2013 Buick Encore First Drive

What happens when you leave the Buick Enclave in the dryer too long.

What It Is
Buick charts its own path as the only luxury-focused premium subcompact crossover.
Best Thing
It's still just as quiet and comfortable as you'd expect a Buick to be, despite its scrappy size.
Worst Thing
More power would go a long way.
Snap Judgment
Buick has a solid product in the Encore, but can its marketers convince the world that it needs a subcompact luxury crossover?


When you think of a luxury car brand, the first ones you think about will most likely hail from Europe, Germany more specifically. But those brands come with an aura of pretentious, erect-pinky snobbery. Some say their drivers are best described by curt words often unmentionable around your mom. Then there's Japanese, who often seem to throw technology into their cars for technology's sake, bragging about takumi masters and kaizen engineering. Do you really care about any of that? You get the feeling their engineers are trying to think above their audience's head.

But that's not the case with the 2013 Buick Encore, which is bucking those trends for the sake of simplicity, and is the first entry in a compact luxury crossover segment that doesn't really exist yet.

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Buick found a wave of success in the compact sedan segment with the Verano, and the Enclave in the full-size lux crossover arena. Now, it's doing it again with the 2013 Buick Encore, creating a luxury-focused subcompact crossover that doesn't quite compete with the Volkswagen Tiguan, Mini Countryman, and Nissan Juke. In fact, it doesn't quite compete with anything -- and that might be its strongest card.

Based on the same mechanicals as the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic, the Encore aims high with its mission. At $24,950, including $750 for destination and handling, it comes with standard IntelliLink infotainment, Bose active noise-cancelling technology, Quiet Tuning acoustics, and a long list of other features. But with all the option boxes checked, it reaches nearly $34,000. That's a lot of coin for a small ride, so we went to Atlanta to see if it was worth it.

Walkaround

Around the auto show circuit, the 2013 Encore has garnered faint praise for its frumpy, bulbous styling. More or less, its design cues are truncated from the full-size Enclave, squeezed on a smaller canvas. It's hardly classically elegant. But spending more time with it subdues criticisms.

From the nose, the Encore shares Buick's waterfall grille and blue headlight rings with the Enclave, providing it with a look that brings some continuity to it in the Buick range. The rest of the body is tall, upright, and more for functionality than a sweeping form. Sharing its shape with international models like the Chevrolet Trax and Opel Mokka, it's more of a small-family workhorse outside the U.S. But Buick went into overdrive to separate the Encore from its lesser siblings. And even if we'll never drive the Trax or Mokka, Buick engineers say it's added a few hundred pounds in features and sound deadening to give the Encore the same quiet ambience you'd expect in a Buick. After driving it, we don't doubt them for a second.

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Sitting Down

The 2013 Buick Encore can seat five passengers on paper, but it's seen in the company's eyes as a personal luxury runabout. It's not especially wide. It's not long, either, so cargo space is a little limited. Buick sees it as a vehicle for young professionals and empty nesters, and we're inclined to agree. That said, the back seat is comfortable for two passengers, with a surprising amount of leg room.

The Encores we drove were highly optioned models that came with heaps of features, like lane-departure warning, collision mitigation, navigation, a Bose premium audio system, a sunroof, and leather seats. But those alone do not a luxury vehicle make; you can get a Hyundai Tucson with most of those for a bit less cash. And the Hyundai's up on the Buick by nearly 40 horsepower.

The Tucson lacks the Encore's refinement, though. The Buick has a trick Active Noise Cancelling technology designed by Bose that has three speakers -- two in the back and one in the front -- pumping in white noise to offset less pleasant sounds emanating from the engine. It results in a hushed driving experience, even in situations requiring more aggressive acceleration.

And it complements the Encore's ambience as a whole, making sitting on the durable, saddle-colored leather seats and build quality feel all the more regal. Despite the numerous plastic trees that gave their lives for the wood trim in the interior being a little off-putting, the Encore provides an experience warmer and more inviting than you'd ever find in a German car.

Driving

On the way out of Atlanta and into the country on Interstate 85, we got a feel for perhaps one of the Encore's most unexpected assets: Its supple ride. Firm and controlled without ever feeling choppy, and with well-weighted steering, the Encore feels confident, if not a little sporty, making us wonder why more vehicles of this size and spec aren't as well-tuned. Considering how short the Encore is -- and how that can lead to a bouncy ride in some vehicles -- we expected it to give up some of the ride quality we've come to expect with other Buicks. We were wrong.

Even when the roads started bending, the Encore kept its composure. Part of that is a direct result of the Encore's 18-inch wheel and tire package. No matter if it's optioned with front- or all-wheel drive, just one set of Continental tires comes available. Buick's engineers said that was important when it came time to optimizing them for the best ride/handling compromise. In all-wheel-drive-equipped Encores, the rear wheels always receive power upon acceleration, which is unnoticeable in most instances. Its packaging uses a magnetic ball in the rear axle that automatically couples the rear wheels to the transmission for seamless starts and then decouples them for optimal fuel economy; 30 mpg highway for all-wheel-drive Encores.

But the Encore isn't perfect. Its lone engine option is a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine that it shares with the Chevrolet Sonic and Cruze. Like in those vehicles, it makes 138 horsepower. But where those are mainstream vehicles for the masses, the Encore is a proper premium vehicle, and the slow acceleration isn't acceptable.

We found acceleration merging onto a highway to be pretty painless. But when it came time to pass other vehicles, the Encore struggled, owing to its 3,200-pound weight and economy-geared six-speed automatic transmission. As we found out, passing traffic on a two-lane country highway should be done with care and some advanced planning.

We asked an engineer who worked on the Encore if Buick's excellent 250-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder could fit under the Encore's hood. Nope. However, there's a 1.6-liter engine waiting in the wings in the overseas Opel Mokka that could desperately use a turbocharger and a place under the hood. Please, Buick, make that happen at least.

That's the biggest gripe we have. By comparison, the Encore lacks the punch of the 188-horsepower Nissan Juke, but it also doesn't have the whiplash turbo lag that comes in that crossover. It doesn't have the 240 horsepower produced by BMW's X1, but it doesn't have the X1's $33,000 starting price for a base model with all-wheel drive, vinyl seats, and no other options, either.

And it might just work, because Buick's idea of playing ball against its rivals is having the game at a field they'll never find.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Summary

The more we think about it, the more it becomes apparent that everyone at Buick has been reading Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack."

Are there even any direct rivals for the Buick Encore? No, at least not yet.

In the back country as we stopped for some photographs in a corner store parking lot. A woman in charge of a corner store approached us.

"What is that thing, an Audi?" she asked after we told her we were there on a press trip. Nope. "A Volkswagen?" she continued. Nope.

"A Buick," I responded.

"Well, that don't look like no Buick I've ever seen. Ain't Buicks like, um, the Park Avenue? Big things?" She peered into the Encore. "Wow, that's really nice."

Buick is certainly on to something. Despite the Encore's pint size, it's surprisingly practical. Despite its engine leaving us wanting more, Buick anticipates the urban-dwelling young professionals and empty-nesters won't need that much power where they live. They're more concerned with the Encore's fuel economy.

When the 2013 Buick Encore arrives in showrooms in February, there's a decent chance it's going to be another hit for Buick. Buick already has more than 9,000 pre-orders for the Encore, six times what was anticipated. And that's without any real promotion for the vehicle yet.

And, to be honest, we're not sure we completely understand it. There are other vehicles at lower prices with similar levels of content. Some are even bigger and more versatile. But where the Encore derives its value is in an area few can match: It's methodical and meticulous in its approach to luxury. Even if you're not wealthy, it provides the solitude and ambience in city driving befitting a much higher price point. The tradeoffs are obviously size and power.

Yet, somehow, it works. We're taught to buy the biggest car for our buck, but sometimes it's not always the best option. Buick has right-sized the Encore for a select audience that looks like it's going to swoop up the little hiking-boot-shaped crossover. And, like the Verano, it's a bit of a misfit in the luxury car world, defying what a luxury car is in size, power, and purpose. While it can certainly eat up highway miles, it's a vehicle more suited for a metropolitan area; for Sam's Club instead of the country club.

Buick's found a formula that's helping it chip away at the establishment. Let's see when those guys will finally take notice.

Basic Specs

1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, front- or all-wheel drive, 138-hp, $24,950, 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy (FWD), 23 mpg city/30 mpg hwy (AWD)

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