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April 23, 2013 > Auto Review: Buick Encore: seeking youthful customers

Auto Review: Buick Encore: seeking youthful customers

By Steve Schaefer

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, this new small car is a carefully devised strategy to reduce the average age of Buick shoppers.

The new little Buick is just 168 inches nose to tail, and weighs about 3,200 pounds. Based on a car made in Korea (by the Daewoo company that GM quietly acquired a number of years ago), it is nothing like any Buick you've seen recently.

Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine through a six-speed automatic, Encore exhibits surprising spunkiness, accelerating uphill on freeways and dashing determinedly around crowded city streets. There are only 138 horses under the hood, with 148 lb.-ft. of torque, but with the right gearing, you 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 25.4 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. Four people will be comfortable in the car, although a center rider in back might not be happy for long.

The little Buick gives you 48 cubic feet of hauling room behind the front seats - and room for six grocery bags (or 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 glove boxes, a small bin to the left of the steering wheel, a console bin, and two cubbies in each door.

Styling, inside and out, is definitely aimed at premium buyers, and materials are rather nice. The boldly stitched leather steering wheel, carefully fitted metallic accents, attractive gauges, and designer color combinations keep the mood lavish.

One way to make a car feel luxurious is to make it quiet, a Buick specialty. The brand's QuietTuning 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.

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 resemble a 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.

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." However, the Intellilink system, which uses voice commands, didn't always understand me, and incoming phone calls sometimes got dropped.

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.

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. The biggest challenge is going to be getting prospects to step into a Buick dealership in the first place.

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