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Ignored On Arrival, But Coming On Strong

An image exists out there that perfectly conveys the fate we thought would befall the Buick Encore after its world debut at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. The shot shows the just-unveiled Encore on stage, basking in the glow of spotlights but surrounded by a large display area that's bereft of both cars and people. Two journalists are sitting on a couch over to the side, both facing the Encore but ignoring it as they inspect their swag, and a solitary custodial engineer pushes a vacuum back and forth across a sea of gray carpet.

Like a kid with his birthday cake at a party no one came to, this little crossover's debut was largely, almost cruelly, ignored. Who can blame us, though? Two shows ago, the Motor City's main stage welcomed the redesigned Aston Martin-esque Ford Fusion, the 3 Series-assassin ATS from Cadillac and the return of Dodge to the small car game with the Dart. A fourth model for the wayward Buick brand, especially one so arguably un-Buick in form and function, did not seem to deserve the attention paid to its peers that year.

In hindsight, however, maybe we were wrong. Perhaps Buick knew something the rest of us did not, that there exists a niche unfilled in the marketplace, one in which upwardly mobile Millenials are looking for economy, function, style and luxury in a single vehicle. But would they buy it with a Buick badge?

While the Encore's coming out party was sparsely attended, it's been making friends in the marketplace. So we recently spent a week with one to find out why our snapshot failed to foretell the model's future.
2013 Buick Encore side view2013 Buick Encore front view2013 Buick Encore rear view

There the Encore sits, the dark horse option on many different shopping lists.

The Encore is a crossover in the most literal sense, combining qualities from so many segments that finding competitors to fairly compare it with can be difficult. Buick might like it placed among the class of premium small crossovers that includes the BMW X1, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class. That's wishful thinking considering its smaller size, lower price and Buick's less sterling brand cachet. There are a host of crossovers that line up with the Encore's mid-$20k-to-low-$30k price range – the Kia Sportage, Chevy Equinox and even mainstream heavyweights like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, for instance. Those models, however, are also larger than the Encore, and generally aren't in the business of courting luxury dollars. Then there are vehicles that share a similar shape with the Encore, high-riding hatchbacks like the Kia Soul or highly functional five-doors like the Honda Fit. But they are priced far below the Encore, and again lack the luxury features a higher price affords. So there the Encore sits, the dark horse option on many different shopping lists.

2013 Buick Encore grille2013 Buick Encore headlight2013 Buick Encore wheel2013 Buick Encore taillight

Being the wee-est one to wear a Tri-Shield emblem, the Encore dons Buick's now-familiar styling cues a bit awkwardly. The large headlights, for instance, take up a disproportionate amount of the front end's real estate. Fortunately, their innards look suitably high-tech for a premium vehicle, particularly the blue transluscent ring that surrounds the main projector beams, and their vast outlines are interrupted by a pair of faux inlet nostrils. Buick has refrained from tacking on strips of LED daytime running lights, but those will probably arrive with the model's first refresh. And the portholes on the hood are, of course, non-functional and a bit silly.

The Encore does well convincing your eyes it's an honest crossover.

The Encore, however, does well convincing your eyes it's an honest crossover. There are small details that help like faux skid plates front and rear that are set off with a brushed aluminum-like finish. The side windows' lower edge also begins to rise sharply towards the C-pillars, which gave designers more sheetmetal with which to fashion wider shoulders over the rear wheels. What helps the Encore's crossover cred the most, however, are the body panels painted a darker color that surround the vehicle's lower extremities. Not only do they look like they're there to guard the precious paint from scratching, but the dark color is an old designer's trick that helps reduce visual height and fools the eye into thinking there's more ground clearance than what's really there. Buick must think this two-tone treatment is important, as there is no option to have the lowers come in the same color as the body.

No matter how premium or smartly styled the Encore may look to some, there are others who simply equate size with luxury, and for them, this vehicle will always look like an awkwardly styled, 2:3 scale toy version of the larger Enclave. Those people are out there (say hello to them in Comments), but there's a new group of buyers in the marketplace who grew up in the modern Mini era, and thus know that small and premium aren't mutually exclusive anymore.

2013 Buick Encore fog light2013 Buick Encore engine vents2013 Buick Encore rear fascia2013 Buick Encore badge

Enter the Encore and this point will be proven in a number of ways, though there are a few niggles that poke holes in the presentation. As expected of any luxury vehicle, the Encore's interior is comprised of the requisite leather-covered seating surfaces (which come standard on the top two trim levels) and touch points, soft touch plastics, brushed aluminum and wood trim. To be frank, we weren't wild about the Saddle color scheme of this particular interior, nor the plasticky look of the wood trim, but there are many other combinations available that look better and feel just as nice.

There are many features available we think upwardly mobile buyers are seeking.

The matte plastic used in the center stack feels high quality at your fingertips, but displays fingerprints as clearly as the seven-inch screen above it displays your favorite tracks. And while the latest version of Buick's Intellilink infotainment system is full-featured enough to be class competitive with systems in other luxury crossovers, its location and input method is stilted. The screen is sunk in high atop the dash, which makes small fonts and numbers difficult to read by tired or aged eyes. It's also not a touchscreen display; all inputs are entered via a multi-function knob on the face of the center stack that must be reached for to operate. Other larger vehicles with similarly full-featured, non-touchscreen systems use some type of rotary knob or mouse interface laid flat on the center console to fall more readily to hand. Because of the Encore's slim dimensions, though, the center console is too narrow to accommodate such hardware, with only room enough between the seats for a pair of cupholders in single-file.

That said, there are many features available on the Encore – and standard on our top-trim Premium tester – that we think upwardly mobile buyers are seeking: heated seats, a heated steering wheel, Bose audio system, memory settings, a 120-volt three-prong outlet for rear seat passengers, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a rearview camera. Throw in safety features like our tester's optional all-wheel-drive system, Lane Departure Warning, Front Collision Alert and front and rear park assist, and the Encore looks on paper like a bonafide luxury ride.

2013 Buick Encore interior2013 Buick Encore gauges2013 Buick Encore infotainment system2013 Buick Encore rear seat outlet

It's also conspicuously missing some features one might expect in a premium offering.

Buick's little crossover that can, however, is also conspicuously missing some features one might expect in a premium offering and can find elsewhere. For instance, there's no pushbutton start available or true keyless entry, the six-way power adjustable driver and passenger seats have to be manually reclined, there's no option for seat cooling, the rear liftgate isn't powered and, while the Encore is armed with enough sensors to watch ahead, beside and behind itself, there is no available adaptive cruise control, active lane-keeping or active park assist systems. You can't even get xenon headlamps. Sure, the high-dollar, high-tech stuff is still trickling its way down into smaller, less expensive vehicles, but would a start button have been so hard to add?

Features aside, the mission of a Buick has forever been and always will be to coddle its occupants, and the Encore throws in some legitimate utility, as well. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, though the driver-seat-mounted armrest is a little chintzy and the footwell is narrow enough that one's right knee often rests, or really bangs, up against the hard plastic of the center console. Rear seat passengers are treated well, too, with a raised seating position and more legroom than in the much longer Verano. Headroom, as you might expect considering the Encore's tall stature, is abundant. And with that hatchback shape, the rear cargo area can swallow a maximum of 48.4 cubic feet of stuff with the seats folded (their backs are flat, though they don't fold completely flat after tipping the seat bottoms forward). Even with the seatbacks raised, there's still 18.8 cu-ft of cargo space available, which is equal to the trunk space of the new 2014 Chevy Impala.

2013 Buick Encore front seats2013 Buick Encore rear seats2013 Buick Encore rear cargo area2013 Buick Encore rear cargo area

The Encore's Achilles heel, however, is what's tasked to move around that cargo, plus the weight of the vehicle and its passengers. Under the hood is a turbocharged Ecotec 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which produces 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The same engine is offered in the Cruze and Sonic RS, both of which are significantly lighter than our tester. With all-wheel drive, our Encore is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway, though front-wheel-drive models score 25 mpg city and 33 highway, which Buick claims is class-leading among FWD crossovers.

You won't be surprised to learn that it hasn't a sporting bone in its body.

Under orders to move this Buick, the small turbo engine performs just fine in normal daily use, save for passing maneuvers on the highway. Situations like the latter will require some forethought, especially as the transmission is hesitant to downshift when it's in the zone while highway cruising. Even with four people onboard, though, the Encore is able to move off the line without causing a scene, but more power would be welcome. In the meantime, if your geography doesn't demand all-wheel-drive traction most of the year, we'd leave that off the option list, which would lighten the engine's load and quicken the vehicle's pace, as well as save some money.

Not that a quick pace is the rate at which the Encore likes to move through the world. You won't be surprised to learn that it hasn't a sporting bone in its body. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension does a fine job flattening the road ahead and making minor potholes disappear, but the Encore's height means body roll is unavoidable. Still, the ride is comfortable despite the short wheelbase, and the electric power steering is light yet accurate. There are four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes at all four corners, coupled with traction control, electronic stability control and rollover mitigation, as well.

2013 Buick Encore engine

The Encore also features the brand's well-marketed QuietTuning, including the first application of Bose Active Noise Cancellation Technology in its vehicles. There's no way to turn the Bose technology off and on for a basis of comparison against which to judge its effectiveness, but the overall levels of noise, vibration and harshness in the Encore, like most recent Buicks, is remarkably low. Wind noise is a whisper and roadways sound carpeted, and the pleasant conversation of companions becomes the cabin's most dominant decibels. The Bose seven-speaker premium audio system, standard on our tester, doesn't sound too bad, either. It's this baked-in calm and serenity, even when it's hustling, that gives the Encore its most tangible demonstration of luxury. It's the closing argument that convinces you the Encore is more premium by nature than a Soul or Fit, or even a RAV4 or CR-V.

It's this baked-in calm and serenity that gives the Encore its most tangible demonstration of luxury.

You'll need that convincing when pricing an Encore. There are four trim levels, starting with the base Encore at $24,200, excluding a destination charge of $750. Our tester, as previously mentioned, is the most expensive trim with the Premium Group package. It starts at $28,190 for front-wheel-drive models and $29,690 with all-wheel drive, and ours came with the optional 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels for $995 and navigation package for $795. The out-the-door price, with destination charge, was $32,230.

That's a serious sum for such a small vehicle. The Encore's case does indeed get harder to make the farther up its trim level tree you climb. Above $30k, those RAV4s, CR-Vs and other mainstream crossovers become well-enough optioned that they also attract the eye of near-luxury window shoppers. In our estimation, the base model or second-level trim with Convenience Group package makes the Encore's strongest case, as their mid-$20k price range keeps them aligned with lighter-optioned versions of those mainstream crossovers, while still feeling like a higher grade of luxury from behind the wheel.

2013 Buick Encore rear 3/4 view

GM has already increased production to meet the unexpected demand.

The base model's sub-$25k starting price also isn't too far above the fully loaded cost of many similarly sized hatchbacks and box-shaped cars that start south of $20k. We suspect there are some shoppers in those segments willing to buy into a higher grade of luxury for the same size vehicle, though that temptation may fade as premium options keep trickling down into less expensive models. Still, while a fully loaded Nissan Versa Note may have many of this Encore's features, and some it doesn't even offer (pushbutton start, 360-degree bird's-eye monitor, etc.), all-wheel drive is off the table and it still feels like a relatively cheap economy car to drive by comparison.

Coming up on two years after the Encore's debut in Detroit, its sales suggest that the lonely scene through which we inferred its future was false. Industry analysts expected the Encore to achieve annual sales of around 18,000 units, but with 15,428 sold so far this year, GM has already increased production to meet the unexpected demand. And while comparing the Encore's popularity with other crossovers is difficult, Buick cites the Volkswagen Tiguan and Mini Countryman as direct competitors, both of which this little guy outsold last month.

It's true that the Encore will never find itself surrounded by a throng of enthusiasts in the bright lights of an auto show, but we've learned after spending time with one that it won't ever have trouble finding friends.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      Needz moar power.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Ditto! If you could get a sportier option with power plant from the Regal GS, that'd have gotten my attention. I ended up with an Acura RDX instead and very happy with it.
      The Wasp
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Throw in safety features like our tester's optional all-wheel-drive system, Lane Departure Warning, Front Collision Alert and front and rear park assist, and the Encore looks on paper like a bonafide luxury ride." "...while the Encore is armed with enough sensors to watch ahead, beside and behind itself, there is no available adaptive cruise control, active lane-keeping or park assist systems." So is there a park assist system or not?
        John Neff - Autoblog
        @The Wasp
        Hi The Wasp, Good catch, in the second paragraph you mention I meant an active park system, like the kinds that steer the car while you parallel park. I'll change that so it's more clear.
      • 1 Year Ago
        Eric M
        • 1 Year Ago
        Neither C-Max nor Flex are in the same market as the Encore. Might as well say Ford sells more F150s than Buick sells Encores.
        • 1 Year Ago
          • 1 Year Ago
          yes! please do that laser then you can comment on your own articles, give yourself a million thumbs up, and take the rest of autoblogs trolls with you!
        • 1 Year Ago
        Look, I personally would never purchase this car as it just doesn't appeal to me, but if you “study the auto industry” like you claim, you would have to admit that Buick is doing something right. Yes, they might be doing a lot of things wrong, but there’s a reason the Honda Fit CUV is coming (people want super mini crossovers). There’s a reason Toyota is working on one for their Lexus division while avoiding any commitments with the Toyota badging (they know they can sell it for a premium pricetag). There’s a reason there are whispers from Ford that they are considering entering the super mini CUV market stateside (their escape and its competitors have gotten too damn big for some shoppers). Anyone who studies the auto industry would know that this model and it’s sales numbers are being closely watched by the big boys. The question is can GM parlay it’s headstart into the market with brand loyal buyers and revive the Buick brand? If you think Millenials are loyal to brand names the answer might be yes. If you think Millenials will always use the internet that’s been given to them to exhaustively search for the best product then maybe not if the Encore proves to be a bust.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Hey Looser, Whats wrong mommy\'s basement to damp for you? IF, IF, IF you studied the auto industry which by your posts, you obviously do not, other than trolling a blog here and there, you would realize that the C-Max and Flex are not direct competitors of the Encore. So saying that it sells worse, is not a fair comparison. Your amateur approach and level of education is embarrasing. Now go turn mommy\'s dehumidifier up.
        • 1 Year Ago
        As one "who actually studies the auto industry" you would be expected to know that how a vehicle does against its manufacturer's sales expectations - you know, the thing they make their business case against - matters far more than comparative sales of two almost randomly picked Ford models. You of course, would also be aware that sales of premium-brand products will always sell in far fewer numbers than mainstream brand vehicles of a similar size or price. Excuse me if I find your use of the term "bogus" ironic. I spent some time with this vehicle at the LA Autoshow and found its odd combination of traits so bold, I started rooting for it. It is a car at odds with itself in many ways and Autoblog has pointed out many of the same I noticed. A well-sorted mainstream-brand warm hatch is much more my speed, but I'm that enough people find its unique combination to their liking that it will continue for a 2nd generation. Given the chance, I think this car could have many of its issues sorted out in a 2nd design.
        Martin Edmonds
        • 1 Year Ago
        Why won't you just end your life?
      • 1 Year Ago
      I have to say I LOVE the comments. they're all from folks who would NEVER buy a vehicle like this. so the styling is "hideous"? why do most dealers have waiting lists? why is the average buyer age in the 30s-40s? I was at my local Buick dealer last Saturday, and a couple (late 30s) came in with a 2011 Lexus RX, and traded it on TWO Encores. the trade-in row in the back of the dealership is filled with late model luxury imports traded on new Encores. piss and moan all you want, you wouldn't buy one if it had a 300HP engine. could you please step out of the way? there are BUYERS waiting.
        • 1 Year Ago
        That's quite the downgrade going from a Lexus to a Korean runt like this. Still, sounds like they made a financially sound decision and says a ton about how high Lexus Resale is.
          • 1 Year Ago
          Maybe they were see it as an upgrade to something with a bit of style and personality. I would choose this little "runt" any day over the dull looking Lexus RX.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Ignore that couple, anybody that buys two of the same cars is quite obviously making an uninformed, impulse purchase.
          • 1 Year Ago
          my business partner and I have purchased identical Cadillacs for over twenty years. its not an impulse purchase; they just like what they see, and want two of them. and if you think this is the slightest bit rare, you've never been in the car business.
          • 1 Year Ago
          ^Key Words: BUSINESS PARTNER. Not a spouse. Any family that thinks that buying two of the same cars is a good financial decision for the road ahead has a screw loose. Better yet, any salesmen that lets a family do that kind of crap just to make extra commission without the SMALLEST bit of persuasion towards AT LEAST another model, has moral judgement issues. You're right, I have not been in car sales for my entire life. It's because a lot of that bogus is like selling a fat lady a small shirt, and yet still claim that it looks good on her so she'll get out of your hair and you'll get to laugh your way to the bank.
      • 1 Year Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm sure a good majority of the Encore's sales are fleet.
        • 1 Year Ago
        • 1 Year Ago
        Not likely. Buick's overall fleet sales are currently less than 10% and I would guess the Encore is also around that percentage.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Nope, GM makes the Captiva (formerly Saturn VUE) for the sole purpose of selling them to fleets and protecting the Encore and Equinox. I bet almost no Encores are going to fleets.
        • 1 Year Ago
        You really think GM would increase production if they were having to dump these into fleet sales?? This may not be an enthusiast vehicle but there's no sense in denying the fact that Buick has its own niche here.
      • 1 Year Ago
      This looks like a Pep Boys special accessory package with all those chrome doodads
      • 1 Year Ago
      The article mentions that people buying the Encore are looking for \"economy, function, style, and luxury.\" Let\'s consdier these supposed attributes one by one: Economy - 23/30 mpg from a car with a 1.4L engine making 138hp? FAIL Function - interior space, especially hip and shoulder room, are sorely lacking. FAIL Style - this thing looks like was styled by the Hyundai/Kia designers from a decade ago. Actually, it probably was considering it was designed in South Korea. I\'m guessing lots of H/K designers lost their jobs as those two brands got more ambitious and GM picked them up on the cheap. FAIL Luxury- since luxury should be primarily a convergence of all of the above, FAIL Throw in the lowest rating for the IIHS small overlap test and this thing deserves to be a massive failure.
        • 1 Year Ago
        I hadn't seen the video yet for the small overlap. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuhzqzxdWLk Holy crap, that alone right there would keep me from purchasing one. That's the worst that ANY SUV/CUV has performed that they have tested.
      • 1 Year Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I'm loving my AWD with almost 2,000 miles now. Perfect for parking lot turns and hunting real estate. Fuel economy blows EPA figures out of the water as owners on BuickForums are finding out and also Motorweek week. Don't be afraid of MSRP as they are thousands below it if you shop dealerships.
        Jeremy Pennini
        • 1 Year Ago
        Had to look up Motorweek's review. The AWD they tested got 31.1 mpg, which is impressive.
      • 1 Year Ago
      This would be perfect for my mom. Comforatble and quiet ride, some premium touches, good mpg, easy to park, easy to get in and out of, room for shopping booty. And guess what - that's okay. Moms need cars too.
      • 1 Year Ago
      It's ghastly. It's like a chrome-accented beachball, with chrome wheels. But bully for GM for making what the people seem to want. It is interesting to observe that if you were to just lower this to normal height, i.e., make it a premium small wagon or hatchback, it would be DOA in this market. A 30K+ luxury hatchback, i.e., an A3 or a loaded Golf TDI or Titanium Focus, is not a mass market car in the U.S. If I'm an auto industry product planner, I simply repeat three words to the engineers. Jack. It. Up. And then get some plastic cladding and fake skid-plates. Porsche and Audi and even MB have realized that you can make a mint by making jacked up, cladded versions of your smallest cars.
        • 1 Year Ago
        Despite what some people in here may think, chrome is cool. I am one of them. Not everyone wants a loaded black plastic, all monochromatic, everyone has me too painted wheels hatchback with a diesel.
          • 1 Year Ago
          Chrome is not inherently evil. But past a certain point, you might as well just get the landau roof and the curb-whiskers and complete the look.
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