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Friday, April 26, 2013

Buick Encore

Taking GM's near-luxury brand into a new market segment, the Buick Encore launched for 2013 is a subcompact luxury crossover that pioneers a niche industry analysts say will grow rapidly during the current decade. Current competitors include the MINI Countryman and the BMW X1, but soon they will be joined by the Audi Q3 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA, both new entrants for their makers.

Europeans have been buying Encores for the past year, but under a different name: Opel Mokka (or in the UK, Vauxhall Mokka). There, the car's small size isn't a drawback but a selling point. But the Encore now gives the Buick range both a very small crossover and a very large one--the big seven-seat Enclave--with a gaping hole in the middle. We suspect that at some point, Buick will add a compact or mid-size crossover to fill the gap.

Buick thinks the Encore will appeal to urban families who want a vehicle that scoots around town, is easily maneuverable, and fits into tight parking spots. At just 169 inches long, with a wheelbase that's just above 100 inches, the Encore has a footprint little larger than those of subcompacts like the Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit, but it is considerably taller. Passengers sit at crossover height, giving good forward visibility and little of the sense of vulnerability that much lower-riding cars of that size can induce.

The Encore's hallmarks are luxury, comfort, and interior appointments. It seats four adults, though the five-seat rating is a stretch, and the Buick Quiet Tuning measures--extra sound deadening, an acoustically treated headliner, and active noise cancellation--make it one of the more peaceful subcompacts you can travel in. Cloth or leatherette seats come in rich, warm colors, and interior trims look and feel luxury-grade for the most part.

With a 138-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine—the same one that's offered in the Cruze and Sonic models—and a suspension that’s tuned for ride quality, and to go along with the Quiet Tuning philosophy, the Encore is by no means be a high-performance machine. But its six-speed automatic transmission, with a tall overdrive gear, returns combined fuel economy figures of about 28 mpg, or 26 mpg if you choose the all-wheel-drive option.

Available features include remote vehicle start, dual-zone climate control, and rain-sensing wipers. Just as in most hatchbacks or crossovers, the rear seats fold down, to make 48.4 cubic feet of cargo space available (or 18.8 cubic feet with them up in place). A few items remind passengers of the Encore's less luxurious origins, including "power seats" where only the bottom portion is powered--the backrest adjustment is done via a standard lever--and the same control stalks as found in a Chevy Sonic that costs little more than half as much.

Safety should be up to the top-tier standards set by recent GM small vehicles like the Buick Verano, Chevrolet Cruze, and Chevy Sonic. The Encore has 10 standard airbags, while forward collision alert, front and rear park assist, and lane departure warning systems are available, along with a rear camera system. No crash-test scores have been reported yet, though.

If you're experiencing a strange sense of deja vu when you hear the name Encore, by the way, that just means you're old enough to recall the Renault Encore sold through much of the 1980s. That was back in the days when the French automaker, which then owned AMC, built the subcompact hatchback in Wisconsin and sold it for several years (along with the related Alliance sedan). With most of those long-gone from U.S. roads, Buick seized the nameplate, so it has now returned for an...encore.

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