Thursday, December 18, 2014

Full Test: Buick Encore

Photo courtesy of Buick.

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Blog Contributing Editor

When Buick introduced the Encore for the 2013 model year, I had my doubts. In the North American market, it doesn’t really compete with anything. It is virtually identical to the European Opel Mokka, which is not an expensive coffee drink, but rather a subcompact CUV. Built in South Korea, the Encore shows the global product reach of General Motors today.

With one full year of Encore sales in the books, the little Buick has shattered sales expectations. Over 30,000 units found homes in the U.S., where analysts predicted sales in the 14-18,000 range. What’s so appealing about the Encore? In an extended test drive, we tried to find out.

Among other vehicles on sale in the U.S., the Encore’s size is probably closest to the MINI Cooper Countryman. The MINI is dimensionally quite similar other than being about 7 inches shorter in length and a couple inches lower. The two vehicles are also very similar in weight.

The similarities pretty much end there. The Encore is not offered with the high degree of customization that comes with the MINI, but it holds the line much closer on price, too. Starting around $24,000 and maxing out near $32,000, the base Encore is undercut in price by the base Countryman ($22,000), but the Countryman maxes out north of $44,000 with the John Cooper Works package.

The Encore is a small vehicle that drives big. Other than the powertrain, it’s easy to forget the Encore’s tidy exterior once you start driving. It feels more like a midsize vehicle behind the wheel. Contributing factors to this include the comfortable ride, higher seating position and reasonably well-muted wind and road noise.

The Buick’s 6-speed automatic is coupled to GM’s 1.4L turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder, (same engine as the Cruze) putting out 140hp and 148lb-ft of torque, with peak torque available at 1850rpm. This flat torque curves makes the engine feel larger than its size in around-town and low-effort driving. It’s only when you wring it out, that it feels like a tiny 4-cylinder—flooring the Encore brings more noise, but not much more power. This is largely unnecessary unless you’re passing someone on the freeway or a two lane road. In those scenarios, the reserve power isn’t there, but you really shouldn’t expect it. The automatic works unobtrusively, and is rarely caught in the wrong gear. Because of the sufficient low-end torque, there is rarely a lugging sensation while accelerating.

Handling is competent. While there is a fair bit of body roll, the Encore doesn’t pitch and buck like some softly-sprung vehicles do under braking or through a sweeping corner. The 18-inch alloys are wrapped in 215-55-R18 Continental ContiProContact tires, which balance ride quality with handling competently. While I don’t see why such a small vehicle needs 18-inch wheels, as a smaller diameter wheel with a taller sidewall tire would be beneficial for both the ride and fuel economy (reduced weight), two important factors for the car as a Buick and as an economy crossover, the larger wheels are in vogue and they don’t noticeably detract from the driving experience.

The interior is a pretty nice place to spend time. The seats in our test were cloth with vinyl trim along the bolster. They have reasonable support, though the seatbacks are a bit flat. The dash and door materials are mostly soft touch, which lend a feeling of quality. The backseat is reasonably comfortable given the small size of the Encore. I didn’t love the layout of the center stack. There are really too many buttons all grouped together rather than nicely organized into functional sections. Over time, I learned how to use it, but it trails systems like Chrysler’s Uconnect or Toyota’s newer Entune system (in the 4Runner, as we previously reviewed, not the Camry) for usability. The climate controls, however, were extremely clear and easy to use. Two knobs, directional vent buttons, A/C, and defrost. I did like the blue-green backlighting that outlined the stack and visually divided the convenient two-level glove box.

My only other issue was with the steering wheel controls. The ‘SRC’/<> button, short for “source,” functions differently than most other cars. In the Buick, it seems that it will only switch between preset radio stations—not seek through either the radio dial or the full list of XM stations as most do. The ‘SRC’ part of the button changes the band or toggles to the auxiliary device, functioning as expected. On older GM cars, the ‘Mode’ button did the same thing. The Bluetooth and cruise control are both easy to use, with good sound clarity for phone calls.

Over several weeks, the Encore averaged about 30mpg. Gas mileage in mixed suburban use seemed better than on the freeway. On an extended interstate drive, driving 75-80mph, it dropped into the mid 20s. It’s worth noting that I was driving into a headwind for most of the drive. The headwind also showed the Buick’s tendency to dance around a bit at highway speeds. I had to pay closer attention and make little steering corrections frequently. This can likely be attributed to the Encore’s higher profile combined with its relatively light curb weight. On the return trip, in UpShift’s long-term GMC Acadia (more on that later), I immediately noticed how much less effort it took to keep the car pointed straight down the road.

The Encore has been a pleasant surprise for many in the industry, including Buick itself. The efficient interior packaging, competitive fuel economy, and low entry-price are certainly factors that have contributed to this success.