Little Guy Leading the Charge
Quick: What’s Buick’s best-selling vehicle? You’d be forgiven for guessing LaCrosse or Enclave because the premium automaker’s best-seller last year is arguably one of the most forgotten about in the subcompact luxury CUV segment—the pint-sized Buick Encore. The Encore was a pleasant surprise when it burst onto the scene in 2014, even earning itself an SUV of the Year finalist nod. Not one to let the grape wither on the vine, Buick released the refreshed 2017 Buick Encore this year with new sheetmetal and an upgraded engine, all while dropping its already budget-friendly price.
Based on the Opel Mokka, the Buick Encore was a surprise success when the little South Korean–built crossover came to North America. Much of that success can be attributed to entering an exploding subcompact crossover market at the right time, but it would be doing the Encore a disservice to overlook its other strengths. The Buick is a pretty compelling package with premium-grade materials, a budget-friendly price, and exceptional packaging given its small, city-friendly size.
With new competition coming at it from the likes of Jeep and Mazda, the 2017 Buick Encore gets an extensive refresh to stay current. The mid-cycle changes are pretty minor. Outside, the Encore loses the Stay Puft exterior design in favor of a crisper, modern design; inside, the 46,000 buttons that formerly made up the center stack have been tossed in favor of a simplified design with a modern Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-friendly infotainment system.
Available in front- and all-wheel drive and with a standard six-speed automatic, the Encore now comes with one of two versions of its 1.4-liter turbocharged I-4: a carryover version making 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque and a high-performance version producing 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. The optional engine is standard on the new Encore Sport Touring trim or an $895 USD option on Preferred II, Essence, and Premium trims. The 138-hp version of the engine is good for 27/33/30 mpg (8.7/7.1/7.8 L/100km) city/highway/combined in front-drive form and 24/30/27 mpg (9.8/7.8/8.7 L/100km) with all-wheel drive. The 153-hp engine, which comes with auto stop/start tech, is good for 25/33/28 mpg (9.4/7.1/8.4 L/100km) with front-wheel drive and 26/31/28 mpg (9.1/7.6/8.4 L/100km) with all-wheel drive.
The one thing the little Buick really needed pre-refresh was a bit more power, and the new engine, sampled in our Encore Preferred II AWD tester, addresses that issue. It ain’t fast, but it’s certainly quicker than before, dropping 0–60-mph time from 9.6 seconds to what feels like high 8-second range. The Encore no longer saunters off the line from a stop but instead eagerly zips forward to plug a gap in traffic like a good city car ought to. Power is good on the freeway, too; where many little engines tend to falter, the Encore’s uprated engine offers up good passing power for its size. The transmission is pretty good around town and on highway cruises, making decisive shifts and making the most of the little engine’s powerband. It’s actually quite a fun little package.
The Encore’s new looks, small size, and zippy performance really lend to the impression that its sort of a diet hot hatch, so I took our Encore tester up a tight switchback-laden mountain road. The Encore was out of its element, but it wasn’t half-bad. The Buick’s body roll control and ride quality were exceptional—not easy to do in such a tall, short package like the Encore’s—and its steering rack, although a touch too light in the feel department, offered up satisfactory feedback from the road. The engine remains spunky throughout its powerband even if it feels like it’s going to shake itself to pieces above 4,000 rpm, vibrating everything from the gas pedal to the seats. The one thing missing would be some fine-tuning in the transmission; when driving hard uphill, the Encore’s six-speed auto tends to upshift early, bleeding speed off. Switching to manual mode helps some, but if you rev higher than the car would like, it’ll change your gear for you. Buick has understandably tuned the Encore’s performance dial more toward comfort than craziness, but it wouldn’t take more than a Sport mode to up the fun factor by a large margin.
Out of the mountains and back on the freeway, I had a few hours to get to know the Encore’s new interior. The 2017 redesign arguably fixes what was the Encore’s biggest flaw, its button-mad center stack. The mid-cycle refresh has moved the high-mounted infotainment system to within arm’s reach of the driver and front passenger by repositioning the air-conditioning vents. The new Buick Intellilink infotainment system (which is identical to GMC’s Intellilink and Chevy’s MyLink) is among the most intuitive in the industry, and it really allowed Buick’s designer’s to reduce clutter in the cabin by eliminating all of the old infotainment system’s buttons. With its new iPad-like minimalistic design, the Encore’s cabin is quite a nice place to be. The cabin is quiet, seats are comfortable, and the materials are nice for the class. The back seat is livable, too, with the tall bench offering up room even for adult passengers. The rear seats even fold completely flat, boosting trunk space, already generous for the footprint.
Although the Buick Encore still leads the division’s sales, its lead in the segment has given way to the Jeep Renegade. As such the Encore is priced to move, starting at $24,310 USD. The cheapest Encore with the upgraded engine is the mid-level Encore Sport Touring, which goes for $26,885 USD with front-wheel drive. It’s easy to spend more to get luxuries like leather, heated seats, and forward collision alert, but doing so could quickly get you into the $30,000 USD range, where the Encore’s value proposition starts to erode some. The reality is that the Encore is so well-equipped with standard features such as Intellilink and 4G LTE Wi-Fi that the average buyer is probably best served opting for the Encore Sport Touring equipped with the “big” engine and calling it a day. Sure, you can get some competitors for less than that, but not many in the segment save for maybe the Mazda CX-3 can rival the Encore’s balance of luxury and performance. With value like that, it’s easy to envision the Encore continuing to lead Buick’s sales charts.