Buick may have the New Year's first hit on its hands with the 2013 Encore, a mini-crossover that packs an extra-large serving of goodness into a pint-sized package.
Almost 20 inches shorter than a Chevrolet Equinox, the Encore is an early entrant into the next hot market segment: subcompact luxury crossovers. It goes on sale in February.
Prices for the 2013 Encore start at $24,200 for a front-wheel drive model. All-wheel drive is a $1,500 option across the line. All Encores come with a 138-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission.
I tested a very well-equipped front-drive Encore with leather seats, Bose audio, lane-departure warning, front-collision alert, heated steering wheel and front seats, sunroof, navigation system and 18-inch chrome wheels. It cost $30,780. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Encore's closest competitors as extra-small luxury crossovers are probably the BMW X1 -- 8.0 inches longer and considerably more expensive, but with loads more performance -- and the Mini Countryman -- 6.7 inches shorter and with far less interior space. It's nearly the same size as the front-wheel-drive-only Fiat 500L that goes on sale midyear.
The Encore packs a lot of usable room into a small package. It offers expansive headroom, even with the optional sunroof. Front and rear legroom are also good. Shoulder room is more than adequate, though I wouldn't recommend long drives with three passengers in the rear seat. The hatchback opens onto a large and practical cargo space with 18.8 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 48.4 cubic feet available with the seat folded.
Buick trimmed the interior in attractive, high-quality materials and contrasting color combinations. There's a handy second glove box, but the driver could use more storage in the center console and a better receptacle for phones and iPods.
The Encore got a cut-rate version of Buick's excellent Intellilink controls for audio, navigation, phone, etc. The voice-recognition is superb, but it takes too many steps and too long to switch the audio from one source to another.
Pushing a button again and again to scroll past AM, FM, satellite radio, Bluetooth and iPod on the way to the CD player gets annoying when you know other Buicks have a touch screen that lets you go directly from one to another. You can switch sources with spoken commands but that, too, takes longer than simply touching a button or screen.
The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and six-speed transmission provided more than adequate power on a long drive that included plenty of fast highway miles up and down the Appalachian Mountains. Quicker throttle response would be welcome when you're measuring a gap in traffic, but the Encore's EPA fuel economy rating of 25 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway and 28 combined matches or beats the BMW X1, Ford Escape 1.6L, Countryman and Volkswagen Tiguan.
The Encore runs on regular gasoline, which gives it an advantage over the premium-burning X1, Countryman, Nissan Juke and VW Tiguan.
The Encore shares its styling and much of its engineering with the Opel Mokka, which just went on sale in Europe. That pays off in responsive steering, good on-center feel and excellent brakes.
The Encore is also quiet at high speed. The suspension provides a comfortable ride and good road-holding, though there's more body roll than I'd like in quick corners.
The small SUV is remarkably easy to park. At one point I laughed out loud when I saw how much spare room I had in a space I'd thought would be too small.
The Encore's big lights and carefully conceived proportions give it a substantial appearance that belies its small size.
Surprisingly roomy, efficient, comfortable, fun to drive and affordable, the 2013 Buick Encore sets a high standard for the small luxury SUVs that are likely to follow it.