Buick is putting big hopes into its small crossover, th... Buick is putting big hopes into its small crossover, the all-new Encore. (Photo courtesy GM).
On the eve of my college graduation some 14 years ago, I bought my first car. It brought instant laughter.

There was nothing egregiously wrong with the used Buick LeSabre, a spacious sedan that would provide years of able transportation. But with its sensible exterior styling, front-row bench and interior faux-wood paneling, friends joked that I had jumped from my cap and gown to the Social Security line.

That perception – that Buick is a brand for senior citizens – hasn't changed much in the past 15 years. Maybe it's time it should.

I got behind the wheel of another Buick last month, the all-new Encore. The compact crossover is a smart and sporty ride. Perhaps most importantly, it's made for the modern age.

Related: 2013 Buick Encore Review

That last part is no small feat. Five years ago, the average age of a Buick buyer was 64, according to Buick's internal data, about twice my age. Since then, the brand has gutted its lineup in hopes of attracting a new and younger generation of buyers. Gone are the minivan-esque Rendezvous, the stately Park Avenue, the reliable-if-uninspiring Century and, wistfully, my old LeSabre.

In their places has come a fleet of vehicles that are resonating more with consumers. The Regal GS brings legitimate comparisons to the BMW 3-Series, the new Verano sedan has drawn rave reviews and the Enclave SUV has been a stalwart performer since its 2007 arrival.

In 2012, Buick enjoyed its best year of sales since 2006, with 180,408 light vehicles sold. Certainly, the rising tide of the overall auto industry deserves some of the credit for that turnaround. But Buick is also out-selling its mid-tier competitors like Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti and Lincoln.

The best number, in the eyes of executives, isn't one that's going up, but one that's coming down. The average age of a Buick buyer is now 57, seven years younger than it was in 2007.

It's proof positive among GM executives that Buick was worth saving back in 2009 when GM went through the taxpayer-assisted bankruptcy and killed brands Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer. The government's auto industry advisers wanted to kill Buick, too, but were talked out of it by GM officials.

"There's still some work to be done," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for TrueCar.com. "But Buick is going in the right direction."

Fleshing out the revamped lineup is the Encore, which arrives in showrooms in February. Executives believe it fills an untapped market, and don't see many direct competitors in the vicinity of this entry-level luxury, urban-friendly compact crossover.

The Encore probably rests somewhere between the Ford Escape and the BMW X1 on the crossover spectrum. It can draw from customers seeking more value for their money than the Escape and present a more affordable option than the X1. But the competition is almost beside the point. GM is hoping buyers would rather own a Buick, with a bit of premium brand cachet, for the same money they could buy a loaded Ford, Toyota or Honda.

Enticing as the prospect as an untapped niche may be, lack of external competition isn't ultimately why Buick built the Encore. Buick wants the compact Encore to do for CUVs what its compact Verano did for sedans – function as a competitively priced entry point to the brand for new buyers. Younger buyers. Once they're aboard, Buick hopes to translate that into success across its lineup.

"We can now envision the Buick garage," said Lloyd Biermann, marketing manager for General Motors in the Buick division, "where you really couldn't before."

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