2017 Buick Encore Premium AWD Review – A Half-Hearted Defense

You’re about to read a review of the 2017 Buick Encore Premium AWD, and you’re quite possibly well aware of the criticism the Encore has endured here at The Truth About Cars.

“The Encore is one of the worst cars I’ve driven in a long time,” TTAC’s former managing editor wrote in 2015. “Is the Encore the worst Buick ever?” Corey Lewis asked late last year.

Meanwhile, the Encore has appeared on my personal list of the eight vehicles I don’t want to own for four consecutive years.

Building good small cars is hard. It turns out, building good small SUVs — we can call them subcompact crossovers — based on those small cars can be just as challenging. That doesn’t mean Buick got the Chevrolet Sonic-based Encore all wrong. Refreshed for 2017, the Buick Encore has some redeeming qualities.

Would I buy one? At $35,825, you can’t be serious. But I’m beginning to understand why your mother might want an Encore.

Let’s deal with the sources of that understanding first.

The Buick Encore is exceptionally quiet. Pleasantly, peacefully quiet. The noise you do manage to hear from the 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four is sufficiently refined. Road noise is all but absent. Wind noise around the A-pillars is made known only because of the silence elsewhere.

In a segment littered with relatively unrefined competitors, the Encore’s knack for keeping the outside world outside is more than welcome.

That refinement carries forward to exceptional ride quality. The short, 100.6-inch wheelbase keeps the Encore’s suspension busy at work, but harsh impacts are kept at bay, and the Encore does a surprisingly decent job of traversing rough pavement like a much larger Buick.

The Encore is a nimble runabout, too. Quick steering and positive brake feel work with tidy exterior dimensions to make the Encore an agreeable downtown companion.

Viewed as a four seater, the Encore is also a roomy subcompact CUV. Head and legroom are acceptable out back, perhaps at the expense of an 18.8-cubic-foot cargo area that’s notably lacking space for a four-person vacation’s worth of stuff. Up front, the updated layout minimizes buttons and maximizes touchscreen, and to good effect. Chintzy steering wheel controls and GM’s ubiquitous and disappointing signal stalk remains, but the Encore’s interior, at least in sixth-from-the-bottom Premium trim, is almost, well, premium.

Say what you will about the 1990s two-tone look, this $995 White Frost paint looked very good in person, helping to propel the upmarket image Buick is chasing. The 2017 Encore’s proportions aren’t the stuff that car designer dreams are made of, but the facelift for the entry-level Buick’s fifth model year upped its game.

If that $35,825 as-tested price for this Encore Premium AWD doesn’t tell you something about Buick’s intentions, the $995 optional paint ought to. GM doesn’t want the Encore compared with its twin, the Chevrolet Trax, nor does Buick want you to think of the Encore as a mere foe of the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. The Encore is a compact luxury SUV, Buick says. So the Encore commands a luxury MSRP.

Luxury, however, is a difficult standard to live up to, especially when the power seat isn’t fully powered: you’ll operate the back rest manually. Is luxury the absence of a front passenger armrest, or are my passenger and I supposed to share the pencil affixed to the side of driver’s seat, the one with the big hump right where my elbow is supposed to land?

Many will argue that luxury is a corollary of space. And the Encore is decently spacious for four people. But you won’t ever want to squeeze in a fifth occupant. We surely couldn’t have even considered doing so between our two child seats, one of which required the driver’s seat to move far forward.

Others will argue it’s difficult to make a case for luxury without horsepower. There’s an optional powertrain upgrade available for the Encore now, a different 1.4T with 153 horsepower, 177 lb-ft of torque (gains of 15 horsepower and 29 lb-ft), stop-start tech, and superior fuel economy.

But that more prodigious engine would have driven this Encore’s price up by $895 to $36,720. Now you’re into $36,745 BMW X1 xDrive28i territory and beginning to feel distinctly more underpowered, unattractive, undersized, and unencumbered by good sense.

Without that engine, a perkier direct-injection powerplant that significantly reduces acceleration times, the 2017 Buick Encore I drove for a week is a laggard. Constantly, you’re prodding the Encore to downshift. The Encore always needs to downshift. And if at first you think the Encore’s off-the-line throttle response bodes well, remember how automakers have employed similar tactics with lackluster powerplants in small cars for decades. It’s 2017. We can’t be fooled now.

138 horsepower can be enough. But in the Encore, with the Premium grade’s accoutrements and the weight of all-wheel-drive hardware, it’s not, even if the smooth six-speed attempts to make the most of the available power. Car And Driver’s 50-70 mph acceleration tests show the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V, speed demons neither, to be a second quicker than the 138-horsepower Encore AWD. That’s a second you will notice.

Pair the tardy acceleration with a comfort-oriented chassis that sends the Encore into roly-poly responses on higher-speed, twisty, rural roads and the Encore quickly loses its appeal for keen drivers. Those nimble in-town responses are forgotten as the Encore flounders when pushed to perform.

Buick evidently doesn’t need keen drivers. The Encore is a success story for General Motors. U.S. Encore volume jumped 53 percent in 2014, another 38 percent in 2015, and a further 16 percent in 2016. Encore sales growth isn’t slowing, with sales up 17 percent through the first-quarter of 2017.

In fact, last month, March 2017, was the Encore’s best month of U.S. sales in its 51-month history. Combined, the Encore and its more affordable, slightly less popular Chevrolet Trax twin own a segment-leading 31 percent of the subcompact crossover market.

There are reasons for that: a silent cabin, excellent ride quality, urban-friendly dimensions, decent real-world fuel economy.

But there are also reasons the Encore doesn’t deserve to be so successful. While in many areas the Encore shines in comparison with comparably sized subcompact rivals, almost all of these vehicles crumble when an objective value equation is performed with a proper compact crossover in the mix.

$35,825 gets you an awful lot of Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.

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