Payne: Encore! Encore! After a decade in the market, Buick’s segment-busting mini-SUV still shines

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 11, 2022

Stratford, Virginia — I’m a fan of minnows. Affordable, fun entry-level subcompacts. The versatile Honda Fit hatchback. The Mazda Miata sportscar. I still weep for the loss of the Ford Fiesta ST funbox.

Allow me to add another unsung candidate, the $25,795 Buick Encore.

On a recent road trip to Stratford, Virginia — marinated in U.S. history, from George Washington’s birthplace to the Lee family home — Mrs. Payne and I rented a compact vehicle from Hertz. “Anything in Aisle Two” said the attendant. And there amongst the usual Corollas and Sentra sedans was Buick’s premium entry-level SUV.

I was quickly reminded just how good this wee ute is.

With its fold-flat front seat — a cool, rare feature shared by the Fit and GM sibling Chevy Trax — the Encore and I bonded years ago. With a stiff leg after knee surgery, I sat in back and flattened the front seat for use as an ottoman. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. On my weekend trip to Stratford, I also used the feature from the back seat, stretching out my stork legs, writing on a laptop. Or just stretching out when I needed a break on the road.

A unique feature, but this SUV is best known for pioneering the small SUV category. In 2012, Encore led the way and Ute Nation followed in breaking the sport utility mold of mid-size family carrier. The Buick introduced the idea that crossovers could populate every segment, including subcompacts.

Every automaker now offers something in the space, from the Hyundai Kona to the Honda HR-V to the Mazda CX-30.

But Encore’s move was unheard of for a sleepy, geriatric brand that was limping along on sedan sales. Overnight, Encore reset the Buick brand and paved the way for a “That’s a Buick?” lineup that now includes delightful SUVs like the Encore GX, Enclave and Envision.

At just 25 grand, my base Encore rental was not only ergonomically efficient — it was fun.

Its cute face and trim bod is irresistible. Like every subcompact I’ve every driven, the short wheelbase is a hoot to drive — instantly provoking rebuke from my long-suffering wife to “SLOW DOWN!” on our trip from Reagan National Airport down Routes 301 and 205 through Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Mrs. Payne and Encore had bonded quickly at the airport when she hooked up her iPhone to Apple CarPlay and navigated to our rural destination. Like the blob, the federal government grows bigger by the day, and D.C. is a nightmare to exit with its Beltway traffic and gridlocked suburbs.

Apple CarPlay artfully guided us to the best route — and a Chick-Fil-A lunch along the way.

So successful is Encore that it has already inspired a bigger sibling — the aforementioned Encore GX. With push-button start, a sippy 155-horse 4-banger and leatherette-and-cloth seats, my standard Encore is an affordable chariot. So relentless is technology, however, that this premium ute is already aging next to comparably priced mainstream vehicles.

Essential goo-gaws like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise control are now standard on utes like the Mazda CX-30 or Kia Seltos. My Encore sported neither. To remain an icon in the segment it pioneered, Encore needs to get crackin’.

We headed to dinner — a 20-minute drive — with a friend who volunteered her minivan. But I was determined to show off Encore’s comfy rear seats and headroom. Heck, I’m a tall ex-basketball player and can sit behind myself in the Encore. Try that in any other subcompact. Or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

Virginia’s Northern Neck isn’t London streets — but its historic places are full of tight confines. The Encore — thanks to its rear-view camera-assist and short proportions — navigated tight spots and driveways easily. The undulating roads are a similar challenge, and I volunteered more than once to fetch groceries over the weekend just so I could explore them. The Encore is fun to flog and I would inevitably hook up with a local — in a Ford Mustang or Fusion — who knew the roads well and would enjoy a game of cat and mouse.

After my Northern Virginia adventures, I returned my four-wheeled companion to Reagan National and took a wrong turn into the rental lot. The only way out was a series of tight 180-degree turns. Piece of cake.

The rare negative I’ve heard about Encore is from my son’s fiancée. She rented one recently and complained of a lack of power. Understandable. Her daily driver? A VW Beetle Turbo stuffed with the Golf GTI’s 200-horse turbo engine.

Now there’s another great minnow.

2022 Buick Encore

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel-drive four-passenger SUV

Price: $25,795, including $1,195 destination fee for base model as tested

Powerplant: 1.4-liter turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 155 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph 8.4 sec. (Car and Driver); range, 378 miles

Weight: 3,237 pounds (FWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 mpg city/32 highway/27 combined (FWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Easy on the eyes; easy on the legroom

Lows: More standard features, please

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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