The name Encore implies there was a first performance, but not from Buick, not in this type of car and, for that matter, not from anybody in North America, either.
I'd prefer to call the 2013 Buick Encore not the second replay of an entertaining show, but rather a harbinger of small crossover wagons to come in Canada and the United States. They've had these little rigs bouncing around the cobblestones of crowded, old European cities for some time. With ever-tougher fuel economy regulations coming our way, it was only a matter of time until we saw them here.
That time is now. The Encore, like its cousin the Chevrolet Trax, is a wee hatchback with four doors, a tall stance and a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-banger (138 horsepower/148 lb-ft of torque). How small is it? Well, it's bigger than a breadbox, but it's not easy for two fellows about my size (six-feet, 200 pounds) to avoid riding elbow-to-elbow in the front seat. No wonder the Buick people in Canada expect 60 per cent of buyers to be women without children, age 30-35. To avoid the elbow rubbing, they'll need to be more Kristen Wiig than Melissa McCarthy.
As urban runabouts go, the Encore makes perfect sense on paper. In a pinch, it will hold five for a quick run to the club or work, but those in the back seat will be – well, pinched. The ride will be quiet, though; Buick has this process called QuietTuning and it involves a long list of ways to shut out the noise – including lots of sound-deadening material along with electronic noise cancellation. It works. The Encore rides clean from irritating road and wind noise.
This toy-sized car also has big 18-inch wheels, 10 airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, all sorts of electronic safety nannies (StabiliTrak, Panic Brake Assist and more), Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, a seven-inch colour display to manage the sound system and so on. That's just a taste of the basic stuff that's standard for $26,895 on the front-drive Encore. If you want to swap for a better sound system, navigation, a sunroof, lane departure warning, chrome wheels or other goodies, you can drive the price to $34,455. Did I mention all-wheel-drive? That's available, too.
GM types seem convinced that in Canada the Encore might compete with the Volkswagen Tiguan, Hyundai Tucson or Kia Sportage. Perhaps. But not as I see it. And making that sort of comparison doesn't really tell the story of what's happening with the Encore, the Trax, the upcoming production version of Honda's Urban SUV Concept and others that mimic what the Europeans have long seen in the likes of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and, oh, perhaps Audi's A2 and Volvo V40, too.
These are all cars, not crossovers. Cars with a big hatchback opening at the rear and all manner of features. No strippers allowed. They are designed for the urban dweller who has absolutely no interest in traipsing around the back country where logs and gravel and mud and muck might dirty the pretty sheet metal. In a pinch, you could take the Encore to a cottage or a ski cabin, but the highway is not where this little runabout runs about happiest.
It's the same story for the Trax, which is also built in Korea by GM's subsidiary, and the upcoming Honda Urban Crossover. The Honda will be assembled in Mexico and is based on the Honda Fit hatchback. All of these, including the Fiat 500L high-roof hatchback and its cousin, the upcoming 500X small crossover (due in 2014), are smart urban transport. And that's why we'll see more of their ilk.
Indeed, Mercedes Canada doesn't plan to sell the A-Class in Canada, but the slightly larger B-Class fills that hole nicely right now – and for less than $30,000 to start. It would be fair to say the Mini Cooper Countryman does the job here for BMW, too. At Toyota's Scion brand, I'd argue the xB is another player in this segment.
In every case, the idea being driven forward is to deliver a well-equipped and sporty car for the city, one with versatile packaging and a sense of style.
Buick, whose sales in Canada were up 12 per cent last year, has a place for the Encore in its lineup. Why? Buick wants to pull in younger buyers, smarter ones with more money than the average. Smart. And a lot of these buyers – mostly women – do not necessarily see size as a virtue in their cars. What they want is something safe, something easy to park, something that looks sharp and something loaded with gizmos and gadgets.
That's the Encore. The cabin does look a step up from, say, the Trax ($18,495 base). The ride is impressively quiet, too. The leather-wrapped steering wheel fits nicely in your hand and the controls for the audio system and your smartphone make for a legally hands-free chat – something Gen X, Y and Z all seem to need and all the time. They must be connected; they must never be alone.
My Encore tester was most at home in tight city streets or rolling along twisty, narrow roads in the country. On big highways, the Encore feels its size, which is small. The Encore is a Buick Enclave in three-quarters scale and with half the engine. Actor/director Danny DeVito might see the Encore as right-sized and let's leave it at that.
Buick is going in the proper direction here, and is leading the market – in North America, at least. We're being told that small is the new big and the Encore shows a mammoth car company from Detroit has made thinking outside the box result in a smaller box with four wheels and lots of goodies. This car isn't an encore – it's a debut, and when was the last time you could say that about any Buick?