Same Game, New Ride Height
Make no mistake, America is downsizing. No, we're not sending New England back to old England — yet — but with ever higher fuel costs and the fiscal cliff threatening to send our economy headfirst into a gorge like so many Plains bison, Americans are taking a closer look at their personal ratio of needs to wants more than ever before.
In response to this, Buick has taken a closer look at its product portfolio and found a gap in the market. One occupied by young, impulsive urban professionals with a steady income and an eagerness to treat themselves to the finer things. And, on the opposite side of life, by empty-nesters who may have already downsized their homes and are looking to ditch that fuel-slugging, hard-to-park SUV in favor of something more reasonable for two.
Normally, only one of these demographics would be the expected target, but the 2013 Buick Encore is different. First of all, it doesn't look like a Buick. Secondly, Buick understands that these two customers are likely to buy this vehicle purely for themselves and have taken up the arduous task of turning a small crossover into a luxury car with quiet tuning and a bucket full of tech.
One Engine for Everyone
Buick readily admits that the quirky-looking, in-between-size Encore isn't for everyone, which is why it's only expecting to sell roughly 30,000 or so a year. (Updated: a representative from Buick provided an updated, but still unofficial, sales target.) And for a low-volume car in the $25,000 range, developing and certifying multiple powertrains doesn't make fiscal sense. That's why the lone engine in the 2013 Buick Encore is a 1.4-liter, 138-horsepower turbocharged inline-4.
This is the same engine that does duty in the 2012 Chevy Cruze and Chevy Sonic, but backed by a transmission with slightly different gear ratios. Still, we're going to do some bench racing here to try to put this engine's performance into perspective.
The 2011 Chevy Cruze weighs in at 3,236 pounds. On our test track the 1.4-liter-equipped Chevy Cruze dragged itself to 60 in 9.6 seconds and crossed the quarter-mile line in 17.1 seconds at 80.4 mph. At 3,190 pounds, the Encore is far less bulky than it looks, but it's not light enough to make any noticeable difference. Like the Cruze, the Encore is slow, not just by leadfoot standards, but by the standards of anyone who feels the need to accelerate to highway speeds.
Similarly, asking the Encore to downshift just by stomping the gas is like asking your local librarian to drop a Skrillex jam. There's confusion and anger. The Encore races to 6th gear as fast as possible and never, ever wants to leave it. Eventually, though, the Encore will kick down one or two fewer gears than is absolutely necessary, forcing the driver to use the manual buttons on top of the shift lever. We have no idea why Buick went with this design, but it's unnatural and awkward.
The High Side of Low Power
As you were likely quick to figure out, Buick's decision to drop the diminutive 1.4-liter into the Encore was influenced by the need to earn impressive fuel economy figures. According to the EPA, in front-drive trim, the 2013 Buick Encore will return 25 city, 33 highway and 28 combined mpg. And thanks to its 13.7-gallon fuel tank size, the Encore is thus capable of an EPA-estimated range of 345 miles.
Again, we'll harken back to our experience with our long-term Cruze in which we averaged 25.3 mpg in notoriously tough Los Angeles traffic and hit 32-plus mpg on the highway without much trouble. After a few hundred miles in the Encore, the digital readout showed 25.9 mpg. According to Buick, the Encore's EPA numbers make it the most efficient crossover from a domestic automaker. Competition on that front includes the Ford Escape (23/33/26) and the Jeep Compass (23/26/30).
In addition to solid efficiency, the Encore's engine also scores points for its level of refinement. Cruising along in 6th, you'd be hard-pressed to know that there was an internal-combustion engine up front. It's beyond whisper-quiet thanks to a number of "quiet-tuning" tricks, including an active sound-cancellation system by Bose.
This system uses three microphones — two up front, one in the rear — to detect unpleasant noises like the resonance of the road and natural harmonic hums by the engine/transmission, and then employs the car's speakers, subwoofer and amp to produce an equal but opposite wave. On smooth pavement, the only difference between stopped and 80 mph is some wind noise from the top of the windscreen.
Drives Like a Buick
We're not entirely sure when it happened, but sometime in the past few years, Buicks started to drive well. They don't try to follow the Germans down the path of firm and tightly damped, and they don't follow the traditional American formula of more springs and more weight.
Today's Buicks — from the vastly underrated 2013 LaCrosse to the midsize 2013 Regal — drive with a sort of relaxed, composed comfort. They'll sail over road imperfections, completely isolating the driver, but do so without the bobbing and buoying we used to associate with big cars. And while it's not a big car per se, the Encore has this same sense of on-road composure.
In front-drive trim, the Encore has 6.2 inches of ground clearance. That's not a huge number, but it does scoot the center of gravity up a bit, which gives the Encore some lean into corners. Anyone who's coming into the Encore from a crossover or SUV won't notice a thing, but buyers stepping into a crossover for the first time will notice a touch more lean and some delayed turn-in. There's a surprising amount of grip, though, especially considering that the only tire is a 215/55R18 Continental chosen specifically for its on-road quietness.
Nobody will confuse the Encore for a performance car — ever — but the steering is accurate enough to dodge would-be roadkill with ease and keep you out of the ditches. More importantly, the Encore is remarkably stable and has that road-hugging feel that used to require an additional 1,000 pounds of weight to achieve. This is a small vehicle that absolutely eats miles.
Small Package, Big Room
As the chassis is well-sorted for doing long-distance slogs, the folks behind the interior on the 2013 Encore had a tough task ahead of them: fitting 10 pounds of luxury into a 5-pound bag. To this end, and to the front-seat passengers, the Encore is a success.
Headroom is expectedly good in the wide, flat front seats and, for a vehicle that's only 69.9 inches wide, there is plenty of shoulder and hip room. The front seats are also pleasantly high, affording a bird's-eye view of the surrounding traffic and easing entry/exit.
This front seat excellence comes at the expense of rear-seat room. This near 6-foot editor had plenty of legroom, but that's not much of a consolation when there's nowhere to put your arms, shoulders or hips. Again, though, this vehicle was not entirely intended for rear-seat passengers. Perhaps a grandkid or two or a friend who missed the train, but primarily it was built for two. Rear-facing child seats, too, are in the "rarely" camp.
Dominating the center console is Buick's standard IntelliLink system and its 7-inch control touchscreen. IntelliLink lumps together Bluetooth, radio controls and navigation if so equipped. The center console is littered with buttons, which are virtually all redundant controls of both the touchscreen, the center control knob and the system's voice activation. In an increasingly touch-panel, textureless world, buttons and redundancy are awesome. The knobs especially have a solid, reassuring click. There's no looking away from the road for confirmation of anything in the Encore. Everything simply works as you want it to the first time. IntelliLink doesn't have flashy graphics or a hip app-based layout, but it's fast, reliable and easy to use. We'll take that every day.
Nearly all of these features, however, can be found in a similarly equipped Buick Verano, which offers a more conventional look and a more conventional sedan appearance. What separates the Encore is its cargo-carrying capacity. The rear seats and the front passenger seat fold completely flat (though the rears are a bit tricky to use), which allows storage of up to an 8-foot item.
With all seats in place, there's 18.8 cubic feet of space, or enough for two carry-ons and two briefcases or one medium-large-size dog. Folding the rear seats down opens up 48.4 cubic feet of space, room for more luggage than two people will ever need or half an Iditarod team.
It's Still Your Grandmother's Buick...and Now Yours, Too
In these austere economic times, Buick is offering luxury without the pomp and flash, and an increasingly unique and composed ride quality. Currently, Buick is outselling Acura, Audi, Infiniti and Lincoln and it's doing it without the help of a reasonably sized crossover. Ignore the question over whether Buick should have built a crossover on the architecture of the Chevy Sonic (only the engine and seat frames are shared). It's done, and it's here.
For now, the 2013 Buick Encore is a unique offering with its composed ride, tomblike quietness and intuitive connectivity in a compact crossover. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the powertrain or the interior refinement to give any of the established luxury brands a run for their money, and that will only get worse with the introduction of the Audi Q3 next year.
At $24,950 and 30-plus mpg, though, that may not matter. Buick put its money on a quiet, controlled ride and a feature-rich interior. Where will you put yours?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.