Driven: 2013 Buick Encore

By Brandon Turkus

December 07, 2012

Atlanta, Georgia
The 2013 Buick Encore is unlike anything the GM subsidiary has produced before. It’s tiny. Really tiny. It’s so tiny that you need to see it in person to appreciate the size of its footprint. Since it won’t be on sale for some time, this is the best we can say: its 100.6-inch wheelbase is shorter than a Mini Countryman (102.2 inches).
It’s only 168.5 inches long, which so far as we can tell, means the only crossovers with less length are the aforementioned Mini (161.8 inches) and the Nissan Juke (162.4 inches). It’s a mere 69.9-inches wide (not counting the door mirrors). For reference, your author is about three inches taller than the Encore is wide. These numbers might not seem that odd for an entry-level Kia, but they’re positively baffling for an all-wheel-drive crossover, especially one that purports to offer a high degree of luxury.
[Click here to read our comparison of the 2011 Mini Countryman S ALL4 and the Nissan Juke]
In America, luxury vehicles are often measured by size, which is something the Encore doesn’t have. And yet, the Encore has luxury in spades. Despite its small footprint, it feels spacious and comfortable in its well-appointed cabin. We tested all four seats and were never really left wanting for extra room. Headroom is good, and even with its sub-six-foot width, shoulder room in the front seats was fine. We never really bumped elbows with our co-driver.
Driven: 2013 Buick Encore Premium FWDStill, the seats were surprisingly firm, and didn’t have the cosseting feel we expect of a luxury car. This was particularly unusual considering this car’s Buick badge. We expect big, soft, welcoming seats. That wasn’t what we found on the Encore. Still, the leather-covered thrones were reasonably supportive and quite easy to get in and out of. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is the right size for this application, and comes standard with tilt and telescoping functions.
The Encore’s powertrain, a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a HydraMatic 6T40 six-speed auto, is the same setup found in the Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic. Regardless of application, there’s 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque on offer. However, some of our colleagues found this number lacking. We don’t really understand why. A front-drive Encore weighs 3190 pounds, while an all-wheel-drive model is 3309 pounds. A Chevrolet Cruze LTZ Automatic, which features decent acceleration, weighs 3155 pounds. So we’re talking an extra 35 to 154 pounds, or anywhere from a 1.1- to 4.8-percent increase in weight for the Encore. In other words, the only place you’ll notice the Encore’s extra body fat is on a stopwatch.
So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, what’s the Encore really like? Well, our first impression was that it packs on the torque. With peak twist available at 1850 rpms, the Encore felt rather eager on throttle tip-in. Speaking of, it was sharper than we’d have expected. The Encore isn’t a sporty vehicle, but that doesn’t mean the go pedal doesn’t feel responsive and ready. As the revs climbed, this Buick wasn’t really prone to a loss of steam. It felt quite good up until it passed its 4900-rpm horsepower peak. Power dropped off abruptly as we approached the car’s 6500-rpm redline. Really, we think the only time you’ll be wanting for power is when the car is loaded up with people and cargo. Unladen, there’s plenty of day-to-day power.
Now, we understand that there are some that desire more power, and may indeed be screaming about the lack of GM’s excellent 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder found in the Verano Turbo and Regal GS. That engine packs 250 to 270 ponies, and would add some serious speed to the Encore. The problem, as we were told, was one of size. Modifying the Encore’s engine bay to accept the 2.0-liter would have been prohibitively expensive. If the car makes it to a second generation, we’d expect more power under that tiny hood.
Driven: 2013 Buick Encore Premium FWDNow, part of the reason we didn’t mind the Encore’s low-powered turbo was the excellent six-speed automatic. This gearbox is a real charmer, delivering fast upshifts and downshifts. There’s not much hunting going on, as the transmission responds well to sudden throttle inputs. The manual mode is operated by a rocker button on the top of the shifter, but really? It’s fine, but it’s not something we’d ever imagine using were this our personal car.
Now, if you’re seeing this small, short-wheelbased vehicle and its big, chrome 18-inch wheels and just waiting for us to lay into it for a back-breaking ride, you’re about to be pretty upset. Through a mix of solid engineering and what we can only assume is black magic, Buick has done an excellent job of taming the inherent unruliness of such a small crossover.
Buick’s suspension team managed to walk the line here, controlling vertical motion without delivering a crashy or overly firm ride. The result is a crossover that feels stable and planted when traveling down the freeway. It’s not hard to register impacts, but considering what the Encore has working against it, we were seriously impressed with just how isolated the ride is.
Of course, that isolation has some unintended side effects. There’s not really much chassis feedback available. That makes it difficult to ascertain what the Encore’s ultimate handling limits are. We explored the boundaries and found a small crossover that seems somewhat responsive to enthusiastic driving, with little roll but a fair amount of squat and dive. It’s not a sports sedan, but we’d feel far more comfortable driving the Encore down a winding road than we would in a bigger crossover like the Ford Escape or Volkswagen Tiguan.
Part of the reason for this is the Encore’s electric steering. We don’t particularly like electric steering and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Still, we need to salute Buick for the work it’s done on the Encore. There’s a weightiness to this tiller that builds progressively and feels almost natural. It’s not overboosted or lifeless like other system’s we’ve tried. On the twisting pavement, sawing smoothly from side to side was actually fun and enjoyable rather than being an exercise in nerves and guesswork. It actually feels like the steering wheel is connected to the front axle.
Perhaps the proposition that is most intriguing is the Encore’s price. The base model starts at $24,950 (all prices will include $750 for destination). It includes such luxuries as the IntelliLink infotainment system, a seven-inch touchscreen display, satellite radio, active noise cancellation, Bluetooth, power driver’s seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 18-inch wheels. That’s on the standard model.
Driven: 2013 Buick Encore Premium FWD
Adding the Convenience Pack raises the base price to $25,750 and adds remote start, dual-zone climate control, fog lights, and a 110-volt outlet.
The Leather Package ups the cost of entry to $27,460. That’s a $2510 premium over the standard car, but it’s certainly worth it. Besides adding the Convenience Pack, it tacks on luxuries like a heated steering wheel, heated leather seats, a power passenger seat, and a memory function on the driver’s seat. If you live in colder climes, you want the Leather Package.
Finally, the Premium Package starts at $28,940 and adds a pleasant glut of tech. Rain-sensing wipers, front and rear park assist (to go with the standard backup camera), forward collision warning, and lane departure warning add to the Encore experience. If that’s not enough stuff, there’s also a few standalone options.
For $595, the Encore can be outfitted with a seven-speaker Bose stereo (a standard item on the Premium Package Encore). Adding navigation to the seven-inch display will tack on another $795, while chroming the 18-inch hoops adds $995. A sunroof (sadly, not a panoramic setup) adds another $800. If you want access to any of these goodies, you’ll need to jump up to the Convenience Pack. Finally, all-wheel drive is available on all models for $1500.
Were it our money, we’d be opting for a front-drive Encore with navigation, the Leather Package, and the Bose stereo. All told, we’d be on the road for a reasonable $28,850. That number feels like a steal considering the level of equipment we’d be getting.
We said at the start of this story that the Encore is unlike any vehicle Buick’s ever built. Perhaps it’d be more apt to say it’s unlike any vehicle anyone’s ever built. There’s never been a vehicle this small that mixes so much luxury into a fun-to-drive, economical, affordable, and stylish package. If in a few years, we see a Mini Countryman-based BMW and a Nissan Juke-based Infiniti, we’ll know Buick’s got a winner on its hands.
2013 Buick Encore Premium FWD
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 138 hp/148 lb-ft
Weight: 3190 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 25/33 mpg
Base Price: $28,940
On Sale: February 2013