2013 Buick Encore Expert Review:Autoblog
We admit it. We have no earthly idea how this whole thing is going to shake out.
Typically, after driving a new car or truck, we come away prepared to hazard a guess as to whether said model has a good chance of being a sales success. We've amassed enough time watching the industry, scrutinizing the competitors, and so on, to make a reasonably educated bet. Yet here we are, days removed from driving the new 2013 Buick Encore, and we still have no bloody idea.
To be fair, we're in good company. Buick's perfectly capable public relations and marketing teams don't appear to entirely know what to expect from the Encore, either. They've had to strain to even find remote competitors to match their new baby against. BMW X1? Volkswagen Tiguan? Mini Countryman? All kinda-sorta-maybe rivals from our vantage point. Yet we can't necessarily provide better ones for this tiny semi-premium crossover, either. Fiscal cliff-discount Land Rover Range Rover Evoque? Uppity Hyundai Tucson? Nissan Juke ravished by Vilner? It's really rather hard to say what plays here. The above panoply of would-be rivals only hints at just how small the Encore is. At 168.5 inches long, it's the shortest Buick in memory – stubbier, remarkably, than such past Trishield outliers as the Skyhawk, Somerset and Reatta.
Yet none of this size discussion or the lack of a clearly defined competitive set is to say that the Encore won't be a resounding success. Early signs from dealers – whose initial orders have been six times company estimates – are more than positive, and certainly Buick could do with another crossover underneath its much larger Enclave.
Back to the size thing for a moment. Seeing the Encore away from the bright lights of its 2012 Detroit Auto Show reveal and on the street improved our initial impressions. When seen in its proper element, the city, the Encore's scale and proportions start to make a lot more sense, and standard 18-inch alloys do wonders for its presence. Even so, there's no doubt that traditional Buick hallmarks like the Encore's waterfall grille and hood-mounted Ventiports simply look better on larger-scale canvases. There's a faint whiff of children's dress-up here – the baby of the family wearing mom or dad's jewelry, trying to act all grown up. Making a form this small look upscale is no easy task, however, and Buick's stylists have done an admirable job overall.
There's a faint whiff of children's dress-up – the baby wearing mom or dad's jewelry.
The same goes for the interior, which, at least in full-house spec with optional niceties like leather and navigation, certainly looks the part. Oh, we could debate the merits of the glassy faux wood trim, the occasionally hokey-looking iconography on the seven-inch Intellilink infotainment screen and Buick's continued obsession with a carpet of center stack buttons, but overall, it's a comfortable, upscale place to be, particularly in our tester's saddle motif. In fact, allow us to take a moment to underline "comfortable" – the packaging here is pretty impressive. Despite being sandwiched in between a 100.5-inch wheelbase, we found plenty of space up front, with the power height-adjustable seats affording dining-chair like height and a surprisingly commanding view without grazing the headliner. The back seat is a bit narrow, but more accommodating than one might think – we even had an occasion where we had four full-size adults riding in relative comfort for a while.
Buick still has the market cornered on quiet – it has stuffed a ton of sound deadening in the Encore's nether reaches, added an acoustic-laminated windshield and thicker-than-normal side glass, along with a sound-absorbing headliner and whispering low-rolling resistance Continental rubber to keep things tranquil. Going one step beyond, the Encore also receives standard Bose Active Noise Cancellation, essentially a white noise generator that relies on three headliner-mounted microphones to detect and counter interior din. This is Buick's first application of the technology, but General Motors has employed ANC previously on the Chevrolet Equinox. Make no mistake, this isn't an indulgently scaled luxury sedan or SUV, but it's still a very civilized place in which to weather one's morning commute.
Buick still has the market cornered on quiet.
Forward visibility is good, and the aforementioned seat height helps the driver to see eye-to-eye with larger crossovers, furthering the illusion that the Encore is larger than it is. Rear visibility is less convincing, with thick C-pillars and a smallish rear window crimping one's view. At least there's a standard rearview camera, along with 10 airbags if you still fail to see something.
It's at this point in the program where the driving enthusiasts among you will probably want to tap out. Said plainly, while competent, this is not an entertaining vehicle to drive. Buick should offer no apologies for this reality, however – it's not the Encore's raison d'être. This cute ute's sole powertrain is the same 1.4-liter Ecotec turbocharged four cylinder found in the Chevrolet Sonic economy car. In truth, the two vehicles are only tangentially related, with the budget Bowtie riding atop GM's Gamma architecture and the Encore relying on the Gamma II underpinnings it shares with its twins the Opel/Vauxhall Mokka and Chevrolet Trax. The Sonic and the Encore don't actually share much underskin material, notes James Danahy, chief engineer on the Encore program. In fact, Danahy was quick to clarify that this Buick shares little beyond powertrain and seat frames with the Chevy, though "learnings" on things like crash energy dissipation have informed this crossover's development.
This Buick shares little beyond powertrain and seat frames with the Chevy Sonic.
Like it is in the 2,700-pound Sonic, the 1.4 turbo is tuned to deliver 138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at 1,850 rpm. While that's enough to make the humble Sonic a fun car, it's not exactly a groundswell of muscle for the heavier Encore, which starts at 3,190 pounds for a front-drive model like our tester. Informal acceleration runs on our part generated a best 0-60 time of 10.0 seconds with two aboard – we're guessing the official time will end up being somewhere in the high nines. More ominously, colleagues from other outlets reported 12-second times with three people and a bit of gear aboard an all-wheel-drive example. In either case, that means you'll be staring at the taillights of every other vehicle we've mentioned to this point – if indeed you're lucky enough to even see the taillights of the far costlier X1 at all; BMW says a base sDrive28i will do the job in 6.2 seconds (and it's usually conservative with its numbers). For further reference, the cheaper Hyundai Tucson will do the deed in about eight seconds. You're as likely as not to be in a dead heat with that hipster driving a Nissan Cube in the next lane. The Encore is not quick, friends.
Thank goodness it's smooth, then. The six-speed Hydramatic is an agreeable partner, and there's even a bit of innovation happening in the $1,500 optional Active-On-Demand AWD system. Unlike most such systems that funnel torque to the wheels when slippage is detected, AOD uses a magnetically actuated clutch to pre-load the rear wheels with torque at every stop, automatically disengaging if no loss of traction is detected. The Borg Warner-developed system is said to be lighter and quicker acting than traditional AWD setups. With 6.2 inches of ground clearance front and rear, the Encore won't be up for much more than the occasional muddy field or curb hopping, but that's probably all that will ever be asked of it.
Burdened by the Encore's luxury lashings, the Ecotec just ain't country strong.
We disembarked from the Encore's seemingly native habitat, Atlanta's posh Centennial Park outdoor mall, negotiated area traffic and headed out on the highway, intent on sampling Georgia's network of beautiful rolling country roads. Once up to speed on the superslab, the Encore was again pleasingly hushed in the Grand Buick Tradition, but merging onto the freeway and passing with any measure of authority required dropping down a cog or two, bringing with it the unmistakable auditory intrusion of four-cylinder strain. We weren't really put off by the Encore's highway comportment (in all honesty, it rides very well considering its short wheelbase), but we were less thrilled when it came to those bucolic two lanes. There are lots of hills in north central Georgia, and burdened by the Encore's luxury lashings, the Ecotec just ain't country strong. Combine a lack of power with this CUV's stubby dimensions, high center of gravity and precise-but-unengaging electric power steering, and there wasn't much incentive to press on.
The Encore is just plain happier in urban settings, where its tight turning circle (just 36.7 feet) and tidy footprint make it a standout in the parking wars and dicing it up in traffic. The front MacPherson strut / rear torsion beam suspension is adept at smothering manhole covers and potholes, and at 18.8 cubic feet, the cargo hold is surprisingly generous for holding the day's shoppings (and that's before folding the rear seats for a total of 48.4 cubes). As a leather-lined metropolitan runabout, the South Korean-built Encore makes a lot of sense – its power deficit isn't as apparent in a stop-and-go world, and the upside of its smallish powertrain is thrift – EPA estimates for the front-drive model sit at 25 miles per gallon city and 33 highway, for a combined rating of 28 mpg. AWD models fall to 23/30/26.
As a leather-lined metropolitan runabout, the Encore makes a lot of sense.
At the end of the day, we're left with a smartly accoutered and serene little shoe of a crossover that offers good daily manners for urban living. Buick may not have the clearest idea of what vehicles the Encore lines up against, but it does seem to have target customers in mind – buyers on both ends of life's timeline who are mutually unencumbered by kids and their associated detritus. Young, childless professionals on one end and empty nesters on the other. This sounds just about right to us. With a starting price of $24,950 (including destination), the Encore stickers far below its (supposed) rival from BMW, priced more in line with larger but less premium-minded offerings from Volkswagen and Hyundai. Whether Buick's white space approach turns out to be this model's masterstroke or its undoing will be interesting to watch, but after spending a day's drive getting to know the Encore, we wouldn't bet against it.
New Car Test Drive
New crossover utility vehicle delivers luxury in a small package.
The 2013 Buick Encore is a new entry-luxury crossover utility vehicle. At first exposure, the Encore is a bit confusing. Viewed from the outside, it is a very compact package that may cause buyers to be skeptical of the small luxury crossover title. Can anything this small really be luxury? More to the point, can this small luxury vehicle achieve the established Buick image, which company spokesmen describe as inviting, approachable, warm?
But climbing into the Encore and pulling the door shut, instantaneously, the Encore's luxury makes itself felt in its elegant design, fine instruments and high-quality switch-gear. If the Encore you climb into has leather upholstery, its beauty and richness will leave you in no doubt that this is a luxury crossover. The layout and proportioning of everything in the cockpit feels so spacious and commodious that it's hard to remember the smallness that struck you looking at the vehicle from outside.
This is very definitely a little/big vehicle, a world car-sized crossover that will fit into countless environments and driving conditions. Its outside package is so compact that whenever we came up upon another Encore during our test driving, we were stunned at how diminutive it looked moving through traffic. The Encore we were driving, identical to the one out the window, seemed sumptuous inside, a satisfying vehicle that suited all our needs. With smoke-and-mirrors designing like that, the Buick stylists have shown themselves wizards of clever packaging.
Buick's marketing plan for the Encore was to build a nimble, agile SUV that would be easy to park, maneuver, and have an excellent turning circle (a mere 36.7 feet). It should have available all-wheel drive, the plan said, extremely flexible stowage adaptability, carry five passengers, and provide advanced technology in combination with real luxury. The good news is, that's the vehicle we tested on the urban and rural roads of Georgia.
But the good news continues: This little/big package showed very efficient over-the-road performance. Being physically small and light, at 3190 pounds for the front-wheel-drive model, the Buick Encore requires only an absolutely tiny 1.4-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine, coupled to a 6-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission, to deliver adequate local and Interstate performance. Even with the heavier 3309-lb all-wheel drive model, the Encore delivers an EPA-estimated 23/30 mpg City/Highway. The front-wheel drive Encore gets 25/33 mpg City/Highway mpg, the highest fuel economy of any front-wheel-drive crossover.
Encore's performance equation seems to be extremely well balanced. It delivers thrift and luxury in generous degrees, available for a very attractive price. Many starter families will be enticed by this vehicle. But we suspect just as many empty-nesters, no longer needing their huge, now-empty Enclaves, will flock to this mini-Enclave, happy to have a familiar taste of their Enclave's comfort and elegance.
The Buick Encore is offered in one model and four levels of trim. All feature a 138-bhp Ecotec 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission.
Encore ($24,950) comes standard with fabric upholstery, single-zone manual air conditioning, seven-inch full-color CD/Sirius XM//USB voice recognition and Bluetooth audio, quiet tuning with Bose Noise Cancelation technology, rearview camera, 6-way power driver's seat with lumbar, leather steering wheel, heated mirrors, cruise control, ice-blue interior ambient lighting, heated outside mirrors, driver's express up/down window, passenger express down window, rear cargo cover, roof-mounted luggage rails, dual gloveboxes, theft-deterrent system, variable-effort power steering, 18-inch cast aluminum wheels, compact spare tire.
Convenience Package ($25,760) adds electrochromic inside rearview mirror, remote start, dual automatic climate control, 120V outlet and fog lamps.
Leather Package ($27,460) adds leather upholstery, heated steering wheel, power passenger seat, heated seats, driver memory settings for seats, outside mirrors, and climate control.
Premium Package ($28,940) adds rain-sensing wipers, premium Bose audio, front and rear park assist, forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, cargo net and cargo mat.
Options include satellite navigation ($795), 18-inch chrome wheels ($995), sunroof ($995), DVD rear-seat entertainment system, Bose premium audio ($595).
Safety features include the mandated dual front airbags plus side-curtain airbags for head protection, side-impact airbags for torso protection, rearview camera, OnStar. Active safety features include four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, EBD, electronic stability control. Optional safety features include all-wheel drive ($1,500); forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, and front and rear park assist (with Premium Package).
Setting a precedent as the first-ever small luxury crossover, the Buick Encore obviously has some obstacles to overcome. Just how small is it really? Smaller than the Toyota Matrix. It's 165 inches long, with a wheelbase of 100.6 inches, and a track of 60.6 inches. And because the Encore is tall enough to make its occupants feel welcome, in pictures, its proportions make it look a little more like a Smart car than its designers might have wished.
But in person, the Encore's proportions are less startling. Its nose features the signature Buick waterfall grille, and its frontal view is muscular and attractive. The side view is unavoidably truncated and world car-like, but that will be a plus to many, while the wide, hungry tailgate in the rear is ready to take in a surprising amount of cargo, 48.4 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down.
As a bona fide crossover, the Encore's duties will be almost entirely on pavement, and its flowing curvaceousness will be well suited to those tasks. As a world car, it boasts an extremely clean 0.37 coefficient of drag, which is a snooty way of saying, it is aerodynamically very clean, helping it get optimum mileage at highway speeds. In fact, the closer you look at the Encore, the more keenly its qualities suit the tastes and tendencies of buyers who want to reduce their carbon footprint to a tippy-toe yet not pay the high price premium of a buying a hybrid vehicle to do so. Achieving full five-passenger service and getting 30 mpg or so on the highway in a vehicle that pampers its occupants every mile of the way: for many, that's worth considering.
Climbing into the Buick Encore is where the real sleight of hand begins. The textures and materials and the elegant layout of the cabin immediately convince you that you're in a luxurious, expensive, inevitably much bigger crossover. One of the most pleasing aspects of the interior is the classically American dashboard. Buick has no interest in reinventing the wheel, as do so many offshore luxury-car builders. But at the same time, there is nothing dull or so-what about this Buick instrumentation. The displays are clean, bright, without affectation, and tell you what you want to know. If there was any complaint to be made, it's that the numbers on the speedometer and tachometer were small and hard to read.
The center stack's secondary controls, too, are exemplary. The standard rearview camera (a welcome provision in this family vehicle) reads well, and the screen provides easily manipulated controls for the Encore's very flexible audio system. The screen on our test vehicle also served as home port for Buick's full-color navigation system. This nav system continues to be winsomely simple to use, with excellent graphics.
But there were other lesser keynotes throughout the Encore that helped enhance its luxuriousness. All the switchgear had a sturdy firmness to it that confirmed its designers had taken their mission seriously. Even the soft-touch surfaces along the top of the dashboard and around the doors had an elegant compliance.
Our test car had leather seating, which was handsome and comfortable. The driver's seat's excellent lateral support had a fine snugness that we preferred over the larger, less-fitted seats in the larger Buick Enclave. The saddle leather was of fine quality, providing first-class seating for five adults. Elegant woodgrain elements highlighted the dash and doors, and as in the Enclave, at night, the Encore's ice-blue tinted interior ambient lighting made us feel like we'd arrived in a very special place indeed. A small moonroof was there to confirm the impression.
The business end of this little/big Buick Encore is, of course, what it's like to drive. With its tiny turbo four-cylinder, can it really be luxurious, or is it just a buzzy little four-cylinder people-box with nice seats?
We pointed the Encore onto an Interstate and floored it. Acceleration is roughly in the 9-second zero-to-60 range, adequate most of the time. But the most interesting quality of this little 1.4-liter turbo engine is, while it surely thrashes furiously to accelerate, it doesn't make the upsetting, graceless groan most little four-cylinders make at full throttle. Engine noise is audible, but it's civilized and not unsettling, a revelation for such an engine.
Helping the engine enjoy life, the 6-speed automatic Hydramatic transmission is very smooth-shifting, giving the Encore's acceleration an altogether civilized, dare we say, luxurious tone. Further along the Interstate, when we wanted to accelerate and floored the throttle, the Hydramatic took a long time kicking-down two gears. However, when the gearshift button on the top of the shift lever was used, downshifting took place forthrightly. All doubts aside, the Encore drivetrain is far better than any description of it might suggest. It's small, efficient, straightforward, and given those constraints, entirely competent.
But we can't be sure how much of this Buick competence still isn't smoke and mirrors. That's because the Encore employs some extremely advanced measures to assure its creatures' comfort. This is the first Buick to employ Bose's active noise-cancellation technology. This system uses a microphone to take in the ambient sounds being generated in the Encore interior, analyzes those sounds to determine what opposite sounds will cancel them out, then broadcasts the latter. It sounds improbable, if not impossible, but driving the Encore at highway speeds, it is uncannily hushed and pleasant. Some of this is surely due to good aerodynamics and the lack of wind noise around the windshield and outside mirrors. But the serene level of mechanical sounds in the Encore at speed is almost certainly thanks to the Bose system. Who can guess what this will mean for peace and quiet in cars of the future? For the present, every Encore has noise cancellation, standard. It's a species of luxury few of us have expected.
Steering effort in the Buick Encore is firm, live, absolutely right. And as we moved into the rural parts of our route, the vehicle's cornering and lateral dynamics proved similarly firm and free of distracting roll. We found the brakes powerful and well controlled, allowing good modulation.
All-new, the Buick Encore is fully prepared to be the first in a new segment of small luxury crossovers. It has a lavish inventory of virtues, from a well-specified mechanical foundation to sumptuous creature conveniences to distinguished over-the-road comfort and agile dynamics. Encore sets a high standard for competitors to match, with excellent efficiency, it's a one-of-a-kind in the small SUV market.
Ted West filed this NewCarTestDrive report from New York.
Base Encore ($24,950); Convenience Package ($25,760); Leather Package ($27,460); Premium Package ($28,940).
Options As Tested
satellite navigation ($795), 18-inch chrome wheels ($995), sunroof ($995), DVD rear-seat entertainment system, Bose premium audio ($595).
Buick Encore Premium AWD ($28,940).