Ignored On Arrival, But Coming On Strong

2013 Buick Encore

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.