Mountain Wheels: Tiny Buick Encore hits at a potential automotive future
March 16, 2013
Wow. What a funny little car, and what an interesting and absolutely complete change for one of America’s oldest luxury brands. That’s what I found myself saying, each time I went back to the parking lot and gazed upon the new, micro-luxe Buick Encore.
The Korean-made Encore is something of a trend-setting test case for General Motors, the company’s first shot at a category I guess I didn’t know existed (small luxury crossovers) and a definite change of gears for a marquee best associated with large vehicles aimed at older drivers.
Residing at literally the other end of the spectrum from the Enclave, Encore still packs all of the luxurious touches of its larger brothers – leather seating and audaciously chrome-heavy bits, including shimmering wheels, good navigation technology and a Bose audio system.
But it does so on a pint-sized platform modified from one shared with the diminutive Chevy Sonic and powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with just 1.4 liters of displacement. The whole car is just 168 inches long and has a curb weight of only 3,190 pounds in front-wheel drive guise. (An all-wheel-drive version is also available.)
The crazy thing is that it doesn’t really feel that small once you get inside, which will likely be the Encore’s saving grace when regular-sized Buick buyers actually go for their test drives.
Encore’s doors open wide for easy, comfortable entries and exits, and the seating – leather surfaces with highlight stitching in the Premium model I tested – is indeed spacious and commodious, and not bad during an extended highway drive. Rear seating is surprisingly ample and the biggest shock is the amount of headroom for everyone in the vehicle. You also get 18.8 cubic feet of cargo space under the rear liftgate, with a built-in tonneau cover; drop the rear seats and you can load 48.4 cubic feet of material aboard.
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Best of all, there’s no clownish micro-car feel to the driving experience, other than your ability to park a couple of them in the same spot as an old LeSabre.
The Encore’s suspension and steering have all been tuned for quiet comfort, not spring, and the 138-horsepower engine may not be a screamer, but it’s fully capable of 75 mph rural freeway cruising, though you may have to goose it a bit when taking on major hills, even with a mostly intuitive six-speed automatic transmission that can be manually shifted with knob-top buttons when required.
Key to Buick’s over all mission, the engine really does return 30-plus mpg in pretty regular driving, even more if you’re conservative with speeds during highway jaunts.
And with the first application of new, electronic noise-canceling technology from Bose – the Encore’s computers act like a pair of those headphones you see on every guy in the first class section on your flight to Chicago – it really does help to keep the potentially buzzy microcar sounds to a minimum.
All of that adds up to a pretty mind-blowing experience, especially when you recall your mental image of Buick over the years. But considering the changing future objectives and markets for General Motors (answer the question: “Where does all of the stuff in Walmart come from?”), you get to see that small but still luxurious products will have special appeal.
Here, we’ll have to see – GM suggests the Encore’s key competitors are the Mini Countryman and the Volkswagen Tiguan, but I’m not entirely convinced that Middle America is clamoring for high-end features on a vehicle this size. I may be wrong.
Design is certainly fine, despite the minimalistic dimensions, with a bright, chrome grille, cool blue-ringed headlamps and a flurry of Buick-specific affectations, including top-of-the-hood stylized vents.
Inside, there’s glossy, wood-like trim and aluminum and chrome stripping, GM’s notorious cavalcade of oddly marked audio control buttons on the center stack (22 of them, plus an input knob for the navigation and audio system, which took me a solid hour to figure out how to use – as I still don’t seem to speak the right version of English to be understood by voice-recognition systems).
Heated seats, a heated wheel and safety aids including a very sensitive lane departure warning chime and even forward collision alert are all available as options on the higher-end models.