By Mark Elias
Wednesday, Dec 26th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Picture this: The family has left the nest. It's now just you and the missus, and you've just packed the final boxes off before heading to your new urban condo. Your vehicle needs have changed, too. Full-sized SUVs or minivans just won't do.

General Motors hopes the pint-size Buick Encore will fill the gaps in your new lifestyle - and the automaker thinks it has identified a previously untapped segment of the market. Playing in what Buick sees as the emerging market of small luxury compacts, the brand hopes that, like a chicken in every pot, there will be an Encore in every garage.

Looking up and away
Buick is crowing about being the only brand to decrease the age of their customers over the last five years. Toward that end, they've had the good fortune to crib designs from GM's global divisions - think Buick Regal (Germany) and Buick Verano (China). Enter the Encore, which comes primarily from South Korea.

The Encore is powered the Chevrolet Cruze-sourced 1.4-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that produces 138-horsepower at 4,900 rp, and 148 lb-ft of torque at a low 1,850 rpm. Coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission, it arrives standard in a front-wheel-drive configuration with available ($1,500) all-wheel-drive.

The optional Borg Warner-built AWD is variable up to a 50/50 front/rear power split. A magnetically charged clutch system is activated from launch and disengages if it determines no wheel slippage is occurring. The system decouples as it senses the Encore increasing speed, eventually reverting to FWD.

Although other competitors offer similarly-sized vehicles in other countries, there are no clear cut rivals for the Encore in our market aside from maybe the BMW X1 and MINI Countryman.

Honey, I shrunk the Enclave
Sculpted and tallish, there is no mistaking the Encore for anything other than a Buick. The elegant lines, with the chrome waterfall are all here. Painted lower panels and a touch of bling are here too, because Americans like shiny things. And with their need to carry things, there is a standard integrated roof rack.

The Encore is available in four configurations: Base, Convenience, Leather and Premium packages, which start with a cloth interior and features and move up to leatherette then full leather kit. The range-topper offers automatic wipers, a Bose audio system and forward collision alert and lane departure warnings. A new two-toned interior with faux wood trim pieces does its part for a new premium appearance, looking and feeling particularly nice for the price.

The interior features Buick's first use of Bose noise canceling technology, which is standard in all trim levels. Interior noise in a compact 'ute will be noisy by nature and size, but Bose's headphone team used three interior microphones to make the system sniff out undesirable sounds and cancel them through a counterbalanced sound wave.

A tight squeeze for some, the Encore's front seats might be "just right" for others. Cargo space is good for an urban dweller and his or her stuff and the passenger front seat and second row seats fold into an almost flat configuration for large item hauling. Overall cargo capacity is just over 48 cubic feet, which is actually about par with a compact hatchback - in other words, expect a big lifestyle change if you're downsizing from a Chevrolet Suburban.

Still, the interior feels much larger than it really is. Clever utilization of monitors and dashboard configurations lend a feeling of airiness in front of the driver and front passenger, although operation of most of the navigation and climate controls will require an arm's reach forward. Side by side space is adequate for two burly-sized male specimens and the rear seat offers enough headroom for six footers.

On the road
The Encore offers a very competent ride, partly because the engineers did a good job of silencing the overall package. The little four-banger squawks when you stand on it - and for getting on the highway in all but the most leisurely of moves, you will need to stand on it. Like so many new cars, the six-speed automatic races to top gear for fuel savings, which exacerbates the light-on-power feel.

Feeling frisky enough to shift it yourself? You may find disappointment with the shift knob-mounted toggle switch atop the lever. Awkwardly placed, it's just not located for comfortable use, but that'll probably be fine with most buyers.

Owing to the Encore's wide stance, the little 'ute exhibited far less of the short wheelbase choppiness we expected, instead feeling genuinely planted over the winding and rolling roads we experienced outside of Atlanta. Suspension wallow is near nil and the four wheel disc brakes brought things to a halt with no noticeable fade in our testing.

Despite its electric power steering roots, feel through the wheel proved above average with no dead spots on center.

The front-drive model weighs in at 3,190 lbs. and the EPA says it achieves mileage numbers of 25/33, while the all-wheel-drive adds about 120 lbs and dents fuel economy to 23/30 mpg.

Leftlane's bottom line:
With the its new Encore, Buick sets out to prove that small does not have to equal plain.

Right-sized for the urban dweller/new earner/empty nester, it could spur a whole new crop of compact luxury crossovers.

Even loaded to the gills, Encore undercuts similarly-optioned larger and more upmarket rivals, which makes it a remarkably decent value.

2013 Buick Encore base price range, $24,950 to $30,440

Words and photos by Mark Elias.