Subcompact luxury is no longer a fad - it's a genuine market force, with premium cars ranging from the BMW 1 Series to the Lexus CT 200h enjoying reasonable success in this once-unexploited of niche. The 2014 Buick Encore attempts to translate this momentum into the subcompact SUV space, and it’s hard to argue with the results: since its introduction as a 2013 model, the Encore has quickly become a hit with the brand's buyer base.
I had a chance to drive the 2014 Buick Encore through the rolling hills of northern Kentucky, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how effectively Buick has followed through on the promise of affordable luxury for first-time crossover buyers.
The 2014 Buick Encore qualifies as a subcompact SUV, which makes it an even smaller entry into the domestic automaker's lineup than the Verano sedan. Not known for producing diminutive designs, the brand has nonetheless been able to give the Encore respectable styling that keeps it in the family without feeling like a hastily assembled pastiche of Buick cues. The waterfall grille fits the front end nicely, the scalloped sheet metal along the sides of the crossover disguises its short wheelbase, and the barely-there rear overhang keeps the hatch from looking at all awkward.
The interior of the Buick Encore also happens to be adept at obscuring the fact that the premium SUV is based on the very affordable Chevrolet Trax (sold in Canada and elsewhere around the world, but not in the U.S.). Leather seating and trim is available, and was installed in the higher trim level model that I tested, and like most Buicks wood and brushed metals are also available to spruce up the cabin. The Encore hasn't been given the same version of the IntelliLink touchscreen interface as larger models in the lineup have, which means there are a bunch of buttons to decipher on the center stack, but the LCD screen that is provided offers glowing colors and an easy-to-use menu system.
From a passenger room perspective, the 2014 Buick Encore shows its subcompact stripes. There's plenty of space for four passengers inside the Encore, and it compares well against small sedans in this respect, but when matched with other, comparably-priced SUVs there is a clear gap between the Buick and vehicles like the Honda CR-V, which dwarf the Encore's interior. Just under 50 cubic feet of cargo space are accessible inside the Encore with the rear seats folded forward, which is a respectable, wagon-like amount of room. Buyers make a choice to pursue luxury over maximum practicality with the subcompact Buick, although the vehicle's small size is also a paean to city dwellers who want something versatile to drive that doesn't need a large parking space.
The 2014 Buick Encore borrows its turbocharged, 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine from the range-topping version of the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact hatchback, avoiding either of the Verano's naturally-aspirated or turbo four-cylinder mills. The 1.4-liter motor, matched with a six-speed automatic transmission, is the only drivetrain to be had with the crossover, although a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive is provided. With 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque on tap, the Encore accelerates confidently, if not rapidly, and fuel mileage tops out at 25-mpg city and 33-mpg highway.
The Buick's handling is in line with its ride height and weight, which is to say that it errs on the side of comfort rather than precision. Very quiet when underway, the Encore is adept at absorbing rough roads via its suspension system, and active noise cancellation technology keeps booms, bumps, and engine noise out of the cabin.
The question that kept many car companies from exploring the premium subcompact space for so long was whether anyone out there was willing to fork over a significant sum for a small car. Big = prestige is still a force at work in the industry, and while the 2014 Buick Encore's base price of just under $25k might seem like a lot for the first rung on the Buick ladder, it has certainly proven attractive enough to a host of luxury-seeking shoppers.
It gets a little harder to swallow a $32,000 Encore near the top of the SUV's trim ladder, but no one is forcing you to pay for all of the new active safety that's loaded into this year's model, or slather everything in leather. The Buick Encore manages to come through in all of the important areas - comfort, efficiency, and utility - in a smaller package than we are used to seeing from GM, and ultimately, it's a winning formula for the cute ute.