2016 Buick Encore Premium FWD
The Encore currently sits third out of nine volume-branded subcompact SUV models, ahead of the Chevy Trax, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Nissan Juke, Mazda CX-3, Mini Countryman and Fiat 500X and behind the Jeep Renegade and Honda HR-V, but if you combine sales of both General Motors models the Encore and Trax lead the segment by a long shot. And the subcompact SUV class is not only growing in importance due to overall sales, but also because it’s a gateway category responsible for ushering consumers out of their pre-owned rides and into their first new vehicle. This may not be as true for near premium Buick as it is for Chevrolet, but it’s nevertheless critical for pulling buyers into the fold.
Being near premium, Buick is in the enviable position of also selling into the luxury compact SUV segment, which puts it up against the next bestselling Mercedes-Benz GLA, as well as the BMW X1, Audi Q3, Range Rover Evoque, and new Infiniti QX30. So depending how you want to look at it, the Encore is either the most popular luxury compact SUV or the strongest selling volume-branded subcompact SUV, which means you should consider it either way.
Why? The Encore is fully worthy of its popularity. It’s an intelligently engineered crossover that delivers plenty of performance, superb fuel efficiency, a high level of style, premium-like refinement, top-tier safety, and the tall ride height and resultant visibility advantage SUV buyers love.
There’s also a significant value proposition to consider. The base 2016 Encore hits the road running at $24,990 plus freight and dealer fees (less significant discount this time of year), which makes it the lowest priced premium subcompact SUV on the market. That price makes it clear GM isn’t trying to steal sales from lower end mainstream competitors, leaving Chevy to duke it out with this lot, but instead the Encore takes these challengers on when they’re loaded up with options, while also offering an alternative to buyers otherwise interested in entry trims of the luxury branded models just mentioned when the Encore is dressed up in top-tier Premium trim like my tester, which starts at $32,210.
My loaner included a stylish set of chromed seven-spoke 18-inch optional rims too, plus a powered moonroof, and an upgraded infotainment system with navigation that all came in an “Experience Buick” package for a very reasonable $1,490, saving $895 if you were to purchase these items individually, which upped the price of my test model to $33,700 before freight and fees. Even this elevated price is lower than any of its luxury branded competitors.
If the vehicle didn’t measure up the value proposition and extra savings would be moot, of course, but the Encore delivers where it needs to. First off, my tester looked every bit the part of a premium player with an attractive chromed waterfall grille, cool blue adorned projector headlamps, chrome bezeled fogs just below, chromed trademark “VentiPorts” atop the hood, chrome trimmed door handles, yet more chrome garnish at back, and the upgraded wheels noted a moment ago. Along with the metal brightwork is classy aluminized trim on the front and rear undertrays and roof rails above, while my tester looked smart in its sporty Coastal Blue Metallic paint.
Inside, the little Buick is big on space. Really, this car is ideal for extremely tall drivers and passengers, but despite its tiny tot size it might not be the best choice for smaller folk. My five-foot-eight frame fit in ideally, with ample space for my head, legs, shoulders and hips no matter the seat chosen, so even those measuring a foot or so taller should be fine, but my five-foot-zero partner couldn’t reach the pedals when positioning the driver’s seat for optimal sightlines.
I found visibility superb no matter where I was looking, while the driver’s seat is wonderfully comfortable thanks to six-way powered adjustment including lumbar. That’s a standard item by the way, even the base model offering a reasonable number of goodies such as satin-silver finished 18-inch alloys, chrome-enhanced exterior door handles, roof rails, acoustic laminated glass, powered heatable side mirrors and integrated turn signals, a tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, seven-inch IntelliLink touchscreen infotainment with a backup camera, AM/FM/CD/satellite audio, OnStar telematics, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, fabric upholstery with nice leatherette bolsters, a cargo cover, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks that expand an already large 18.8 cubic-foot luggage compartment up to an impressive 48.4 cubic feet, a front-folding seatback for stowing larger items, and Buick’s “QuietTuning” system featuring active noise cancellation.
It really is quiet, another Buick trademark that I happen to appreciate when shoulder deep in congested city traffic. This is where the Encore shines, as it’s such an easy vehicle to maneuver through tight spaces and offers up ample zip for quick point and shoot lane changes thanks to 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque plus a smooth, quick shifting six-speed automatic with thumb-actuated manual mode. Its ride is superb too, thanks to a fully independent front strut and semi-independent rear compound crank torsion beam setup that nicely balances compliant comfort and agile handling.
I should probably mention here that Buick added a new Sport Touring trim for 2016 that ups the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s output to 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, this realization making me wonder why the powers that be in GM’s media/PR division didn’t put one of these models on the road instead of the Premium FWD model I spent a week in, which was identical to last year’s tester other than the elimination of AWD, still available across the line for an extra $1,500 but really only needed if you live in the snowbelt or do a lot of skiing.
The FWD model is more fuel-efficient after all, rated at 27 mpg city, 33 highway and 30 combined compared to 26, 31 and 28 for AWD, whereas the more powerful variant is still thrifty at 25 city, 33 highway and 28 combined in FWD or 23, 30 and 26 with AWD.
The Encore is really nice on the highway too, that aforementioned quietness coming into play once again, as well as its well sorted suspension. Wind noise is kept to a minimum, which is impressive for such a tall, narrow subcompact, and it felt quite planted in its lane.
Highway driving at night is when I appreciated its auto-dimming rearview mirror, and wished it had the same anti-glare feature added to its side mirrors. The upgraded interior mirror comes as part of the Encore’s second-rung Convenience trim, which also includes the fog lamps mentioned earlier, a remote starter, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. There’s a Leather trim too that adds, as you may have guessed, leather upholstery along with a heatable steering wheel and seats, a household-style 120-volt three-prong power outlet, and more, while my tester’s Premium trim includes always appreciated rain-sensing wipers, a better sounding a seven-speaker Bose audio system, plus front and rear parking sensors, a carpeted cargo mat, plus forward collision alert and lane departure warning.
These join all the expected standard active and passive safety features, the latter comprised of 10 standard airbags including front passenger knee blockers and rear side-thorax bags. All of the active safety kit earns the Encore Premium Top Safety Pick status with the IIHS, which is missing a “Plus” to be best of the best, but is still impressive for a subcompact SUV. Also noteworthy, all trims achieved the NHTSA’s best-possible five-star crash test rating.
Like the Encore’s pricing, its interior refinement bridges the gap between mainstream and premium. Some details are top-tier and others a bit subpar, but this can also be said of the big three German brands that cut plenty of corners in this entry-level class. Therefore only the Encore’s front roof pillars are fabric wrapped, while the wood accents and metal trim bits aren’t real, but credible reproductions that will at least make hardcore environmentalists happy. The dash top, instrument panel, backside of the steering wheel, sides of the center stack, plus the front and rear door uppers are made from soft, pliable synthetics, again par for the course in this class, whereas my tester’s doors received contrast-stitched leather-like padded inserts and armrests to match the side bolsters and trim of the real leather seats, the seat inserts finished in a lighter gray for a stylish two-tone look.
A highlight was the Bose audio system that pumped out good sound for the class, although it had trouble tuning in a normally strong FM radio station I listen to often. Other areas of weakness included an LCD multi-information display that was living in the past when compared to most competitors that offer up smartphone levels of crystal clear, color-rich TFT quality in top trims, although other than this shortcoming the rest of the Encore’s gauge cluster is really attractive and highly legible.
The infotainment system atop the center stack is certainly large enough, but its graphics are a bit dated and it doesn’t include some features now available in other GM vehicles, such as tablet-style pinch and swipe capability, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 4G LTE Wi-Fi, etcetera, these soon available in the upcoming 2017 redesign, which also boasts a larger eight-inch display. This 2016 model’s seven-inch screen offers decent resolution and rich colors, plus it’s well shielded from sunlight. The home screen includes nice large graphically stimulating buttons labeled now playing, navigation, and phone, plus some direct links to AM/FM, satellite, Stitcher, and CD functions, while an additional button loads another page for accessing content from USB, auxiliary and streaming Bluetooth connected devices, plus adjusting tone and other features like configuration, destination, messages, and quick info.
It’s controllable from a large panel of quick-access buttons just below, centered by a dial for general operation. It’s not quite as easy and direct to use as competitors’ touchpad or joystick-style designs, although most of these don’t also include a touchscreen for even more direct access, Buick trying to give a best of both worlds scenario that merely comes up a bit short when inputting addresses to the navigation and the like. It only makes me more interested in checking out the new 2017 version.
Of note, all of the Encore’s switchgear is excellent, from the buttons on the steering wheel to its door-mounted power window and mirror toggles, as well as the umpteen dozen center stack controls just mentioned, my favorites being the colorful rotating dials incorporated into the dual-zone auto HVAC interface. The leftmost one integrates a button for turning on the heatable steering wheel, another nice feature reminding that this is no entry-level SUV.
Still, such logic would relegate Mazda’s CX-3 and Kia’s slightly larger Sportage SX to such status, plus plenty of other fully featured subcompact and compact SUVs, but to be fair to Buick most approach $35k when maximized with options, whereas its premium-badged near peers are hitting $45k and beyond.
What’s missing? Cooled front seats, heatable rear outboard seats, a power liftgate, and there’s no panoramic sunroof, now common in this class, while making matters worse was a retractable sunroof shade that was jammed into place and therefore impossible to move back and forth.
So the Encore isn’t perfect. What car is? J.D. Power and Associates certainly feels the Encore deserves special mention, its most recent 2016 Initial Quality Study placing it third in its Small SUV category, below the Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson which are considerably larger, therefore leaving the Encore first among true subcompact SUVs. The Buick brand also does well in this study, placing seventh out of 33 brands. Buick does even better in the analytical firm’s 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study where it ranks third out of 32 brands, the Encore number one in its Small SUV category. Just so you don’t think J.D. Power is the only pro-Buick analyst, Consumer Reports’ 2016 report card on reliability and road tests (which oddly combines reliability and performance) placed the domestic brand seventh out of 29 automakers, so it’s a nameplate worth considering.
After all, if it weren’t producing vehicles consumers wanted, why would Buick be growing at such a phenomenal rate? Encore sales reached a best-ever 7,197 deliveries in September, while the brand’s global growth allowed it to bypass the million unit mark last month as well, sooner within the calendar year than ever achieved in its 113-year history. Buick outsells Acura, Audi, Infiniti and Lincoln in North America, while it’s the second most popular passenger-car brand in China.
The Encore is an important part of this success. I think it rides the line between mainstream and premium ideally, with pricing that respects its place in the market, so if you’re looking for a small SUV with plenty of interior space including surprising utility, a good assortment of features, enjoyable performance, impressive comfort, and superb fuel economy, the Encore is a good choice.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press