The progression has been fast and furious.
As manufacturers scramble to keep up with rapidly changing consumer tastes, we have seen the decline of the sport utility vehicle and the rise of the crossover.
At the same time, we're witnessing a newfound taste for hatchbacks, which not long ago were anathema to American motorists. Engines are getting smaller and more powerful with better fuel economy. Hybrids and diesels are becoming more popular.
On top of that, there's an increasing appetite for smaller quality vehicles that, not surprisingly, command higher prices.
Driving into this vortex is the 2013 Buick Encore, which embraces and combines many of these elements. It's small, resembles a hatchback, has a tiny but powerful engine, and it delivers good fuel economy. It's a luxury vehicle that nevertheless is attainable for a large chunk of the populace.
For now, there's nothing quite like the Encore. It's about the same size as the economy Nissan Versa hatchback, though taller, with nearly the same passenger and cargo space. But it qualifies as a crossover utility vehicle that offers a choice of front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive.
In the luxury CUV category, from a size standpoint, the closest competitor is the BMW X1, which is performance-oriented and way more expensive. Among popular priced crossovers, the closest sized competitor is the slightly larger Hyundai Tucson.
The Encore has a starting price of $24,950, which is right in the parking lot with any number of larger compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. Standard equipment covers full safety equipment, including knee air bags for the driver and front passenger, along with XM satellite radio, air conditioning, cruise control, remote locking and a new technology for cars, active noise cancellation.
Buick is developing a reputation for cozy interiors that minimize annoying intrusions. Its compact luxury sedan, the Verano, is a model of silent running. With the Encore, Buick took the padded-cell ambiance a step further by developing the active sound control with Bose, the famed maker of noise-canceling earphones.
The system should not be confused with the separate upscale Bose audio system, which comes as part of the Encore's Premium option package. Also included in the package are lane departure warning, front and rear park assist, collision alert and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
With the Encore, which is built in South Korea, Buick decided to simplify production and the model lineup with what it calls a "one engine, one wheel" strategy. What that means is that there are standard 18-inch alloy wheels (chrome finish optional) and a single power train -- 138-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine linked to a six-speed automatic transmission.
On the road, in the heavily optioned all-wheel-drive Premium version, the performance feels like more than 138 horsepower. The power train delivers a quick start off the line, with no apparent turbo lag, and sprightly performance in urban and freeway traffic. Moreover, it won't empty wallets and purses at the pump. The city/highway combined fuel consumption, as certified by the EPA, is 22/33/26 miles to the gallon.
With nicely calibrated variable-effort electric power steering, the Encore is nimble in traffic and handles twisting roads with confidence, though it's no sports sedan. The short wheelbase -- just 101 inches from the front wheel centerline to the rear axle -- contributes to the quick-handling feel.
As noted, the Encore is serene inside, with minimal intrusion of mechanical, road or wind noise. The ride, for a short vehicle, is controlled and largely unruffled. Inside, the test Encore's cocoa and saddle leather interior looked and felt and as plush as that on any luxury car.
Contributing to the CUV ambiance, there's a center handbrake and a driver's seat armrest, though the step-in height is not high.
Visibility to the rear is compromised by small outside mirrors and large rear seat headrests, although there is no headrest for the center-rear passenger, who doesn't have much room in any case.
Bucking a current cliche in luxury cars, which often feature cheesecloth-like sunshades for the glass sunroof, the Encore thankfully has a traditional opaque sunshade.
With the Premium package and such additional options as the Bose audio system, sunroof, "white pearl Tricoat" paint and chrome wheels, the tested all-wheel drive Encore had a bottom line sticker price of $33,050.
For those who don't need the all-wheel drive, you can order the same vehicle with standard front-wheel drive and save $1,500.
Model: 2013 Buick Encore 1SN Premium AWD four-door crossover utility vehicle.
Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 138 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.
Overall length: 14 feet 1 inch.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 93/19 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,309 pounds.
EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 23/30 miles to the gallon.
Base price, including destination charge: $30,440.
Price as tested: $33,050.
Contact Frank Aukofer at driveways6(at)gmail.com.