Buick Encore — Tidy, compact crossover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Luxury in a small, fuel-efficient package is the new hot commodity in the automotive world. We want our good stuff, but we want it in a neat container that makes us feel good about saving precious resources and disposable income that otherwise would land in the pockets of big oil. In this vein, Buick has offered up for 2013 the very tidy and compact crossover Encore.

The Encore, built in Korea on a platform shared by the Chevrolet Sonic, might have you scratching your head and thinking, this is unlike any Buick in your memory and you would be right. For example, at 168.5 inches in length and with a wheelbase of just 100.6 inches it is the smallest vehicle in Buick's storied history. By comparison it is 10 inches shorter than the Honda CR-V and more than 11 inches shorter than the new Toyota RAV4. It's even eight inches shorter than the all-new BMW X1 SUV.

It's quite a gamble for Buick, which has re-invented itself with well-made, stylish vehicles. In this regard, the Encore is a well made, stylish vehicle that should suit the tastes of those who expect luxury appointments, a quiet cabin, an excellent driving position, and the ability to carry four adults in relative comfort. So perhaps it's not so much of a gamble.

Additionally the goal of Buick designers was obviously to give the Encore enough of the new Buick design language to make it part of the family. And for the most part they were successful, but in a quirky-looking sort of way. We found that the little Buick is more attractive in person than in pictures, but it's no ugly duckling either way.

The Encore is powered by the smallest engine in Buick's recent history, a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder making 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature. And that may be the biggest detriment to an otherwise interesting and desirable vehicle.

After driving on a series of winding, hilly roads and a drive on some local mountain passages we were convinced we could live with the little guy. It handled well and the view from the driver's seat is commanding. But while it makes an effort to use its 148 foot-pounds of torque to good advantage we found it challenging trying to pass on some hilly two-lanes that we had to carefully pick and choose the place to accomplish the task. The Buick can run out of breath quite quickly merging and passing in the 45-55 mph range.

Our performance complaints were less merging into fast-moving traffic or in more routine around-town diving although we had to put our foot into it more than once to illicit enough momentum from the little engine to accomplish our goals. On the plus side Buick has done a good job keeping the engine quiet at highway speeds using some tuning tricks.

While the Encore offers no off-road or trailer-towing packages it does offer a very rewarding — and frugal — experience. The smallish engine is rated at 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined in front-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive ($1,500) it is 23/30/26.

The interior layout is upscale and it comes with an impressive array of equipment including a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a rearview camera, and Buick's new voice activated IntelliLink system that includes a seven-inch full-color touchscreen incorporating satellite radio, Pandora and Stitcher internet radio and a USB/iPod interface. The dash is trimmed in faux wood with chrome accents — and it can be ordered with two-tone leather upholstery.

The Encore, starts at $24,950 and climbs through four trim levels to $28,940, should be an attractive vehicle for those who no longer need a big vehicle, but still want the versatility of carrying cargo (48 cubic feet with the rear seats folded), and also the ability to carry their friends to dinner in relative comfort despite being built on such a short wheelbase platform.

Standard features across the lineup include 18-inch alloy wheels, heated side mirrors, air-conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories, a six-way power driver's seat (manual recline), Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a rearview camera, split-folding rear seats, fold-flat front passenger seat, and OnStar telematics with automatic crash notification. Forward collision and lane departure warning are optional on the base model, but standard on the top trim.

Our Encore Premium trim test vehicle carried a bottom line of $31,475 that included optional 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels ($995) and an audio system with navigation ($795).

Base price: $24,950; as driven, $31,475
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 138 @ 4,900 rpm
Torque: 148 foot-pounds @ 1,850 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 100.6 inches
Length: 168.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,190 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 18.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 48.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 25 city
0-60: 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW X1, Audi Q3, Mini Countryman Wagon

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy
• Quiet interior
• Comfortable ride

The Bad
• Small cargo area

The Ugly
• Weak performance