The 2014 Buick Encore enters its second year with few changes from the small, tall subcompact crossover utility vehicle that debuted last year. The Encore occupies a niche of one: not only is it one of the few subcompact crossovers, but it’s officially dubbed a “premium” vehicle–meaning while it may be small, it can run you more than $30,000 when nicely equipped.
That makes finding competitors a bit of a challenge. We doubt that most BMW X1 buyers will cross-shop the 2014 Encore, and the same likely applies to those looking at the MINI Countryman or Fiat 500L. While all those vehicles are tall wagons that aim for good gas mileage in a practical, city-friendly size, the Buick is alone in its attempts to be luxurious in a more traditional way. All but the Fiat offer all-wheel drive, incidentally, though it’s for good traction in bad weather, not off-roading or even rougher country tracks where you find cars like Subarus or Jeeps.
The Buick Encore shares some underpinnings and parts with the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact, but you’d never know it inside or out. To convey a tougher look that disguises its tall boxy shape, the front end is steeply raked, it rides on huge 18-inch wheels, and the body sculpting may appear to some as if it’s simply trying too hard.
Inside, the cockpits of our test cars were either trimmed in all-black materials or a multi-tone palette of cocoa-colored leather and two-tone brown trim that lend a jazzy buzz. There are other color combos too. Befitting the near-luxury Buick brand, the cabin is relatively quiet–though not entirely hushed, since some wind and tire noise still comes through. Active noise cancellation does keep engine roar mostly muted, however.
There’s currently just one engine and transmission combination, the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine from the Sonic mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. (All-wheel drive is optional.) But the Encore verges on 3,200 pounds, which is a lot of mass to move with just 138 horsepower. Even without the added weight of optional all-wheel drive, the 0-to-60-mph run takes around 9 seconds, and if you add the extra weight to drive all the wheels, you’ll take 10 seconds and learn to plan your on-ramps and merges well ahead of time.
Handling is as good as you’ll get in a tall, heavy wagon with a short wheelbase. All-wheel drive models seem to ride more smoothly than front-drivers, perhaps due to the added weight down low.
Accommodations are good in some dimensions–height, particularly–and tighter in others. The Encore is a narrow vehicle, so front-seat passengers can touch elbows occasionally. Its real forte is the flexible interior configuration: The back seat flips and folds down, and even the front passenger seat can fold too. That makes it far more useful as a small hatchback than you might expect from the premium trappings, adding some Honda Fit flexibility to the Buick Verano compact luxury overtones.
Safety and equipment are where the Encore’s pricetag starts to make more sense. The base vehicle is around $25,000, on top of which you can add leather seats, all-wheel drive, a premium Bose audio system, and safety options like lane-departure and forward-collision-warning systems. And all models come standard with 10 airbags, a rearview camera, and the ability to run selected smartphone apps via Bluetooth. A loaded Encore comes in at around $33,000–less than the BMW X1, but a level that Buick believes puts the Encore within reach of its audience.
Buyers who want a small but luxurious car that mixes elements of hatchback and crossover, and offers all-wheel drive may find the Encore one of the few options on the market. While sales are nowhere near that of Buick’s mainstay larger Enclave crossover or LaCrosse sedan, the little Encore takes the brand to a new and younger audience–and may prove to have pioneered a new market segment.