When the financial crisis struck at the end of the last decade, GM management decided to keep the Buick Division while shutting down Pontiac and Saturn. It was a move that surprised many, to say the least. They reasoned that Buick enjoyed tremendous popularity in China, the world’s biggest automobile market. But since the brand had so few models on the North American market, they needed to come up with a plan to remedy the situation. In early 2013, they added the Verano, a compact sedan that is heavily based on the Chevrolet Cruze but is much more refined.
The same recipe was used for the Encore sub-compact SUV, which falls into a category newly created by the Chevrolet Trax. In fact the trailblazing Trax is the vehicle they based the Encore on. Did they pull off the cloning as well with the Encore as they did with the Verano? Let’s see.
When I tested the Chevrolet Trax, I had been particularly impressed with its elegant body and dashboard. The Encore, however, takes these qualities to new heights. Stylists have long struggled to find the best way to incorporate Buick’s signature waterfall grille, which is so big that it can look cartoonish at times. The proportions on the new Encore are just right, though. And that’s just the beginning of the good news. The striking exterior includes sculpted side panels with a ridge running along the lower section, a plunging roofline, contoured wheel wells and a protective shield on the rear bumper. Then there’s the forward-inclined hatch, rear deflector and a well-proportioned tail lights that sweep onto the vehicle’s sides.
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Naturally, any vehicle claiming to offer above-average luxury absolutely must come with an elegant and carefully assembled interior. But when you derive one model from another, there’s always the risk that they could end up being too similar, particularly the dashboard. Once again, we tip our hats to the Buick stylists who dodged that bullet by creating a unique dashboard specifically for this model. The central display makes all the difference. Plus, there are two glove compartments, the climate control is easy to use, and the driving position should suit most people. The seats are not the best in the category, but they’re not uncomfortable either. The seatback adjustment levers on my test vehicle were hard to reach and use.
We also liked the relatively soft plastic on the dashboard and the above-average quality materials. The rear seats are suitable for average-sized folks, while the cargo space is truly exceptional for a vehicle of this size. (Keep in mind that the Encore is actually quite small – it’s 81 cm, or 32 inches, shorter than the Enclave.)
The trend among new vehicle designers is to use small-displacement engines enhanced with turbochargers. This is exactly what they included in the Chevrolet Trax, and thus it is what we see in the Encore, too. Specifically, it’s the same 1.4L four-cylinder turbo married to the same six-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is available on option. Personally, I find it hard to criticize this approach, which many see as the way of the future. Plus, this engine already has a proven track record and its mechanical architecture and parts are very modern.
The vehicle’s engineers worked hard to soundproof it. The side windows are 20% thicker than the competition’s and a lot of different soundproofing materials were used, including foam in all the nooks and crannies. Bose Active Noise Cancellation is also on the options list (you’ll recognize the brand as the makers of those superb headphones people wear on planes to drown out noise).
A passing grade
When one vehicle is cloned from another, it can often be hard to tell them apart. Fortunately for Buick, this hasn’t been a problem for the Encore (or the Verano, for that matter). Not only are its exterior lines and cabin distinct, the Encore is also more sophisticated than its sibling, as it features better soundproofing, shock absorption and very precise steering.
Thanks to its petite frame, the Encore is nimble in traffic and its handling on windy roads is impressive. Push it on tight corners and it holds without a problem thanks to the fact that its suspension isn’t too soft. This clearly marks a break from Buick’s past, when cushy suspensions were given priority over road handling.
You know what would really boost the Encore’s appeal? Another 20 horses, at least. The Verano’s 180 horses might be too much for this category, but if the Encore had 160, it would have a strong advantage over its competitors. Once it gets going, the Encore does alright, but its accelerations definitely lack pep.
In short, the Encore’s appearance and handling both surprised me – in a good way. Buyers are advised to carry a calculator, however, as it’s easy to end up with a pretty fat bill. Once you go over the $30,000 mark, the equation becomes unbalanced. By way of comparison, a Mazda CX-5 at almost the same price offers the same fuel efficiency, more power and more space.
But there’s no denying that the Buick Encore has a lot to offer.