2013 Buick Encore Road Test Review
Buick builds a compact crossover for empty nesters and other active Boomers
Scores High: Ride quality, handling, interior storage
Scores Low: Styling, power delivery, instrument function
Total Car Score Analysis
The 2013 Buick Encore is a new kind of vehicle for Buick: a luxury compact crossover. Plenty of car makers offer luxury utility vehicles; even more sell compact crossovers. The five-seat Encore bridges the space between those two segments. It delivers the functionality you expect from a small crossover: high seating position, traffic-friendly dimensions, folding seats to accommodate cargo and the availability of all-wheel drive. But it’s also a Buick through and through, with the brand’s trademark waterfall grille, portholes on the hood, premium interior appointments and comfort-tuned ride.
Buick sees the Encore as appealing to a couple of distinct market niches. One is the Baby Boomer generation, especially those who find themselves with empty nests and time on their hands to indulge in active lifestyles. With no kids to tote around, they don’t need a fullsize vehicle anymore, but their kayaks, bikes or other gear makes a crossover like the Encore attractive. Likewise, Buick sees a market for the Encore in young, affluent couples (and young families) who may not need a fullsize utility vehicle, but who appreciate a higher level of quality and amenities. These buyers are also open-minded enough to consider a vehicle from a brand that, well, tends to skew a little older.
Does the Encore deliver on this promise of upscale compact utility? Yes and no. In some aspects – especially ride and handling – the vehicle is spot-on. In other areas – power delivery, styling and the execution of some of its in-cab features – the Encore misses the bull’s eye. We think the concept of a compact luxury crossover has legs, but some improvements would bring the Encore closer to realizing that promise in full.
The 2013 Buick Encore’s proportions are tidy, as it sits on a 100.6-inch wheelbase and is just 168.5 inches long overall, smaller than just about every compact crossover on the market. Its beltline sweeps up front to rear, lending a feel of motion to the car, but also squeezing the greenhouse a bit in back, which affects rearward visibility. Coves in its flanks give it an athletic look, accentuating the flared fenders over its 18-inch wheels.
Buick’s stylists would have been wise to limit the Encore’s styling elements to those few strong body lines, letting the small CUV express its upscale intent through an understated, less-is-more approach. Instead, they added what to our eyes is a mish-mash of styling elements that don’t work together. Portholes are a Buick trademark, for example, but the faux holes stuck on the Encore’s hood look, well, tacked on. There’s no cohesion to the lower panels, which are painted a contrasting color (but shouldn’t be). The foglight surrounds in the front bumper are too complex, and the fake skid-plate-like trim piece in the rear bumper just left us scratching our heads. Painting the Encore all one color and simplifying many of these elements would go a long way in making it look like the premium vehicle it wants to be.
Buick’s chassis engineers spent a long time optimizing the Encore’s ride quality, and it shows. The suspension components themselves are rudimentary – MacPherson struts in front, a twist-beam axle in back – but those pieces are installed in a stiff body structure that makes the Encore feel incredibly solid on the road, as if it were a much bigger vehicle. The springs and dampers are tuned to achieve an excellent balance, sort of a firm compliance (if you can imagine such a thing). Potholes, railroad tracks and other road surface irregularities don’t upset the Encore’s smooth ride, yet the overall feel is pleasantly firm. The Encore is no sports car on curvy roads, yet body roll is minimal for such a tall vehicle, and steering feel is precise and properly weighted.
One factor that helped Buick’s engineers optimize the Encore’s ride and handling was their “one tire” philosophy. Bucking the trend towards multiple tire and wheel choices, the Encore is offered with just one tire, a Continental ContiProContact size P215/55R18, mounted on an 18-inch alloy wheel that’s either painted or plated. Having just one tire to tune the suspension around minimized all kinds of variables, from contact patch size and sidewall flex to tread noise. While we wonder how buyers will react to this lack of choice, the appealing results in terms of ride quality speak for themselves.
The Encore’s powertrain, on the other hand, is a disappointment. Buick chose to go small with the Encore’s engine, giving it GM’s 1.4-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine that makes 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The small engine looks good on paper, especially when considering its fuel economy ratings -- 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined for front-wheel-drive versions, 23/30/26 for all-wheel-drive models.
We doubt, though, that Encore owners will see those kinds of numbers. The little engine has to work too hard to motivate the 3,190-pound CUV. Plan on taking 11 to 12 seconds to get to 60 mph, and that’s on a flat road with just two people inside and no gear. Put two couples and their bags in the Encore for a weekend getaway and the motor will be struggling. All-wheel-drive models feel even slower, due in part to the 200 pounds of additional weight the drive system adds to the vehicle.
Mated to the engine is a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode to help you get the most from the motor (it’ll even blip the throttle between downshifts). The standard drivetrain powers the front wheels; the optional AWD system is an on-demand type with a magnetic torque transfer device fitted to the rear differential. It’ll connect the driveshaft on an as-needed basis for up to a 50/50 torque split. Buick also engineered the AWD system with what it calls pre-emptive torque: AWD is engaged when the Encore accelerates from a stop and stays engaged until it reaches 37 mph, so that at launch there will be smooth, uninterrupted torque delivery no matter what the road conditions are. After 37 mph it will either disengage if it’s not needed or continue to transfer torque rearward if slippage is sensed.
Interior Design and Function
For the most part the Buick Encore’s cabin is a pleasant place to be. Considering the Encore is such a small vehicle Buick’s designers have maximized interior space, so just about everyone (save the middle passenger in the back seat) will have enough head, leg and elbow room. The instrument panel is effectively laid out, with round, simple gauges flanking a vehicle information center that offers data on tire pressure, fuel economy, and other functions. Those gauges, though, need a facelift. There’s not enough contrast between the small, gray numbers and the black dial face, making it hard to scan the gauges at a glance.
The center stack is topped by a 7-inch color display screen for the standard Buick IntelliLink infotainment system. It also serves as the monitor for the standard backup camera and the display for the optional navigation system. Note that we said “display screen,” not “touch-screen.” The controls for climate, audio and other systems are in the stack below the air vents. The climate controls are fairly straightforward -- automatic dual-zone climate control is an option -- but the audio and nav buttons and dials aren’t as intuitive as they should be.
The Encore’s interior has a premium look to it, and all the switch gear and buttons deliver the proper upmarket tactile feedback. The “soft touch” material on the top of the dash should feel less like hard plastic, though. And while the seats could be more supportive, the optional leather upholstery is rich and supple.
Buick’s interior designers incorporated plenty of storage options in the Encore’s cabin -- bins and cubbies are just about everywhere. For bigger cargo items, the rear seats fold flat to offer nearly 50 cubic feet of space. The front passenger seat folds flat, too, for moving something long like a rug or a ladder.
To help quiet the Encore’s cabin, Buick worked with Bose to develop an Active Noise Cancellation system that uses ceiling-mounted microphones to detect noise, and a computer to emit counter-acting sound waves through the Encore’s audio speakers. For the most part the system works, though we heard more road noise and rumble coming from the tires than we expected.
Primary Features and Options
When it goes on sale in February, the 2013 Buick Encore will be available in four trim levels: base, Convenience, Leather and Premium models. All Encores roll on 18-inch wheels and feature standard equipment that includes projector-beam headlamps, Buick’s IntelliLink infotainment system, a 7-inch color display screen, backup camera, Bluetooth connectivity and streaming, Ice Blue ambient interior lighting, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3/satellite audio system with USB and auxiliary jacks. The Convenience equipment group adds automatic dual-zone climate control, fog lamps and a remote vehicle starter system; the Leather group brings leather upholstery, a driver’s seat and mirror memory system, heated front seats and steering wheel and power adjusters for the front passenger seat; the Premium group includes a Bose 7-speaker audio system, forward collision alert, front and rear park assist and lane departure warning. Major stand-alone options include a power sunroof, chrome wheels and the premium audio system.
It’s Perfect For…
Perfect the Buick Encore is not. Not yet, anyway. Buick has the right idea in providing an American alternative to European premium compact crossovers like the BMW X1, Volkswagen Tiguan (and Audi Q3 when it arrives), or even the Mini Countryman. But to play in this arena, the Encore needs some work. More power is a must, maybe in the form of a second engine option. And Buick’s stylists need to tone down the body add-ons and simplify the paint schemes for a classier, more understated look. The 2013 Buick Encore already has among the best chassis and suspension tuning in the segment; let’s hope a refresh comes soon to address its other issues.
Vehicle Tested: 2013 Buick Encore 1SN (Premium Group FWD)
Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $28,940
Options on Test Vehicle: Power tilt-sliding sunroof ($800), chromed aluminum wheels ($995), destination charge ($750)
MSRP of Test Vehicle (including destination charge): $31,530
The manufacturer provided Total Car Score this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Photos Courtesy of the manufacturer (with additional photography from Total Car Score).