Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 Buick Encore AWD

If you think what the world needs is a compact, tall-riding mini-SUV with cute-but-slightly-gawky styling, a "bring on the tech" approach to luxury, and a price tag somewhere in between its bigger mainstream competitors and its comparably sized premium rivals, the Buick Encore is perhaps the perfect SUV for you.

Well, you might ask what the heck the Encore is trying to accomplish.

On the other hand, if you don't think the world needs a small, tall-riding, ventiported, gizmo-loaded SUV that's neither particularly affordable nor especially luxurious, well, you might just ask what the heck the Encore is trying to accomplish.

First, let's get the basics out of the way: the Encore, which is based on Europe's Opel Mokka and is sibling to the less-expensive Chevrolet Trax, shares its Gamma II architecture with the Chevrolet Sonic. Its wheelbase is stretched by 30 mm compared to the Sonic, and its overall length extended by 240 mm versus the Sonic hatchback (it's still 120 mm shorter than the Sonic Sedan). It gets a taller ride height than the Sonic and an available slip-and-grip front-wheel-biased AWD system, but the turbocharged 1.4L four-cylinder Ecotec engine is pure Sonic, developing the same 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, delivered to the wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. The suspension setup is also essentially the same as the Sonic, with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam axle in the back.

As a small, versatile runabout, the Encore works fine. The front seats offer reasonable room and so do the back seats – it may look a little cramped back there, but I had my brother sitting behind me when I was driving (he's 5'11" just like me) and I later had my son behind me when I was passenger (he's 6'2") and neither of them had any complaints. Luggage space is limited to 532 L with the rear seats up (I reckon that would be without the cargo cover in place), and with the cargo cover in place it was still adequate to keep all my gear hidden for a three-day work trip and to later carry home several days’ worth of groceries. Fold the rear seatbacks (a bit of a bother since you first have to flip up the seat squabs) and you get a decent 1,371 L worth of space.

The engine keeps fairly busy hauling the 1,523 kg SUV around town, and it's no drag race champ at 9.8 seconds from 0-100 km/h, but the Encore is spritely enough where it really counts in the city-oriented 0-60 km/h zone, and it manages fine on the highway too (I didn't try hauling four people up a mountain road, but with just myself aboard the Encore accomplished highway passing maneuvers reasonably well and cruised happily at 120 km/h on Vancouver Island's Inland Highway). Fuel economy is rated at 10.2/8.0 L/100 km for AWD models, and my not-yet-fully-broken-in tester averaged 10.5 L/100 km over a week of driving, with the interesting aside that it didn't actually seem to care much whether it was cruising the highway at 120 km/h or squirting around town, it returned almost the same economy.

The handling is competent if somewhat uninspiring, the brakes offer decent pedal feel and stopping power, and the ride is very comfortable thanks to Buick's twin-tube shock absorbers and excellent sound-deadening efforts (the Encore gets active sound-cancellation and lots of extra insulation compared to the Chevrolet Trax). The short wheelbase and high centre of gravity do contribute to a bit of choppiness over large bumps and occasional "nervousness" on the highway, but overall, the Encore is an easygoing little machine to operate.

Around town, the Encore's small size means that it'll fit into parking spaces that larger SUVs would have to pass by, and the tall ride height helps you see over traffic to some extent. But it isn't quite as easy to pilot around town as it might be due to its somewhat restricted outward visibility, which is hampered at the back by small, upward-sweeping rear windows and massive B and C pillars. The A-pillars are also some of the thickest I've yet encountered: they're much more than a hand-width wide and they triangle outward at the base such that you can lose whole cars in the blind spot created up there (if you value outward visibility, you might want to cross-shop Subaru's XV Crosstrek, which utterly schools the Encore in roof pillar design).

On the bright side, the Encore includes a standard back-up camera, so parking is fairly simple regardless of the rearward tunnel vision, and Buick has sorted out the 2015 Encore's structure to provide good scores across the board in IIHS crash testing. This is an improvement over the 2014 model (which scored poorly in the new small-overlap front crash test) and it means the Encore now earns a Top Safety Pick award.

So, those are the basics, and there are no real surprises: despite a few imperfections the Buick Encore is a fun-sized package of friendly functionality. But (and this is a big one) the Buick Encore isn't just about the basics. If you wanted just the basics you'd buy a Chevrolet Trax, at least if price were the key consideration. Or you'd buy a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4 or a Ford Escape if compact SUV functionality was the key consideration.

No, the Buick Encore is about more than the basics, because it's a luxury SUV (entry-level luxury at least), and here its success is less clear.

Inside, the Encore is certainly much nicer than the Trax. It has a soft-skinned dash, soft-skinned door uppers (both front and rear), and cloth-wrapped pillars. Leather upholstery is standard once you move beyond the base "Convenience" trim. There's a Buick IntelliLink infotainment system with seven-inch touchscreen display and OnStar 4G LTE with Wi-Fi hotspot capability. There's ice-blue ambient lighting and classy-looking gauges with glowing red tracers that follow the needle around the dial. There's a standard leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote locks with keyless entry, 18-inch alloy wheels, and cruise control. My test car's Premium trim upgraded the audio to a rich-sounding Bose system, and it came with optional navigation system and a moonroof, plus some flashy-looking chromed alloys that are apparently no longer available.

It all sounds pretty good, and it actually looks pretty good too, at least when taken on its own. But if you happen to step into the Encore after spending a week in a Cadillac ATS like I did, or if you climb aboard after coming straight over from trying out an Audi Q3 or Mercedes-Benz GLA, the Encore's less refined aspects are instantly apparent.

There's a lot of coarsely textured rigid plastic making up the lower panels, and the ebony woodgrain trim in my tester looked entirely unconvincing. The infotainment interface is baffling and tedious to use, with the screen too far away to be useful as a touchscreen (it honestly never occurred to me to try touching it). The more conveniently located rotating controller knob, on the other hand, is a study in frustration. It has a scroll control in the middle, but this is only active in the navigation screen – other screens require you to rotate the outer ring to step through all the available commands in perplexing order. You then have to press the outer ring – an action that requires two fingers – to select a command. The centre console is absolutely festooned with buttons, so locating the all-important Home and Back buttons takes a while at first.

The nitpicks don't stop there, either: The front seat squabs are too short, and I found myself more perched on my seat than actually sitting in it. After two hours on the highway, I was squirming around a fair bit trying to stay comfortable. The seats have partial power with correspondingly partial driver's side memory, but the recline control is manually operated and awkwardly placed. While remote locks may be standard, proximity entry and push-button start aren't available, so you're left wielding an old-school key. I also found that the transmission could be a wee bit jerky on initial takeup and when shifting, and I'm not a big fan of the thumb-operated manual shift control atop the gear lever.

Of course all of this is entirely forgivable if the price is right. At a starting price of $20,780 (including the $1,650 destination fee) no one is going to complain about slightly coarse-looking rigid plastic in the Chevrolet Trax, for example. The Buick Encore, however, is nearly 50 percent more expensive, starting at $29,645 (including $1,750 in destination charges) for the cloth-and-leatherette upholstered front-wheel drive Convenience trim and running up to $36,670 for the Premium AWD model. Add on my test car's $1,895 Experience Buick package with its moonroof and navigation and you're looking at $38,565 (less something like $1,542 worth of available discounts at the time of writing).

This is admittedly still several thousand dollars below the Lexus NX ($43,495 including destination), but it's within spitting distance of the lower-riding Mercedes-Benz GLA ($39,195 with destination) and BMW X1 ($39,085 destination in). It's also a good deal more expensive than slightly larger mainstream vehicles like the Honda CR-V, which starts at $27,785 with destination fees and tops out at $38,391 (destination in) with pretty much all the Encore Premium's luxury features included (navigation, leather seating and a full suite of driver assistance technologies driver, for starters) plus some features the Encore doesn't offer (like push-button start).

The Buick does have the advantage that you won't likely be passing your twin on the road all the time like you would in the CR-V. But starting for about the same money, the BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer equal or better exclusivity. In the final analysis, if you like the small footprint, tall seating position and vaguely cute looks of the Buick, and you value having lots of tech on board, then a well-equipped Encore could make sense (let's face it, the German machines will get a lot more expensive when properly kitted out). But there's much more competition out there now for the compact premium SUV dollar than there was when the Encore was first introduced, so you'll want to do your homework before plunking down your cash.

4 years/80,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 6 years/160,000 km corrosion perforation; 6 years/110,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance

Audi Q3
Chevrolet Trax
Mercedes-Benz GLA
Mini Countryman
Mitsubishi RVR
Nissan Juke
Subaru XV Crosstrek
Volkswagen Tiguan

Model Tested 2015 Buick Encore Premium AWD
Base Price $34,920
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,750
Price as Tested $38,665
Optional Equipment
$1,895 (Experience Buick package)