The Buick Encore is the opposite of what one imagines a utility vehicle to be. It is short and stubby, downright tiny compared to most utility vehicles.
Buick, once known for full-size cars with big engines, is wooing a young audience with the sub-compact Encore because older, traditional Buick buyers would surely think it too small. The Encore looks to be among those on the leading edge of a trend toward smaller-than-compact utility vehicles. Competitors include the Mini Countryman and the Fiat 500L.
My first thought, after a recent visit to Italy, was that the Encore would be right at home in the cramped quarters of Europe. Apparently, so does General Motors, because it sells versions overseas under the Vauxhall and Opel badges.
The Encore, based on the Chevy Sonic platform, seems to be the epitome of downsizing. Originally, most sport-utility vehicles were based on pickup trucks with body-on-frame construction, but the quest to cut weight and improve efficiency led to crossover vehicles that were car-based.
My reaction to the little Buick left me a bit confused. It was quiet and solid, and it rode surprisingly well considering the short wheelbase. The Premium test car had a long list of convenience items, including a heated steering wheel and dual-zone climate control, but it needs more power and a bigger cargo hold.
Base prices for the 2013 models start at $24,200 for front-wheel drive and $25,700 for all-wheel drive. There are four trim levels. An all-wheel-drive Premium model tops out at $32,230 and that seems like a lot for a vehicle this size.
The 2014 model will be available with blind-zone monitoring and cross-traffic alert for the rearview camera.
The Encore is surprisingly tight and solid. Wind and road noise have been nicely muted, and the turbocharged, 1.4-liter engine goes about its business with hardly a sound. With 138 horsepower, the engine has modest performance, and I sometimes wished for more power while accelerating onto the freeway. A full load of passengers would certainly zap acceleration.
Front-wheel drive is standard, and the optional all-wheel drive system shifts power to the rear wheels only at low speeds.
One reason the car is so quiet is because Bose Active Noise Cancellation uses ceiling mounted microphones to detect engine noise while a computer issues counteracting sound waves through the audio speakers.
The upsloping beltline and smallish rear side windows make the vehicle look tall and a bit disproportionate, but the style grows more familiar with each passing day. I expected the back seat to feel closed in because of the small windows, but I didn’t feel that way.
The front seats were not especially comfortable and the cabin is pretty narrow. Rear-seat legroom is better than I expected for a car with such a short wheelbase. Buick says six full grocery bags will fit with the back seat upright.
Folding the split back seat to expand cargo space was a bit tricky. The bottom seat cushions have to be tilted forward before the back can fold, and the headrests interfered with the back of the front seats. The front passenger seat back folds forward to accommodate long items.
The test car had leather seats (heated in front), Bluetooth for phone and music, rear-view camera, tilt steering column, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, anti-lock brakes, traction control, vehicle stability control and 10 airbags.
The instrument panel had easily readable gauges, upscale textures and an array of nicely designed buttons on the center stack. A seven-inch screen displays audio and navigation information.
The test car’s base price was $28,190. Options included 18-inch chrome wheels, navigation system with AM-FM-satellite radio and carbon black paint. The sticker price was $30,925.
Four years or 50,000 miles with a six-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Tom Strongman’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.