Buick's image is so ingrained in the national consciousness that the name has become shorthand for a U.S. road barge with ample proportions. That moose, someone might say, "is as big as a Buick."
But since Buick survived the brand massacre that accompanied General Motors' bankruptcy and reorganization — living on even as Hummer, Pontiac and Saturn were laid to rest — the division and its products have slimmed down and shaped up.
And with its new Encore, Buick is bravely venturing into barely charted terrain at the small end of the utility market, where the mini-Buick, along with the BMW X1 and Mini Countryman, is blazing an upscale trail that other brands will soon follow with their own small-scale, yet upscale, crossovers.
What's as small as this diminutive new Buick? Among crossovers, not much. In overall length, the 2013 Encore is the shortest Buick since the Model 34 runabout of 1912; at 168.5 inches long, the Encore is about 10 inches shorter than a Honda CR-V and 8 inches less than a BMW X1.
Despite the Encore's diminutive size, Buick marketers envision a big opportunity in an emerging market category. They expect annual U.S. sales of submidsize crossovers, including luxury models, to reach 360,000 by 2015.
But while the Encore has carved out its own little corner of the crossover kingdom, even Buick executives have a hard time pinning down the competition. They mention the X1, although that vehicle, the smallest BMW on four wheels, is sportier and more expensive. The target customers are similar to those of the Volkswagen Tiguan, which is a bit larger and less fuel-efficient.
The Encore is about half a foot longer than the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman, but the Juke is more raucous and lacks the Encore's amenities. The Countryman, like the Juke, has a more adventurous design.
Fuel economy is a big part of the sales pitch. The front-drive Encore has a federal rating of 25 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway. The all-wheel-drive version is rated at 23 city and 30 highway. I nearly matched the highway rating on a trip from hilly northern New Hampshire to the flatlands of Springfield, Mass., with the cruise control set at 65.
Still, several compact crossovers that are somewhat larger and heavier manage to get comparable fuel-economy ratings. And somewhat surprisingly, the midsize Subaru Outback, a much larger and heavier car, has a similar mileage rating (24 city/30 highway/26 combined). The Outback's price range is also similar.
The Encore is enjoyable enough to drive, especially given the challenges to ride comfort posed by a relatively short wheelbase and tall body. On smooth pavement, there is no issue, but on rough patches occupants are sometimes subjected to a fair amount of up-and-down jiggling.
The electric power steering is something Buick can brag about; it is tight on center, linear and predictable in the turns. Like most electric steering systems, however, it doesn't convey much road feel to the driver. With its tidy dimensions, the Encore changes direction quickly and demonstrates Buick's newfound commitment to making cars that are satisfying — even if not downright sporty — to drive.
The only engine is a 1.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder rated at 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. This turbocharged motor is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
For a small four-cylinder engine, there wasn't much vibration or noise — and indeed, in normal driving, the power plant doesn't seem so small. But flooring the accelerator produces some undignified noises, and the 3,309-pound all-wheel-drive model goes nowhere fast.
The transmission is smart about choosing the correct gear. Climbing a steep two-lane road, it selected one gear and held it.
A tall sixth gear lets the Encore cruise at 65 mph at a fairly relaxed engine speed of 2,300 rpm.
Although it has been widely reported that the Encore is based on the Chevrolet Sonic economy car, its chief engineer, Jim Danahy, said that was not quite correct. While both cars are part of GM's Gamma platform family, Danahy said there were three different architectures within that family. While the Sonic is built on the Gamma's car architecture, the Encore is based on a small crossover variant.
"The only thing we share between the two vehicles is the front seat frames, the front dash and the engine," he said.
The two vehicles also have their transmission in common.
The Encore continues to follow Buick's philosophy of no noise is good noise. It is surprisingly hushed inside the cozy wagon, helped in part by Buick's first application of active noise cancellation, which counters unwanted ambient sounds by producing "anti-noise" sound waves.
The Encore stuffs a lot into a very short, fairly tall package, and it borrows a few styling cues from the big LaCrosse sedan and Enclave SUV. Still, the proportions could be described as awkward.
The pint-size interior is handsome and plush, at least in the leather-trimmed Premium version that I tested. Still, even with the driver and passenger sitting almost elbow to elbow, the cabin seems open and airy: Headroom is ample, the windows are deep and the windshield is raked forward.
The front seats were comfortable for a three-hour stretch, even for a 6-foot-4 passenger. But it seems incongruous, in what's supposed to be a premium product, to adjust the front seatbacks with a manual lever rather than a power control.
Buick calls the Encore a five-passenger vehicle, but five people could ride comfortably only if those in the rear are tiny or the trip is short. Of course, the Encore is really intended for young couples and for empty-nesters, not for family use.
There is 18.8 cubic feet of space behind the second row of seats, enough for weekly shopping trips or four medium suitcases. You can flip the back seatbacks down to open up a cargo area of 48.4 cubic feet.
Lowering the rear seats flat has unintended consequences, however. The folded seatbacks force the front seats so far forward that I had to sit uncomfortably near the steering wheel — and unsafely close to the air bag.
The Encore's standard safety systems include 10 air bags, with knee bags for the front occupants and thorax bags even for the outer rear seating positions. Electronic crash-avoidance technologies are also offered, although only with Premium trim, the most expensive version: Forward collision alert provides a warning when sensors detect an impending crash, and lane-departure warning sounds an alert if you start to drift out of lane.
Atop the instrument panel there's a 7-inch color display for the IntelliLink voice-activated infotainment system, which integrates audio services like Pandora and Sirius XM Satellite Radio through the Bose Premium sound system. My test car had a navigation system, a $795 option. My editor, who drove a different Encore, reported a 100 percent failure rate when trying to use voice recognition to make calls or set destinations.
The Encore comes in four trim levels with prices for front-wheel-drive models from $24,950 to $28,940; all-wheel drive costs another $1,500. My test model — the top-of-the-line Premium with all-wheel drive and a few options — came to $32,425. The only other options, a sunroof and chromed aluminum wheels, would have pushed the price above $34,000.
The Encore is a bold move from a brand once known for cautious conservatism, and for now it has a niche — small but likely to grow — mostly to itself. As the competition grows, the Buick's relatively high price and comparatively unimpressive mileage may work against it.