately small, turbocharged engine. Also featured in the Chevrolet Cruze and Chevrolet Sonic, this 1.4-liter inline-4 produces 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. Since the Encore weighs about 3200 pounds despite its small size, acceleration is tepid, and it takes more than nine seconds to reach 60 mph from a standstill.
Once underway, this boosted engine produces lots of torque across a wide band of rpm, which matches well with a six-speed automatic transmission that always chooses the right gear. But despite tall overall gearing that's meant to deliver mpg instead of mph, the fuel economy of the portly Buick Encore is merely adequate at an EPA rated 25 mpg City/33 mpg Highway in its front-wheel-drive configuration.
The Encore's optional all-wheel-drive system manages traction in a novel way. Rather than wait for the front wheels to slip before engaging the rear wheels, the system activates all-wheel drive every time the vehicle comes to a stop. As this crossover accelerates again, the system progressively reduces the torque sent to the rear wheels while monitoring for signs of slip. When it determines all-wheel-drive isn't necessary, the Encore defaults to front-wheel drive, improving fuel economy. The all-wheel-drive model has an EPA fuel economy rating of 23 mpg City/30 mpg Highway.
With a simple suspension setup of struts in front and a torsion-beam axle in the rear, the Buick Encore nevertheless achieves a masterful balance between refined ride quality and taut body control, as if it had been developed in Germany, not Korea. In the corners the Encore leans over only minimally and remains steadfastly planted on the asphalt. We were even more surprised by the steering action, which increases in effort at speed with superb linearity.
The real reason to buy
The Buick Encore's impressive driving manners are a powerful endorsement, but this compact crossover's strongest selling point is actually its value. If you can afford to sacrifice some interior space compared to a Ford Escape, the Encore will reward you with a more opulent interior and more convenience features for a similar price. Starting at $25,450, the 2013 Buick Encore comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen interface for its electronics, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity, USB audio input, a power-adjustable driver's seat and 18-inch wheels.
The Encore's interior is dressed in attractive two-tone duds, and the premium feel is accentuated by active noise cancellation, which mutes the engine's drone to keep the Encore impressively quiet and Buick-like. Three different trim packages -- Convenience, Leather and Premium -- add comfort and convenience items to the mix, including sophisticate technology like a navigation system and lane-departure alert, although keyless ignition and a power liftgate are notably absent.
Stretching to fill its role
That fact that the Buick Encore is unusually small is almost irrelevant to its appeal. Buick might have been just as well off with a compact crossover in a more conventional size, yet the petite Encore seems just as capable of fulfilling its duties as a midsize vehicle. The 2013 Buick Encore offers reasonable fuel economy, impressive driving dynamics, and an upscale interior at a sweet-spot price that makes it accessible to those who normally shop brands that are more conventional. You can buy more car for less money, but not with this level of luxury.
2013 Buick Encore
Price: $24,950/$26,450 (FWD/AWD)
Engine: 1.4L turbo I-4, 138 hp, 148 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA Mileage: 25 mpg City/33 mpg Highway, 23 mpg City/30 mpg Highway (FWD, AWD)