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ATLANTA, Ga. -- Sometimes, reinventing oneself can be a risky proposition. Just ask Coca-Cola.
Headquartered in Atlanta, the soft-drink giant made a colossal boo-boo back in 1985 when it reformulated its recipe -- the now-infamous New Coke. Public reaction was less than kind (hostile, in fact), and only a few months later, Coca-Cola went back to the original formulation.
Other times, reinvention works just fine. Just ask Buick.
After seeing the average age of its buyers reach well into their 60s, the once-moribund brand has, over the past half-dozen years, brought out a succession of stylish, reinvigorated cars and crossovers, earning Buick recognition as a re-emerging premium nameplate.
The question is whether Buick is over-extending this newly rediscovered premium status with the 2013 Encore. Or will a fresh audience of buyers, looking for fuel-efficient, sporty-looking, all-weather transportation, take a shine to the very compact-size crossover?
Make no mistake, the Encore -- like its corporate sibling, the Chevrolet Trax -- is small. At 4,280 millimetres in length (slightly larger than Nissan's Juke) with a truncated 2,555-mm wheelbase, the Encore is 391 mm shorter than the Verano sedan, the next-smallest Buick. Though legroom is surprisingly good, considering, General Motors' description of the Encore as a five-seater is valid only if those occupying the 60/40-split back seat have the body fat of a supermodel.
Despite its small stature, Buick's designers made sure the South Korean-built crossover would not be mistaken for anything other than one of their own. All the signature styling cues are there -- the overall organic shape, the waterfall grille, the chrome accents and surrounds, the portholes on the hood -- just like its Enclave big brother.
Add the blue-accented composite projector-beam headlamps, the pronounced tail lamps and 18-inch aluminum wheels, and the Encore wears its refinement comfortably. The only downside is that on its shortened length, the overall effect comes off looking just a little squished.
The inside is equally toney, if not more so. When not ordered in all-black, the two-tone cabin (especially in cocoa and saddle) is rich and cheery, with ice-blue ambient lighting, bright chrome and wood-grain trim. There's a prominent central panel that houses a seven-inch colour display for the IntelliLink voice-activated infotainment system. It also features displays for the satellite radio and rear-view camera, as well as the optional navigation system.
The seats, trimmed either in cloth/leatherette or available leather, are stuffed with high-density foam for long-distance comfort. With the rear seat up, there are 18.8 cubic feet of storage (a useful 48.4 cu. ft. when it's folded), and the front passenger seat folds flat to extend the cargo length and accommodate longer items.
GM makes much ado about the QuietTuning process that has found its way into the Encore. QuietTuning, the automaker says, defines quality, sound and vibration characteristics, with the goal of designing and refining the crossover "using a three-point strategy to reduce sounds at their source, block sounds from entering the cabin and absorb remaining sounds."
It works -- more or less. Pounding along Interstate 75 at 110 kilometres an hour for a time, it was impossible not to notice both wind and tire noises sneaking into the cabin. Neither was particularly aggravating -- just there.
The crossover also receives Buick's first application of Bose Active Noise Cancellation, which uses ceiling-mounted microphones to detect engine noise, the frequencies of which are processed by a computer that directs counteracting sound waves through the audio system's speakers.
As with some of GM's other compact-size products (notably the Chevy Cruze and Sonic), the Encore is powered by an Ecotec 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that's bolted to a six-speed automatic transmission. Pushing 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque between 1,850 and 4,900 r.p.m., the turbo four's wide maximum torque range helps the Encore deliver a better about-town driving experience than might be expected. The fact the crossover is also quite light (1,450 kilograms for the front-wheel-drive version, another 54 kg for the AWD model) doesn't hurt.
Still, the Encore isn't going to scorch the pavement with its scintillating acceleration. And when power is required, the engine gets kind of gruff, especially as the revs climb. It's not all that far off most small-displacement four-bangers, but it lacks a certain smoothness one has come to expect from the Buick brand. Four aboard with a full complement of luggage is not a scenario GM's marketers say will be typical usage, which is just as well.
As for fuel economy, GM says the front-wheel-drive Encore is rated at 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 6.0 L/100 km on the highway (AWD models are 8.7 L/100 km in the city and 6.3 on the highway) running on regular unleaded, not premium, as is typical for many turbocharged engines.
Ride and handling are more than acceptable. GM says the Encore is engineered with a "one-tire" philosophy. This means everything is optimized around a single 18-inch tire specification, which supposedly results in more precise suspension tuning and driving refinement.
A day spent on the highways as well as the rolling and curving back roads south and west of Atlanta delivered no unpleasant surprises -- all aboard were well isolated from any pavement nasties. The electric power steering system had a nice light touch to it, with the vehicle happily responding to driver commands.
Buick, which defines itself as the "most friendly, down-to-Earth" luxury brand, looks to the Encore as its answer to what it forecasts will be a growing segment, with U.S. sales of compact crossovers increasing by more than 360,000 units by 2015.
Of those new buyers, the GM brand says younger professionals (pre-kids) and empty-nesters (post-kids) should find the Encore appealing. I'm not sure about the former, who might still prefer crossovers with a more macho, adventurous image, but the latter should find the Encore's upscale looks, inter-urban friendliness and copious luxury touches -- at a price range that's quite competitive -- well in keeping with the Buick name and what it stands for.
When it goes on sale early in 2013, Encore will be priced from $26,895 to $34,455.
-- Postmedia News