Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Behind The Wheel: 2013 Buick Encore AWD- Compact Crossover with the Soul of a Buick

When I first saw the new Buick Encore, it seemed to me to be the answer to a question that nobody had yet asked- Is there really a place in the market for a compact Buick crossover?  Based on the GM Gamma II platform also shared with the Chevy Sonic, the little bubble of a Buick is an adaptation of the Opel Mokka, and a version is about to go on sale as the Chevrolet Trax in markets outside North America. I must admit that first impressions made me wonder if GM's little Korean crossover was little more than an exercise in badge engineering.

But I agreed to give it a closer look, and to my surprise, I liked it- a lot. My test car was a top of the line Encore AWD with the Premium Group ($30,440). It was literally stuffed with features including voice activated Intellilink, Bluetooth. Bose audio, satellite radio, heated seats, leather trim, six way power seats with power lumbar and manual recliners, noise cancelling insulation, 60/40 split rear seat, full instrumentation (with ice blue ambient lighting), dual zone climate control, 10 air bags and even a heated leather wrapped steering wheel. It was, in other words, a Buick.  Added to the base were chrome wheels ($995) and navigation ($795) plus metallic paint ($195) for a total of $32,425. That's a lot of coin for a little car, but it's a LOT of little car. It is, in fact- a Buick. A small one, but a Buick in content and character.

The exterior styling is handsome, with a signature waterfall grille flanked by blue accented Halogen projector headlamps and even portholes on the hood. There’s a flourish on the rear fender line that’s reminiscent of the coke-bottle shape of Buicks in the sixties. The overall look is clean, purposeful and premium. It really looks like a Buick.


And it’s a Buick on the inside as well. Behind the wheel the first thing one notices is comfort- the driver's compartment is very roomy and the seats are luxurious. They're more like captain's chairs than buckets, trimmed in an attractive two tone leather, with an armrest on the driver's seat that reinforces the notion. The cabin is well appointed with dark grey toned woodgrain with handsome stitched accents and ice blue theatrical lighting touches. It sets a high tone.

Unlike many other small crossovers and SUVs that crowd the front seat to make room in the second and third rows, this one puts the comfort in the front seat and makes the rear seats more occasional in nature. They’re a bit tight, and the rear compartment is on the smaller side, but the split folding rear seat helps. It’s not the right choice for the Gayby Brady Bunch, but excellent for couples and empty nesters and perfect for weekend trips.

The powertrain is the Ecotec 1.4 liter Turbo, mated to a six speed automatic and offered with available AWD. Turn the key and it chirps happily to life and sings softly. It's smooth as silk, and while no racehorse, it makes for a sprightly little combination with the turbo nicely filling in the expected flat spots. The active noise cancellation is very impressive- the cabin is eerily quiet, the ride was on par with a much longer wheelbase car, and it was quite stable in the Exotic Tradewinds of Palm Springs as well. It’s EPA rated at 23 City/ 30 Highway and while I only had few short highway trips, my city mileage was in line with the estimate. It’s worth noting that the FWD version does a bit better with estimates of 25 and 33.

By the time the week was up, I realized that I was going to miss the Encore. Far from what I expected, it’s a compact crossover that pampers the driver. The combination of interior luxury and technology, roomy driver’s compartment and compact exterior size makes sense for a lot of people, myself included. My mind harkens back to the 80s when the Buick advertised their Skylark Limited as the “Little Limousine.” Is the Encore the 21st Century equivalent? I won’t quite go there, but it’s certainly the compact crossover with the soul of a Buick.

2013 Buick Encore AWD
Five-passenger, AWD Utility
Powertrain: 138 hp 1.4-liter Ecotec Turbo I4, six-speed automatic transmission
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels: 18”/18” alloy f/r
Brakes: disc/disc fr/rr with ABS
Must-have features: Interior room, comfort
Fuel economy (est.): 23/30 mpg city/hwy
Assembly: Bupyeong, Korea
Base price: $26,450

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