Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Buick Encore - Seeking Youthful Customers

The Buick Encore is something new for the brand -- a compact crossover, but it is not the first small Buick. Following in the footsteps (wheels?) of the Special from the 1960s, Apollo from the 1970s and Skyhawk from the 1980s, the new small car is a carefully devised strategy to bring down the average age of Buick shoppers from great grandparent levels.

The moniker Encore may be meaningful in that it is part of Buick's attempt at a compact comeback. The name, despite being shared with an ill-fated Renault-based American Motors product from the mid 1980s, also matches well with Enclave, the name of Buick's larger crossover SUV.

The new little Buick is just 168 inches nose to tail, and hits the scales at about 3,200 pounds. It looks stubby, spreading Buick design philosophy on a diminutive canvas. Based on a car made in Korea (from the Daewoo company that GM quietly acquired a number of years ago), it is nothing like any Buick you've seen recently. At least it doesn't resemble a Chevy or a Pontiac, which was a problem for the previous GM compacts that offered a model for each GM division. However, there is a Chevrolet version of this model for sale in Canada, called the Trax. With different styling and equipment, it is not part of the U.S. product portfolio.

The little car kind of grows on you. Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine through a six-speed automatic, it exhibits surprising spunkiness on the road, accelerating uphill on freeways and dashing determinedly around crowded city streets. It's only 138 horsepower under the hood, with 148 lb.-ft. of torque, but with the right gearing, you can get off quickly in first and save gas while cruising with a tall sixth gear. All-wheel drive is available.

EPA fuel economy numbers are 25 City, 33 Highway and 28 Combined. I averaged 25.2 mpg. Green numbers are 6 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas, putting the Encore in the desirable SmartWay category.

The Encore's short length makes parking easier in town, and the high 65-inch stance makes you feel more in control when driving.That's one of the big draws of crossovers -- ride height. Four people will be comfortable in the car, although a center rider in back might not be happy for long.

The other crossover drawing card is carrying capacity, and the little Buick gives you 48 cubic feet of hauling room behind the front seats -- and room for six grocery bags (and my two amplifier bags) behind the second seats when they're up. The second-row rears fold down neatly after you pull up the bottom cushions to provide a nice carpeted load floor. Even the front passenger seat folds, so you can carry that surfboard or ladder. There's lots of storage for small items, too, including two gloveboxes, a small bin to the left of the steering wheel, a console bin, and places in each door.

The styling, inside and out, is definitely aimed at premium buyers, and the materials are actually rather nice. This is a modest vehicle, but the boldly stitched leather steering wheel, carefully fitted metallic accents, attractive yet not overdone gauges, and designer color combinations keep you from feeling like this is some fancied up econo carrier.

One way to make a car feel luxurious is to make it quiet, and Buick specializes in this. Although many Buick owners are likely suffering from natural hearing loss, the younger target market for this vehicle enjoys QuietTuning, which not only keeps noise out but counteracts it with Buick's first application of Bose noise cancelling technology. Microphones in the car detect the wavelength of noise and send the opposite waves to speakers. This is used in headphone techology as well, and seems to work well in the Encore.

Baby Buicks come in the plain but well equipped Encore model, ascending through Convenience, Leather and Premium. My top-level Premium tester, in a handsome Cocoa Silver Metallic, had a Saddle interior with Cocoa accents that mixed warm reds and browns on the seats and doors with matte black in the control areas in a way that seemed well suited to an upscale brand. The wide swaths of plastic artificial wood were easy on the eyes but would seem at home to anyone stepping out of a Buick LeSabre or Electra sedan from days of yore.

As the top-level model, my car had a premium Bose seven-speaker audio system, Rainsense automatic wipers, lane departure warning, and a Forward Collision Warning system. The latter sounded a repeated tone and flashed a message if I appeared to be closing in too fast on a car in front (even if I was driving attentively). One other little warning told me when I left my turn signal on too long; this is surely a Buick feature from the list designed for the elderly, although I did find it useful.

To compete with worthy small crossovers like the hip MINI Countryman, the Encore has lots of electronic goodies, accessible from dash buttons and a seven-inch color display. The home screen's five selections help you zero in on music now playing, navigation, phone, music tone, and other "quick info." It worked pretty well, but the Intellilink, which uses voice commands, didn't always understand me, and phone calls that came in got dropped sometimes.

Of course, there are lots of electronic safety features in this car of today. Blind spot warning is very handy, especially with the fat window pillars, and Stabilitrak keeps the four wheels going where you intend them.

Pricing begins at $24,950 for the Encore and runs up to $28,940 for the Premium. My tester, a front-wheel-drive Premium model with optional chromed 18-inch wheels and navigation system, came to $30,730.

I looked at pricing for the sibling Chevy Trax. If you lived in Canada, using the Canadian dollar (at a .98 exchange rate today), you could take home the Trax LS for $20,000. If you live below the border, though, sorry.

Buick is taking a chance, presenting such a small car to its customers, but the MINI and Fiat brands have pioneered the idea of a premium small hatchback in the U.S., so perhaps the timing is right. I was impressed by the overall comfort and drivability of the little car. Buick's biggest challenge is going to be marketing effectively to the right people to get them to step into a dealership in the first place.


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New for 2012 is an in-dash navigation system with a seven-inch screen with what Buick calls IntelliLink, a system that allows for owners to pair their smartphones into the Regal's interface.
Buick Navigation System

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2016 Buick Cascada
2016 Buick Enclave
2016 Buick Encore
2016 Buick Envision
2016 Buick Grand National
2016 Buick LaCrosse
2016 Buick Regal
2016 Buick Riviera
2016 Buick Verano