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2013 Buick Encore Road Test

The difference between downsized luxury and upmarket economy is in the eye of the beholder

What It Is
Buick's entry-level subcompact luxury crossover that's well ahead of the market curve.
Best Thing
Lots of features and surprisingly comfortable ride.
Worst Thing
Counterintuitive infotainment system, lack of power, and high price.
Snap Judgment
Surprisingly, it works well. Unsurprisingly, it still could be better.


Having driven the 2013 Buick Encore before, there wasn't a whole lot new I was going to be able to say about it that hadn't already been said. It rides decently well, could use a bit more power, has a ton of features, and is a little on the costly side for its size. But overall, I liked it the first time around, and no one figured this time would prove much different.

So I decided to change it up a little. Instead of my thoughts, I talked to three different people: my roommates, and my girlfriend. One roommate isn't a car-guy, but an infotainment designer who works with a rival luxury automaker; the other is an aerospace engineer and very much a car guy. My girlfriend is neither an engineer nor a car person, but hey, she is fairly representative of the car-buying public, being decently versed in what certain cars are and do, but not studying them as if it were her job.

The point of this exercise was to see how those with an outside vantage would perceive the 2013 Buick Encore. From the get-go, the auto journalist community has chided the subcompact crossover for its frumpy looks and lack of power. And surprisingly, Buick has far outsold not only the car-reviewing public's expectations but its own as well. We spent a week with the cute-ute to find out why.

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What We Drove

Buick doesn't do trim levels anymore. So unless you're peering inside a vehicle to see whether it has leather and the nav system--you may eventually get questioned by police if you do this habitually--chances are you won't know a base-level Buick from a top-spec model. Because of the nature of press cars and automakers wanting us to sample all of the toys they have available, our tester was a top-level--but not fully loaded--Encore Premium Collection model with front-wheel drive.

For $29,735, including $795 for destination and handling, our Encore came with navigation, satellite radio, OnStar, lane-departure warning, a backup camera, forward collision alert, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, dual climate control, Bluetooth, and front and rear parking sensors, among a long, long list of features. What isn't available, however: A push-button starter, xenon headlights, and active cruise control, which are all becoming par for the course in small, upmarket crossovers.

In the grand scheme of things, it comes in at about $5,000 more than a completely loaded Chevrolet Sonic on which it's based. But even that model lacks parking sensors, a proper navigation system, a Bose audio system, and automatic headlights, among a long list of other features. Even with the premium pricing, it's still possible to ring the Encore up to right around $34,000 with all of the goodies, including available all-wheel drive. We question its value proposition of it that high up, especially considering the number of fantastic crossovers available at that price point.

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The Commute

The Buick Encore is a perfectly capable city vehicle, encapsulating its passengers in leather-lined chairs and shuttling them about without much fuss. With just 140 horsepower under hood by way of a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, this thing ain't going to win many stoplight drag races.

However, it's more or less the Slinky of city cars. It just goes over things--potholes, ruts, dirt roads, Compton sidewalks, whatever--and keeps on going in comfort. And outside the occasional heady gust of air that can blow it around, the Encore manages to feel fairly at home on the highway, with the exception of steering that was far too sensitive, at least for some of us.

But in order to take advantage of all the lovely roads under maintenance that lovely Los Angeles has to offer, I had to program the navigation system. That proved confusing. And temperamental. And often frustrating. Buick equipped the 2013 Encore with the previous-generation IntelliLink infotainment software, which lacks the cleaner graphics and natural voice recognition capabilities of the new system in cars like the Regal and Lacrosse. Mounted atop the dashboard, the letters and numbers displayed are too small, the system doesn't easily recognize commands for the Bluetooth hands-free calling, and worst of all, instead of using a touchscreen like other versions of IntelliLink, it uses a scroll knob that makes users tediously shuffle through every letter or number. It doesn't even suggest words to help expedite the process.

Not to mention that when I programmed in an address, instead of giving me a straight shot to it, it took me around a few blocks to get to the same place. My one roommate--the infotainment designer--said Buick's outgoing system with the scroll knob was backwards in logic, sharing my opinion. But overall, he liked the little crossover and said he could at least see its appeal.

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The Grocery Run

This isn't a big vehicle, nor should it be considered one. It's a tiny, narrow utility vehicle that prompted complaints even from the boss's brood of kids--and rightfully so. It's pretty narrow in back.

That's not going to help it win any points on the family friendliness scale, but at least it's not a complete dullard for one or two people. Around the Trader Joe's lot, we had an easy time steering the Encore into the smallest of spots, mostly because it's one of the smallest of crossovers. And after shopping, we had a no problem fitting in all of our groceries. Buick claims 18.8 cubic feet of capacity--mostly vertical. That's on par with most hatchbacks and translates to 10 grocery bags in our standard testing on a flat floor--not shabby, but hardly amazing. Folding down the rear seat just about triples that number, but the seat doesn't sit flat with the load floor. Not like the Encore is wide enough to house most big screen TVs anyway.

The Weekend Fun

I'll go ahead and say the 2013 Encore makes a great date vehicle, but perhaps for a terrible reason. Buick didn't provide the front passenger with a fold-down armrest in the middle. So the lady had to use mine. Not that I was complaining or anything--certainly not--but it does seem like quite an oversight to have a $30,000 vehicle that lacks something so insubstantial as a passenger armrest.

Which brings us to some sound buying advice: If you need an excuse to cozy up with your significant other and that Ryan Gosling movie just hasn't done the trick lately, buy a 2013 Buick Encore.

But wait, there's more to the story: Parking, or how much time you're not going to spend doing it. When perusing L.A.'s busy streets for parking, the Encore not only made the job easy (thanks to its front and rear parking sensors), but did so fairly frugally. Rated at 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway, our mostly urban route with plenty of bumper to bumper traffic yielded 23.8 mpg. News Director Keith Buglewicz did his best McKayla Moroney "Not impressed" face after hearing that bit of news, but I thought it was commendable given the ardors of the weekend.

After heading back to my apartment, I ran into my other roommate, a fellow car geek and an aerospace engineer who seemed to have had a rougher patch of a weekend. Initially, he knocked the car's bulbous styling and lack of power--because that's just the thing for car enthusiasts to do. Then, we went to grab food. "This is smooth," he said. His spinning head certainly appreciated it. Anyone needing to be comforted after a weekend out would.

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Summary

Even experiencing sales far greater than projected, the 2013 Buick Encore is still perhaps one of the more polarizing vehicles on the road today--not just because of what it looks like but also what it represents.

All of a sudden, Buick has found a way to sink its cleats in deep into a niche that shouldn't exist. This, after all, is a $30,000 crossover that's based on a vehicle that's based on a subcompact that costs half as much. Then again, a $50,000 Lexus RX is based on a $30,000 Toyota Highlander. A $250,000 Bentley Flying Spur is based on a Volkswagen that started at $65,000 when it was sold in the U.S. It's about the size of a BMW X1, but the Buick's rear seat is far friendlier for, you know, actual people, despite only providing enough width for two people. And what it lacks in power it makes up for in frugality. However, GM has a 200-horsepower, turbo 1.6-liter engine in Europe that would easily rectify the Encore's oomph deficit.

The Encore isn't without other faults: Price and its haphazard infotainment system. And that armrest. But all of those are fixable. And when they are fixed, Buick will not just be the pioneer of the subcompact luxury crossover segment in the U.S., it'll be a strong contender for the leader of it, at least until more expensive vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz GLA and Audi Q3 show up on our shores.

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Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $29,735
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 25 mpg
EPA Highway: 33 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Cargo Space: 10 grocery bags
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 392 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"I'd actually endorse this little thing, but for one thing: You can get all this stuff and more in the Subaru Forester, which improves on the Encore in just about every single way. If you really dig Buick, and want a Buick crossover, and the Enclave is too big or too expensive, and if no other brand will do, and if you can put up with the twitchy steering and cramped rear seat, then this is the ideal crossover. Otherwise, keep shopping." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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