Rather than fight head-on against the full complement of excellent compact SUVs around, Buick simply decided to go one size smaller. The five-door Encore doesn't have an aggressive bone in its body, with an upright, curvy body, big guppy eyes and a small chrome Buick grille. Some of the detailing – the blue-ringed HID headlights – works well, while others – the diamond-shaped portholes mounted on the hood – do not. The rear has some of the strangest-shaped taillights going, looking more like boomerangs than anything else. There’s also matte-finish skirting that’s supposed to give a sense of utility, but can look lost with plainer paint shades. All Encores come with 18-inch wheels, although the style varies depending on trim levels.
The cabin is decent, and thankfully doesn't share much with its Chevrolet Trax cousin. The Buick’s is obviously the more expensive with blue-green backlit buttons, dials and other controls. The dark-grey-stained wood trim, which doesn't contrast with the black interior much, is tastefully restrained to a couple minor slivers on the dash and door tops. Other niceties included dual-zone climate control, keyless ignition and auto-down windows, decent equipment for the price. All Encores get a 20-centimetre (seven-inch) display perched on the dash, rear back-up camera, blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic alert, and Bose active noise cancellation, a first for Buick.
Depending on trim level, leather seats that were heated, along with a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, are available, as is a seven-speaker upgraded audio system.
Despite its teeny footprint, the Encore proved plenty spacious, helped by the relatively long wheelbase and equally decent rear legroom. Although technically a five-seater, the Encore’s narrow track – inherited from the Chevy Sonic it’s based on – means you might need to pick thinner friends to fit. That warning is made louder if you use an especially large child safety seat. Width can also be an issue in the cargo area where large plastic bulkheads intrude more into the space than you’d imagine. However, there’s still 533 L of trunk space that’s expandable to nearly 1,400 L with the 60/40 split-folding rear seats lowered.
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All Encores use a turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder with direct gasoline injection, again taken unaltered from the General Motors parts bin. Its modest output – 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque – is helped by its relatively svelte curb weight: 1,447 kg for front-drive models, with AWD adding another 50 kg. The six-speed automatic transmission responds well to throttle input, which helps maximize what little poke there is. Fuel efficiency is top-notch in its class, with NRC ratings of 8.2 L/100 km city and 6.0 highway for front-drive models, and 8.9/6.7 with AWD.
The driving experience itself is pretty good, which if you've driven the latest generation of Buicks shouldn't come as a surprise. Despite its narrow track, pitch and roll are well controlled, but it does still soak up big road imperfections really well for something its size. Credit the expensive twin-tube shock absorbers and the one-tire philosophy: all Encores use the same 215/55R18-sized rubber regardless of trim level, which frees engineers from having to compromise on the final suspension tuning. No issues with torque-steer either, and the variable-effort electric power assist is decently judged, although road-feel and feedback are killed in the name of fuel efficiency. The brakes never complained and are easy to modulate.
The Encore strikes a good balance with its ride height and the wide-opening rear doors mean easier entry-and-exit. But, the side sill isn't quite flat, meaning preschoolers can get caught up a little. Also surprising? Given how sharply the belt-line rises and how tiny the rear three-quarter windows are, visibility out of the back is pretty good. The rear seat is mounted high enough that it manages to stay less claustrophobic than you’d imagine.
Given Buick shooting for near-premium positioning, the closest competitor to its subcompact Encore is the equally small Mini Countryman, which – in theory – is mechanically similar but a completely different experience to own and drive. The existing BMW X1 and upcoming Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLA will offer their entry-level luxury SUVs, sized in the same ballpark, but whose performance and prestige will leave the Buick for dead. But we’d guess transaction prices on the three German machines will be far above even the absolute maximum you’d ever pay for an Encore.
The Encore is a perfect example of a machine that’s more impressive to drive than it is on paper… Sure, the power might be limited, and some of the touches might not be to everyone’s fancy, but the big gripes are few and far between. The narrow body helps navigate congested city streets, it’s well equipped and won’t kill the pocketbook either at the gas pump or to insure. Buick’s efforts towards making the little SUV seriously quiet – extra deadening materials, closing unibody gaps and thicker windows – means you won’t feel penalized or beat up on long road trips.
+ Typically quiet and refined Buick
+ Excellent economy
+ More spacious than you’d guess
- Perhaps a bit more power?
- Lots and lots of buttons
- Narrow cabin and cargo area could impinge passengers
Fuel Economy: 4
Exterior Styling: 3
The driving experience itself is pretty good, which if you've driven the latest generation of Buicks shouldn't come as a surprise.
See 2014 Buick Encore listings on autoTRADER.ca.