2014 Buick Encore: GM Beats Lexus To The Punch, With A Great Mini-RX

February 28

The 2014 Buick Encore is the kind of small car that your mom would probably like to drive.

Why? Because with tidy proportions, easy entry and exit, a responsive-but-light driving experience, a super-quiet interior, and tech features that are present but not in the forefront, this is a car that—for all of the inherent compromises, flowcharting, clinics, and project management that must have gone into its conception—feels like a natural.

By that, we mean that it's a least-common-denominator small car that doesn't always feel like a small car, and a utility vehicle that's not at all intimidating. There's not much of a learning curve to feeling comfortable in the Encore, as new and different as the presentation might be. You simply slide behind the wheel and it feels like what you're driving is... a baby Lexus RX.

That's right; both initially, and after spending a week with the Encore, I emerged convinced that GM has delivered a great mini-Lexus RX—before Lexus has.

That's big-time flattery, not a put-down at all. Lexus' luxury crossover revolutionized the utility-vehicle landscape when it was introduced 15 years ago, showing that there was a place for a softer, more carlike alternative to luxury truck-based SUVs. We appreciate how all along the RX has never pushed a rugged, faux-outdoorsy agenda—instead emphasizing what's inside, and function always slightly prioritized over form.

Probably best seen from the inside out

Just like the Lexus RX—and many of the most successful crossovers—the Encore throws down its best game from the inside out, offering a lot of space, as well as a great, upright driving position, and easy entry and exit. But in this case, this all happens in a footprint that's about the size of a subcompact car—not the RX's mid-size footprint.

The Encore is far shorter than Buick's current compact sedans, the Verano or the Regal—as well as compact models farther in Buick's past, like the Skyhawk or the Reatta. This “premium subcompact crossover vehicle,” as GM puts it, was developed at the same time as the Sonic, and it's hard not to see it as a certain kind of tall-wagon companion to the Sonic—much in the same way that the Pontiac Vibe and its Toyota Matrix twin were tall-wagon companions to the Corolla. But here, premium in presentation.

Still, with a neighbor on the block commuting daily in a 2007 Pontiac Vibe, we couldn't help but gauge these two GM efforts alongside each other. The two cars are about the same width, while the Vibe is about three inches longer yet about three inches shorter in overall height than the Encore—and it's interesting to see that the seating in the Vibe is a bit lower.

These proportions of course are far from flattering for the Encore's figure. This is a vehicle that appears tall, bulbous, and even a bit malformed from some angles. But stylists have done good in sculpting the sheetmetal and giving it some life. We like the curvaceous 'Coke bottle' sides, especially near the back, but to us it looks like Buick took a mid-size version of their grille and applied it to this small car; furthermore, it's time for the tacky 'Ventiports' to go; they might work in some larger sedans, Buick, but not here.

Downsized under the hood, too—but you wouldn't know it

What's under the hood is a 138-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It's all a bit surprising, as it feels relatively perky, like a larger 2.2- or 2.4-liter engine from the driver's seat (the peak torque from 2,000 to 5,000 rpm is the key to that). The generally smooth-shifting six-speed automatic does its job quite well, and manual control is there when you need it.

The Encore handles and responds in a way that feels like it was tuned not for discerning drivers but for those who want a car to feel responsive but don't actually want to know what's going on dynamically. The steering wheel feels numb, no matter how much you load up the steering, although the weighting does build nicely and return nicely back to center. Push harder, and rubbery transitions, a lot more body motion, and squealing tires will remind you to slow down and put on some tunes.

There's definitely a bit of hesitation when we were cruising at 45 mph on an extended ramp and wanted to make a quick blast up to speed; it wasn't clear whether the issue was turbo lag or transmission hesitation, but the power does kick in confidently after a moment.

The powertrain, which feels very lively up to about 60 or 65 mph, starts to feel more winded (although never actually short on power) above those speeds. Only above 4,500 rpm do you clearly hear the engine's raspy note—but even there it's the sort of thing that doesn't take over the cabin if you have the sound system cranked up.

Rides like a bigger vehicle

Ride quality is superb in the Encore, and engineers have done a great job making this feel sophisticated and larger from the inside. Short-wheelbase vehicles like this can often be pitchy from the inside on rough surfaces, but the Encore's suspension soaks it all up, without any wallowing or extra motion—and road noise is blanketed out. Outward visibility isn't perfect in back, but you do have a good camera view, and visibility out ahead and beside is great through the extended front windows and side mirrors that are mounted aft of the windshield pillars.

GM's Intellilink screen-based system atop the dash is one of the easiest systems to understand quickly, with intuitive menus and connectivity that just works. Just over Bluetooth, without plugging in to the USB port, we were able to launch the Pandora app on my iPhone, press the source button, and almost instantly have streamed music, including track information and album art.

We did, however have a few nitpicks. One of them pertains to the sear of buttons on the dash, for the sound system; in a tactile sense, they're more Chromebook than MacBook Air, and as a central touch point they could be more satisfying. Likewise, the central toggle controller could be a lot better, as you toggle around the screen with a creaky directional system and then select with an outer plasticky chrome ring.

A comfort zone

In front, the seats are nice and supportive—without lateral support, but that matches the purpose. You get an armrest, and a useful center console (with covered bin), as well as lots of extra bins for smaller items. The back of the passenger seat has a hard back, to accommodate longer items and avoid gouging leather in the process.

The rear bench is surprisingly short and hard, and feels like a compromise made for seat-folding. Those seats do fold down to a nice, low cargo floor, by the way.

We had repeated issues with passengers (and myself, once or twice) closing doors all week. And as an odd side note, the Encore's doorsills relieved themselves onto my shoes after we'd been parked in the rain and pulled open the driver's door—which altogether made me wonder if this is a model that was (as it was) designed for other markets initially, then fitted with different/tighter door seals?

One other 'lack of synergy:' The heated steering wheel remembered that we had it on, while we needed to turn the heated seats back on every time (this might be menu-configurable, but we couldn't find it).

Better on fuel, lower in price... and tough to compare

EPA ratings for this model post at 25 mpg city, 33 highway. We didn't quite see that, but we averaged more than 23 mpg during the week and 115 miles that we had it—nearly all short trips around town—so we find that very impressive; it's at least 4 mpg better than what we would have seen in a non-hybrid RX. And the Encore uses regular-grade gas.

It's quite a bit lower than you might think in price, as well. While the 2014 Encore is available with all-wheel drive, the 2014 Encore we drove was a front-drive Premium Group one, including Bose audio, parking sensors, lane-departure warning, and forward collision alert, and optioned with Intellilink and navigation, for a total, bottom-line price of $30,685.

Interestingly, the Encore is the vehicle with the most Chinese content (17 percent), and it has 53 percent Korean content according to federal figures.

It's still hard to pinpoint what the Encore competes with in the U.S. You might put it up against the BMW X1 (or the upcoming Audi Q3), but both of those are (or will be) priced significantly higher, especially after adding options. Then there are the tech-loaded versions of the Ford Focus, Mazda 3, as well as well-optioned compact crossovers that are a step up in size, like the Ford Escape, Mazda CX-5, and Hyundai Tucson.

'Quiet tuning,' indeed

Against any of these other possibilities, the key difference is that the Encore is probably about as close as you'll get to an isolation chamber in a small car; it keeps the noises of the road, the wind, and the powertrain far off in the distance, and lets you concentrate on your passengers—or your own entertainment or thoughts. Or the driving, maybe?

For anyone who wants a responsive, pleasant-driving vehicle that rides well and is super-quiet, the 2014 Buick Encore delivers—well, again, about as well as a Lexus RX, but scaled down. While those of us who like to drive might find that it's too far removed, we can see how those who want a small car and no-fuss experience will find this a very, very pleasant way to downsize.

(c) 2014, High Gear Media.

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