The 2015 Buick Encore succeeds by having excellent visibility and a convenient and trendy size, but it's let down by missing the kind of standout luxury features its sticker price suggests it should have.
On the market since the 2013 model year, the Buick Encore is the veteran statesman of a growing vehicle class: subcompact SUVs. The vehicles in this class are tiny for SUVs, and they force buyers to sacrifice space — if not also power and performance. But the biggest challenge the Encore faces is trying to be a luxury car in this segment.
The growing field of very small SUVs with which the Encore competes includes the Honda HR-V, the Mazda CX-3, the Fiat 500X and a related spinoff — the new 2015 Chevrolet Trax (see the review).
The Encore's trim levels, which Buick calls Groups, include Base, Convenience, Leather and Premium, all of which offer front- or all-wheel drive. We tested an all-wheel-drive Encore Leather Group, which includes leather-trimmed seats, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power-adjustable passenger seat and a power-adjustable driver's seat with memory. Finally, our test model included a navigation system with an upgraded multimedia system along with Buick's IntelliLink system.
For 2015 models, the addition of a 4G LTE internet hotspot is the major new addition. You can compare the 2015 with the 2014 model here.
Exterior & Styling
The Encore is tiny, but it's still shaped like an SUV, not a hatchback. It's tall for a vehicle with a short wheelbase, but it looks wide enough that the height is proportional. It doesn't look like it'll blow over on its side in a heavy wind. All in all, it has the rounded features and squat stance of a cute, chubby baby crawling across the floor.
Higher Encore trim levels feature fog lights in the lower bumper area, but otherwise the Encore looks similar across all trims. Buick purists will be happy to note the presence of Ventiports (or portholes) in the hood.
How It Drives
The Encore is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 138 horsepower and uses a six-speed automatic transmission regardless of trim and whether it's front- or all-wheel drive.
Around town, the engine and transmission are fine. Our all-wheel-drive Encore moved away from stoplights well, if not blindingly fast. We were also impressed with the all-wheel-drive system once the snow started piling up (see a detailed report).
On the highway, however, the engine runs out of steam. You really notice the lack of power when you pull out of a line of cars to make a pass; the Encore just can't make that pass quickly. You have to anticipate your moves and, even still, things take a long time to get going even though the transmission kicks down quickly. There's also a lot of engine noise when the engine is pushed.
This is the first area where I found myself comparing the Encore with compact SUVs. I'd been driving a Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 around the time I tested the Encore, and both responded quicker. Yes, both have more powerful engines, but they're both competitive on price with the Encore, so it's a valid comparison. With those two, particularly the Escape, there was both more accelerative power and less noise.
The related Chevrolet Trax also feels peppier and more powerful, even though it's powered by the same engine. People who are sold on the Encore's size but are down on its performance would be well-served by taking the Trax on a test drive.
The Encore's steering is good and goes a long way toward making it enjoyable to drive. There's not a lot of play in the steering, and it's boosted enough to make tight moves. I found when driving in the city that when there was a small gap in traffic — say, between two cabs — the Encore was often small enough to fit into those gaps, and the car's steering effort and precision gave me the confidence to go for it. It's a vital feature because it helps you enjoy the Encore's main advantage — it's smaller size — over competitors such as the Escape and CX-5.
The ride is composed and not too firm for such a small car. Even at 70 mph on rough Chicago streets, there was very little jarring and none of the wiggles or choppiness I've experienced in other small cars with short wheelbases. The only uncomfortable moment I found was on a downhill left-handed turn with a pronounced bump in it. I take all the cars I drive over it, and this was the only time the Encore became a bit floaty and kind of uncomfortable.
Finally, the Encore gets an EPA-estimated 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined with all-wheel drive and 25/33/28 mpg with front-wheel drive.
Despite the Encore's tiny size, the interior is fairly roomy. I never felt like I was brushing shoulders with someone sitting in the passenger seat, and I had plenty of legroom and headroom.
In the back, it's passable. I'm about 6 feet 2 inches tall, and I wouldn't be comfortable back there on a long trip. For a short jaunt across town, though, it'd be fine. The backseat is raised slightly and affords a fairly upright seating position. Cars.com editors with kids said the "stadium-style" seating was a hit with the kids, and the upright seating kept them from kicking the back of the front seats — something that's unusual in small cars.
Still, the Encore is a subcompact vehicle. It's simply not going to offer the room of its larger competitors. If you need more space, consider a comparably priced Honda CR-V, which I find to be among the roomiest of the small SUVs. The specs say the CR-V is roughly 3 to 4 inches larger in every seating dimension except headroom, and I say even those specs don't do the CR-V justice. I feel like I'd have enough space to comfortably play racquetball in the back of a CR-V, whereas I'd be comfortable merely for a short trip in the Encore. (Both the specs and my experience say the Encore's backseat room is closer to — but still tighter than — the CX-5 and Escape; see them compared here.)
In terms of luxury and refinement, the interior has its highs and lows. Our test model came with the optional leather group, and I think that part of the interior looks and feels good. Also, the controls are laid out pretty well, and everything is straightforward.
What I didn't find as nice was the center section of controls, which looks very similar to other GM cars I've been in. It's not that it's poorly laid out or hard to use, but if you're trying to set the Buick apart from other cars in the lineup, as a luxury-type offering, this doesn't do it. It's not just that it looks familiar, it's that it looks like it was carried over from GM's non-luxury brands. Not good.
Here again shoppers should consider the related Chevrolet Trax. Because it's not trying to be a luxury brand, the controls, gauges and interior don't seem as out of place, especially because the Trax starts roughly $4,000 cheaper than the base Encore.
Lastly, a standout positive feature of the Encore is visibility. I found it to be one of the easiest cars to see out of, and I immediately felt comfortable making moves in tight spaces on the street and in parking garages. Part of it is the shape of the window pillars and part of it is that you sit higher, but it all combines for a nice driving experience — especially compared with some of the swoopy, curvy, hard-to-see-out-of designs on the market today. (I'm looking at you, Escape.)
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Encore stumbled in this area for me. Our test model had a navigation system and satellite radio, both of which I used extensively. I found it difficult to input destination addresses, both because the button-within-a-ring input system wasn't ergonomically friendly, and because the system lagged in accepting inputs more than other systems I've tested. There's no option of using a touch-screen, either: The system allows inputs only through the knob interface. This made it hard to use the navigation system and frustrating when I wanted to, say, switch between FM/AM and satellite radio bandwidths.
Also, there are no USB ports in either the split glove box or the center storage console. There's one exposed port directly below the temperature gauges, but the setup is awkward for plugging a cellphone into the USB and snaking the cord around the interior, especially if you also intend to use the cupholders. Is that the end of the world? No, but many vehicles — especially from luxury brands — do this better.
We're not fans of the MyFordTouch system but, frankly, after my time in the Encore I would have taken the Escape's setup over the Buick's. Not only do I find the Ford system to respond more quickly, but it's also designed around the idea that someone's going to want to connect a smartphone to the car. The Mazda CX-5's system was less intuitive than the Ford's, but compared to the Buick's it was quicker to respond and better able to connect to the phone — both for playing music and making calls — and it stowed the USB cord better.
One nice feature of the Encore, especially in this era when Wi-Fi seems to rank with air and water as necessary to sustain life, is it has OnStar with 4G LTE and Wi-Fi hotspot capability standard. A data plan fee is required after a free trial period.
Cargo & Storage
The cargo area is deceptively large for such a tiny car. With the backseat in place, I'd estimate there's enough room for a few people to have a weekend getaway. There's also a standard folding backseat and a folding front passenger seat to increase the cargo room.
But as I say, it's deceptively large — which is not the same as being actually large. The compacts mentioned are roomier. On a day-to-day basis, assuming you're not carrying a ton of stuff, the Encore is livable.
The 2015 Buick Encore got the highest rating of good in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests to which it was subjected, including moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint and seat tests.
The Encore we tested came with a blind spot warning system and rear cross-traffic alert, along with the backup camera that's standard on all Encores. The rear cross-traffic alert system "sees" traffic behind you if you're backing out of a parking spot, but forward collision warning — an important feature proliferating even among affordable cars — isn't offered on the Encore. You can browse a full list of safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The Encore is a tiny car — I think it looks kind of cute — and it's in a trendy part of the market. It's super-easy to drive in the city and, while it's not fast, it's still kind of fun in its own way and more practical than I expected.
But the Encore is let down by its price and a failure to set itself apart as a kind of luxury offering. As much as I like the interior, the leather and how nice it looks in general, if I were sold on having a subcompact SUV, I'd find it hard to walk past the Trax and buy the Encore.
That's also setting aside the newer vehicles coming from Honda and Mazda. Will their late start in the market afford them the opportunity to really nail all the little details? Further, there are other, compact SUVs — Escape, CR-V and CX-5 — that have bigger cargo areas and are competitive on price.
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