Buick says its new Encore small crossover is in a class of its own. A dozen or so automakers may beg to differ.
This is because it?s being billed as a luxury crossover, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a super quiet and smooth ride, and all kinds of stuff to covet, both standard and optional.
There are other small, luxury crossovers on the market, but they?re way more expensive: the BMW X1 is the most obvious, but it starts at $36,900. The base Encore comes in at $10,000 less. Even if you tick off every box of the most costly edition, you?ll pay less than $35,000. Is that expensive enough to be called ?luxury??
Buick thinks so, but then Buick is working hard to pull in new buyers after decades of being ?the doctor?s car? ? more costly, comfortable and capable than a Chevy, but not as in-your-face as a Cadillac. The kind of vehicle you?d want your doctor to drive.
Buick also has a reputation for being a tarted-up Chevy, and it?s true that the Encore is built on the same platform as the new Chevrolet Trax. The 1.4 L turbocharged engine is the same, too, and, like the Trax, it?s just big enough to do the job but not much else.
This small power plant is because Buick is more concerned about fuel consumption than performance, and its claim of 7.2 L/100 km for the front-wheel-drive version of the Encore backs up this decision. The all-wheel-drive version consumes an extra half-litre over the same distance.
There?s nothing wrong with Chevy, though, and if you want to pay a bit more to get a more comfortable ride, why not?
So what do you get for the money? A very quiet ride, for one thing. The doors are triple-sealed and the windshield is made from acoustically-laminated glass, which muffles the noise of the wind. The thrum of the engine is also tempered by ?active noise cancellation,? in which three microphones inside the cabin pick up some of the sound waves from the motor and cancel them with opposite sound waves through the car?s speakers.
This system was designed for Buick by Bose, which applies similar technology to headphones to cancel out aircraft noise for flight passengers. Does it work? I don?t know ? it did in a static demonstration, but the system cannot be switched off in the Encore, so there?s no ?before and after.? But there wasn?t much engine noise, either.
The seats for my drive through the Georgia countryside were comfortable and inviting, and, like all crossovers, they?re placed higher up than in a sedan so the driver gets a clearer sightline through traffic. But you need to pay about $3,000 extra for the upgraded package if you want the leather seats that coddled me, and the rear-view camera and heated steering wheel.
It?s also an extra $1,950 if you want all-wheel drive, which is a clever system that engages all four wheels every time you set out from a stop.
Unlike other systems that begin with two-wheel drive and activate the second pair if the computer senses slip, the Encore system just assumes there?ll be slip and gives maximum grip from a standstill without being asked. If none of the tires have slipped by about 5 km/h, it?ll gradually back off the ratio all the way up to about 60 km/h, at which point it will be in full front-wheel drive.
This is good for fast starts, but this is not a fast vehicle. Like the Trax, it works its way up to highway speed and doesn?t like to overtake in a hurry. It also doesn?t like to drop down gears when you stamp on the gas, although it?ll get around to it eventually.
The six-speed automatic transmission can be placed in manual mode and the Encore will shift more quickly if you flip a toggle switch back and forth that?s on top of the lever. However, when the lever?s pulled back for this, the driver?s hand will be almost in line with the driver?s torso, so it?s awkward to say the least. It?s best to relax and just enjoy the ride.
The driver?s right arm will be comfortable, laying on a wide armrest; the passenger?s left arm will not, because there is no armrest for that seat. Apparently, there just wasn?t quite enough room for two armrests alongside each other that would be suitably wide, especially once the seats are in place that are suitably wide for Americans.
Canada, unfortunately, is losing out to American demands, just as we?re losing out on price. What else is new?
The Encore is built in South Korea and shipped to North America, where Canadians are asked to pay $26,895, while U.S. buyers have a list price of $25,010 for the same car, even though our currencies are close to par.
If you want AWD, Americans pay an extra $1,500 while we pay an extra $1,950. Even the Destination charge gives us the shaft, at $750 south of the border but $1,500 up here. So much for free trade.
In fact, U.S. buyers can purchase a cheaper version that won?t be sold here, which eliminates such perks as dual-zone climate control, fog lights and remote start.
But then, Americans don?t get the cheaper Trax that Canada and most of the world now have in showrooms. The Encore is deemed too small to be a big-volume seller in the U.S., where buyers still prefer larger vehicles such as the Enclave, but it should be popular in compact-loving Canada.
Buick spokespeople shrug when they?re asked to identify the Encore?s competition, although press a bit and they?ll say Mini Countryman or Volkswagen Tiguan. There?s no denying the reference to the slightly more expensive VW; in fact, while parked outside a rural gas station, a local woman walked up and asked if the fancy car was ?some new Volkswagen.?
The European VW is tuned for better handling on curving roads, but the quieter Buick is tuned for ?good enough? handling. It gets around the corners without tipping, and without too much protest from its specially designed tires. It?s just getting it up to speed that?s the issue.
None of this will be a concern for Buick?s target market, which are empty nesters who no longer need to lug the family around and younger singles who don?t yet have any family to ferry.
Both want a car that?s good on gas and serves up some comfortable style, so both should look at the Encore when it arrives in showrooms in February.
2013 Buick Encore
PRICE: $26,895 to $32,505
ENGINE: 1.4 L four-cylinder turbo
POWER/TORQUE: 138 hp/148 lb.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: (claimed) FWD: 8.2 city, 6.0 hwy.; AWD: 8.7 city, 6.3 hwy.
COMPETITION: VW Tiguan, Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke
WHAT?S BEST: Quiet and smooth ride, elegant and well-finished styling, plenty of intelligent cubbies and storage.
WHAT?S WORST: More expensive in Canada than the U.S.; underpowered for ?spirited? driving.
WHAT?S INTERESTING: It may be a domestic brand, but the North American-bound Encore is built in Bupyeong, South Korea.