The Buick Encore and Chevy Trax are kissin’ cousins riding on the same platform with the same engine and transmission, but aimed at different markets.
Not surprisingly the Chevy aims at value-minded and younger buyers, while the Buick aims more upscale, at empty-nesters who demand luxury and feel they’ve hit a stage of life where they’ve moved beyond the Chevy brand. I like both the Trax and Encore. They’re fun to drive with nimble handling and good ride for a small sport-ute. Both deliver excellent fuel economy.
There’s no denying the Buick feels more upscale. It has a leather interior and is quieter inside. As an aging Boomer I like the quiet. Additional sound deadening, which Buick calls QuietTuning, helps ensure the quiet, along with a Bose Active Noise Cancellation system.
That and the leather interior and more standard features helps explain the added cost compared with the Trax, which is a real bargain. The Trax LT AWD I tested previously started at $23,945 and with minor options was just $25,315. While the tested bright white Encore AWD Premium listed at $30,935 and after options and delivery charges hit $34,390. That’s pretty high considering how many fine mid-size utes and crossovers you can get for that, or less. Most offer AWD and are more spacious inside.
Naturally, if you want the Buick, but find yourself closer to a Chevy budget, a base Encore starts at $24,990, but that’s with two-wheel drive. I don’t want to dwell on price because the Encore is such fun to drive, and few utes or crossovers can say that.
The fun comes from light weight and its compact size. Encore rides on a 100.6-inch wheelbase and features straight-ratio power rack-and-pinion steering. Encore feels lively with responsive, easy steering and a well-balanced chassis that doesn’t feel like a ute or crossover. Encore feels more like a small sport sedan. It turns crisply into corners and despite its short wheelbase, similar to the Mazda Miata I tested recently, the ride is surprisingly good.
Buick uses coil-over springs with MacPherson struts up front along with stabilizer bar and steel six-point cross member. In back is a compound crank or torsion beam with coil springs and twin-tube shocks. Some folks scoff at torsion beam suspensions, but they handle rough roads quite well. And the Buick feels well-controlled and tame over our rocky roads.
Power is modest with the Encore using a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbocharged I4 engine with variable valve timing. That creates 138 horsepower, but 148-ft.-lbs. of torque. Turbos up the torque or oomph of an engine, while being more fuel efficient. So the Encore is rated 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. I got a solid 27.6 mpg, down just about 1 mpg from the Trax I drove earlier.
The power seemed better in the Encore than the Trax, yet both use a 6-speed automatic transmission to put the power to the pavement. This one was smoother and the turbo engaged less suddenly.
Inside, the Buick outdoes the Trax with full leather seats and soft dash trim. This one was a reddish brown that was a little too close to orange for my taste, but fit and finish created a luxury feel. There was fake wood trim on the dash and doors with satin metal trim by the shifter, on the steering wheel hub, stack and around gauges. The manual tilt/telescope steering wheel was wrapped in brown leather with tan stitching.
The Premium model has power seats and power driver’s lumbar support, plus the seats are heated (3 levels), as is the steering wheel, a major bonus. For smaller riders the seats are fine, but the side bolsters are tight leaving a narrow seating area. A larger person with wider dimensions might find this uncomfortable. I did not notice the snugness with the Trax seating. Rear seat room is fine for average size riders and headroom is good.
I like the Encore’s dash layout, which is clean and mostly composed of buttons, again
catering to us 50-plus drivers who grew up with buttons, not the vagaries of touchscreen controls. The screen here is NOT a touchscreen. Instead the Buick has 22 buttons, one dial and one combo mouse sort of control. But it’s easy to call up the radio, tune it and find stations. Same with the nav system. I like the Favorites button that calls up three levels of channels, so you can program in a bunch, and group them by AM, FM and satellite, if you so desire. It’s easy to scroll through the levels to find what you’re after.
Climate controls are handled via knobs, so simple to control too.
Naturally th Encore comes with the usual electronics, a rearview backup camera, blind-spot warning, front collision warning plus a lane departure warning system that is easily turned off.
There are two glove boxes, the top one tiny for a phone or small tablet, a sunroof overhead ($900 extra) and visors that slide, something the Trax didn’t have. Encore has a fold-down armrest for the driver, two-memory seats, OnStar and Bose sound system. The stereo with navigation is an upgrade and includes satellite radio, USB port and input jack plus Intellilink, a voice-activated system. The upgrade costs $495.
In back is a hatch with wiper, but not a power hatch. There also is a cargo cover and space is generous behind the split second seats.
I probably wouldn’t pay the extra $995 for the white paint job, but otherwise the test vehicle was decked out as well as most folks would want, again coming in at about $34 grand. Note that there currently are 8 trim levels evenly split between two- and four-wheel drive, so you can hit a price point closer to your budget if the Premium runs too high.
A Sport Touring model is expected in December and likely will have more power and a stop/start function to help keep its fuel efficiency near what the current models are getting.
I enjoy the Encore and Trax, but the Chevy is the more economical way to go. If you can afford the luxury the Buick offers, it’s a solid and more entertaining choice than most small and mid-size utes though.
STATS: 2015 Buick Encore AWD Premium
Hits: Good handling and ride and fuel economy, plus a luxury quiet interior. Heated seats and heated steering wheel a benefit in winter as is the AWD.
Misses: Price is high for this size vehicle with AWD. Seats are narrow in the hip.
Made in: Bupyeong, South Korea
Engine: 1.4-liter Ecotec turbo, VVT I4, 138 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Weight: 3,309 lbs.
Length: 168.4 in.
Wheelbase: 100.6 in.
Cargo: 18.7 cu.ft. (48.4 cu.ft. rear seats down)
MPG: 23/30 (EPA)
MPG: 27.6 (tested)
Base Price: $30,935
Dealer’s Price: $30,622
White pearl tricoat, $995
Power moonroof, $900
Audio system w/nav, satellite radio, 7-inch screen, Intellilink, USB port, input jack, $495
All-weather front floor mats, $140
Test vehicle: $34,390
Sources: Buick, www.autos.yahoo.com
Photos: Mark Savage