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2014 Buick Encore FWD Premium: The little crossover that can

by: GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION - The 2014 Buick Encore is a surprisingly complete package.The Encore has got to be the most unusual Buick ever made — a subcompact crossover powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine and available in either front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive. But the brains at Buick most know what they're doing. The company set a global sales record of more than 1 million vehicles in 2013.

Only 97,311 of those sales were Encores, but that's still a respectable number considering that truly small vehicles ares still a niche market. Everyone says they understand the advantages of going small — better maneuverability, easier parking and increased fuel savings. But when it comes time to part with the cash, they usually choose larger vehicles.

Buick is offering a tempting alternative with the Encore, however. First introduced last year, it is a sharply styled, nimble handling little package, with the ride height advantages of an SUV and the space saving dimensions of — well, there's not a lot else on the market as small on the outside and as big on the inside as the Encore right now. It logical competitors are probably the MINI Countryman, Nissan Juke and Fiat 500L and Kia Soul.

But the Encore offers a higher level of luxury and some neat tricks, like rear and front passenger seats that fold flat, allowing eight-foot length of lumber to be carried with the tailgate down. Not bad.

During a week of mixed driving, I found the Encore a surprisingly enjoyable choice for city, suburban and freeway driving. It is roomy enough for two full-size adults in the front seats and a couple of teenagers in the back. The ride was very comfortable over broken pavement, even with the short (very short) wheelbase. Although 138 horsepower isn't all that much for a four cylinder engine these days, the turbo brings it all up when needed, allowing the Encore to scoot quickly around town, get up to freeway speeds quickly, and cruise down boulevards with ease. One reason was the quick shifts in the six-speed automatic transmission, which worked much better than most Continuously Variable Transmissions found in other vehicles.

Buick has also managed to squeeze a surprising amount of refinement into the Encore. Our Premium edition was loaded with heated from leather seats, a comprehensive entertainment and navigation system with a rear view camera, multiple safety warning system, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. The interior fit and finish was excellent, giving our Encore more of a luxury feel than most of its riders. There are other small luxury out there, including the, BMW X1, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class. They are larger and more expensive, however.

Just about the only option our Encore lacked was all-wheel-drive, which might be a good addition for Pacific Northwest winter. As it was, we drove through some heavy rains without any problem but didn't face sleet or snow.

We didn't have a chance to test the Encore with four passengers and their cargo. We suspect that much weight would reduce its performance, given the small engine. But in day-to-day driving we averaged over 25 miles per gallon, which is less than the EPA estimated of 28 miles per gallon but still pretty good in the real world.

I only had a few reservations about the Encore by the end of the week. The front seats are a little narrow, so some — ahem — full bodied adults might have trouble squeezing into them. The trademark fake hood vents looked aftermarket, but did not detract too much from the Encore's otherwise crisp lines. And the ride was too soft for aggressive driving, which shouldn't be too surprising for a Buick (the sporty version of the compact Verano and midsize Regal being exceptions, however).

Buick is one of the few GM brands to survive the Great Recession and government-forced bankruptcy reorganization. Gone are Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer and the Saab partnership. Buick has moved beyond offering nothing more than upgraded versions of Chevys with unique models like the Encore. Those considering a small Japanese, Korean or European crossover might be surprised to hear they should also consider this unique American alternative, but that's how surprisingly good the Encore is.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Encore FWD - Premium.

• Manufacturer: Buick.

• Class: Subcompact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 1.4-liter inline four (138 hp, 148 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• Fuel Economy: 25/33/28 (FWD - as tested); 23/30/26 (AWD).

• Price: Starting around $25,000 ($28,956 as tested).