If the 2013 Buick Encore is a sign of more bite-sized premium crossovers to come, car shoppers have plenty to look forward to.
The new segment includes the likes of a BMW X1 and the forthcoming Audi Q3 and Lincoln MKC. The exact parameters for this class are blurry: Base prices and features overlap with everyman crossovers like the larger Ford Escape and Volkswagen Tiguan, while well-equipped models encroach on Audi Q5 and Acura RDX territory.
That brings us back to the Encore -- a premium little trucklet with bona fide luxury options. Base, Convenience, Leather and Premium trim levels are available with front- or all-wheel drive.
That's One Small SUV
Even in its undersized field, the Encore is the runt of the litter, with an overall length less than 169 inches. That's more than a foot shorter than Buick's compact Verano sedan. The X1 and Q3 are longer and wider; heck, the Escape is nearly 10 inches longer. The Encore bears no relation to the Chevrolet Equinox or GMC Terrain from its GM parent; in fact, it's closer to a Mini Countryman -- which is about 7 inches shorter still -- than either one. Unlike the Countryman, the Encore combines city-friendly length and width with an SUV-like driving position; its overall height, in fact, is just 1.1 inches short of the Escape. One editor found it a little too SUV-like, noting other cars sit more below you than around you. The 36.7-foot turning circle also makes it more like an SUV than a small car.
As reported in our first drive of the Encore, its styling polarized onlookers. This time around, our test car's two-tone paint masked a lot of the busy lower cladding. (Unfortunately, that two-tone treatment requires Buick's $745 White Pearl Tricoat option.) Standard chrome door handles, silver roof rails and 18-inch alloy wheels add a premium touch, and Buick's waterfall grille and blue-ringed light bezels evoke the larger Enclave. The rear, by contrast, is forgettable.
All About the Inside
A key battle among entry-level premium cars is cabin quality, and the Encore delivers. Handsome graining along the dashboard and doors meets plenty of upscale touches: fabric-wrapped A-pillars, real metal gearshift trim, bits of chrome and decent-looking faux wood. In Leather and Premium editions, high-grade leather wraps the chairs, which include six-way power adjusters for both seats -- not just the driver's.
Buick's standard IntelliLink system packages Bluetooth phone and audio streaming with USB/iPod integration and a few apps, like Pandora internet radio, which stream off an enabled smartphone. Too many buttons crowd the center controls, and IntelliLink's dashboard screen uses an unintuitive control knob and several flanking buttons, all with tiny labels. It's a low point.
Space, however, is a high point. With 1 cubic foot less passenger volume than a Hyundai Elantra GT, the Encore seems an unlikely candidate for ample interior space, but cabin packaging is excellent. The front seats track far enough back for tall drivers, though one editor said the center console encroached a bit much on passenger space. Maximum seat-height elevation, however, affords a high driving position with headroom to spare. (Caveat: Our test car lacked an optional moonroof, which can knock off an inch or two.) The only deprivation comes in the miniscule center console, which sits too low to accommodate an armrest. Drivers get a flip-down one; passengers get to complain.
The backseat has a high seating position with surprising legroom and headroom, plus consistent-quality cabin materials -- an area where the Verano fails. The Encore's 18.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats is decent, beating the German competition, but small non-luxury SUVs like the Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 all have well more than 30 cubic feet. Folding the seats down is a laborious, outdated, multistep process, but doing so gives you 48.4 cubic feet of cargo space, which matches other premium compact SUVs. A standard fold-flat front passenger seat accommodates ladders or other tall objects.
We found the Encore accelerated quickly enough, with a six-speed automatic that coughs up immediate, if abrupt, two-gear downshifts to shoot passing-lane gaps. It's impressive, considering the drivetrain specs: The sole engine -- a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder -- makes just 138 horsepower and 148 pounds-feet of torque. It's the motor from Chevrolet's Sonic and Cruze cars, but GM saddled it here with an SUV and available all-wheel drive, which adds weight.
Good news: The General's been on a diet. An automaker that often has some of the heaviest cars in any given segment, GM kept the Encore to just 3,190 pounds, hundreds of pounds less than the X1 and most of the Escape's ilk, and roughly matching the Q3. All-wheel drive adds just 119 pounds, which is competitive, and the hustle proves it. The X1's standard turbo four-cylinder is legitimately quick, but the Encore's drivetrain hits its torque peak at just 1,850 rpm, and the broad power band muscled our all-wheel-drive tester past slower traffic with little drama.
The EPA ratings are 25/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive. All-wheel-drive models get 23/30/26 mpg, which one editor achieved (26.2 mpg combined) on a 90-minute, 40-mile commute. Not bad.
The Encore's combined ratings match the X1's and compare to non-luxury compact SUVs, but the X1 prefers premium fuel; the Encore makes full power on the cheap stuff. (As of publication, Audi has yet to finalize specs or EPA mileage on the Q3, and a production Lincoln MKC is still forthcoming.) The Encore's wind noise is low, but tire rumble takes its place. The suspension hushes out most bumps, but ride isolation feels marginal -- a possible contribution of the Encore's standard 18-inch wheels and low-profile P215/55R18 tires. The steering wheel stays nicely weighted on the highway, though some might find it twitchy. Still, the Encore provides good steering feedback heading into corners and good chassis control over broken pavement. Toss the car around, though, and its pitchy body motions evoke a larger, clumsier SUV. It leans, dives and squats; the tires surrender traction too soon, and the brakes have an inch of spongy pedal travel before reporting for duty.
The Encore's optional $1,500 all-wheel drive, by contrast, shines. Our weeklong loan saw plenty of snow and ice -- and in tricky partial-traction situations, the Encore wasted little time transferring power to the wheels that needed it. It evoked Subaru's excellent full-time system -- something much pricier SUVs have failed to do.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The Encore has not yet been crash-tested. Standard features include 10 airbags, a backup camera and the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Lane departure and forward collision warning systems are optional.
The Encore starts around $25,000 -- far less than the X1 -- and comes standard with Buick's IntelliLink system with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a six-way power driver's seat, 18-inch alloy wheels, and cloth-and-leatherette (imitation leather) seats. Dual-zone automatic climate control, real leather seats, heated front seats, a power passenger seat, a heated steering wheel, a navigation system and Bose audio are optional.
Pile on all the factory options, and a loaded all-wheel-drive Encore Premium runs about $34,000. A regular keyless entry remote is standard, but missing from the list is keyless access with push-button start. The X1 has it standard, and -- typical of BMW -- that car spirals to more than $50,000 when fully loaded.
Encore in the Market
The Encore realizes the promise of a small, premium SUV. Its drivability is equal to run-of-the-mill compact SUVs by automakers from Toyota to Ford, but cabin quality is a step above, and shoppers who want the driving height of an SUV with the parking dimensions of a compact have found their niche.
The original wave of small luxury SUVs has grown up, and now the likes of the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Acura RDX have few entry-level characteristics left. Buick hopes to sell the Encore to young professionals and empty nesters. It should appeal to both groups, and maybe to a lot more.