Buick's no longer the car just for the gray-haired set -- the brand has been revitalized and aimed at a much-younger audience, especially with models such as the compact Verano sedan and our test vehicle for the week, the small Encore crossover.Even the biggest Buick models, the LaCrosse sedan and the Enclave crossover, are being embraced more by active professionals than older consumers, helping to lower the brand's age appeal by at least a generation or two overall.Our tester, though -- the 2014 Encore -- sits squarely in the sights of young, upwardly mobile singles and couples looking for a vehicle that fits their busy outdoors-oriented lifestyles.The five-passenger Encore, introduced last year, is a foot shorter than the Verano, with a wheelbase that’s five inches shorter. Such a small vehicle may seem odd for a brand whose reputation for decades centered on comfortable large sedans and wagons, it’s perfectly in line with the brand’s goals both at home and abroad.That’s to bring up-and-coming premium-vehicle buyers into the Buick fold, where presumably they will work their way up to larger and more-expensive Buicks as they age and grow in their careers and incomes.For 2014, Encore prices begin at $24,160 (plus $925 freight) for the base model, and range as high as $30,465 for the Premium all-wheel drive. The entry-model price makes the Encore quite a bargain considering all of the standard amenities it has.Buick offers the Encore with either front-wheel drive, which is standard, or all-wheel drive, which is a $1,500 premium above the front-drive prices. It’s designed to send power almost 50-50 to the front and rear on startup, but favors the front wheels in normal driving until the automatic system detects wheel slippage.Other front-drive trim levels include the Convenience ($25,785); and Leather ($27,485). Just add the $1,500 to any of the front-drive model prices to get the price for the corresponding all-wheel-drive trim.New safety features for 2014 include Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Side Blind Zone Alert systems, included on all but the base model.Our tester was the front-drive Premium model (base price $28,965).The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the small profile of the Encore allow it to offer the best fuel economy in the Buick lineup, and EPA ratings that are among the best in the crossover realm. With front drive, the estimates are 25 mpg city/33 highway/28 combined; for all-wheel-drive models, 23/30/26. During my test, I averaged about 28.8 mpg, with a combination of city and highway driving.Surprisingly, the Encore doesn’t feel small. Tall people – six feet or more – can ride in comfort in the front bucket seats, and they’re riding higher up than you would imagine in a vehicle with such a small exterior size. There is no feel of being in a tiny vehicle, sitting close to the ground.The Encore seems about the same size inside as the first-generation Nissan Rogue and the current Subaru Forester, among others.Outside, the Encore looks somewhat like a junior-size version of the seven-passenger Enclave, with similar front-end styling and overall shape, and the signature Buick grille.The Encore is the same length as the boxy Scion xB, and about a foot shorter than the Honda CR-V. But I couldn’t help comparing the Encore – favorably – to such compact crossovers as the Volkswagen Tiguan, which is about six inches longer, and the Audi Q5, about a foot-and-a-half longer. We were able to seat three average-size adults in the rear bench seat for a run out to dinner, and had no real complaints. Outboard passengers had plenty of leg- and knee room, although the middle rider was a bit cramped and suggested that might not be a good place for a long trip. A child safety seat would fit there well, however, with two larger kids or even small- to medium-size adults on each side.The only cupholders in the back, though, were two in a small pull-down center armrest that eliminates the middle seating position. Small door pockets were not wide enough to serve as bottle holders either in front or back. Up front, the center console area provides two small cupholders and a lidded compartment for gadgets. In front of the shifter is a slanted cubby suitable for a couple of portable devices, and there are USB and auxiliary ports right next to a 12-volt power outlet in front of the storage spot. There is 18.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, accessed through a rear hatch that flips up in one piece for easy loading and unloading. Fold down the rear seatback, though, and the cargo area expands to a whopping 48.4 cubic feet. You could get a big-screen TV box back there, if necessary.Driving the Encore was rather fun, with its turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engine, producing 138 horsepower and 148 foot-pounds of torque. It’s almost perfect for this vehicle’s size and weight (under 3,400 pounds).The turbo engine, which is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, has quick response and plenty of zip. The electric power steering was precise and predictable, and the four-wheel antilock disc brakes made for quick and sure stopping, even in the occasional near-panic situations that seem to occur with more frequency when traffic gets thick.Although noisier than larger, more-expensive Buick models, the Encore is relatively quiet inside, aided by Buick’s exclusive QuietTuning, which uses Bose Active Noise Cancellation technology.The base model comes loaded with features such as OnStar, cruise control, ice-blue ambient interior lighting, premium cloth upholstery with "leatherette" accents, heated outside mirrors, six-way power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment, and power windows/door locks with remote.Also included are an AM/FM/CD/XM audio system with seven-inch color display/USB port/Bluetooth connectivity, leather-wrapped steering wheel, color-keyed carpeted floor mats, rear cargo cover, roof luggage rails, two gloveboxes, a theft-deterrent system, 18-inch painted cast-aluminum wheels, and a compact spare tire with jack.The Convenience model adds a self-dimming rearview mirror, remote start, dual automatic climate control, 120-volt power outlet and fog lamps.With the Leather model comes leather seats, heated steering wheel and front seats, a power passenger seat, and a driver memory package with settings for seat position, outside mirrors and climate control.At the top, the Premium model has leather and most of the other features from the lower levels, along with rain-sensing wipers, a premium Bose seven-speaker audio system, front and rear park assist, forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, cargo net and a cargo mat.Standard safety features include 10 air bags, electronic stability control, rearview camera, cornering brake control with electronic brake assist, tire-pressure monitoring, and a safety-cage body designed to protect the occupants.Among available options are 18-inch chromed-aluminum wheels ($995, included on the tester), a power sunroof ($800, also included) and an oil pan heater.Our Premium tester also came with an upgraded audio system with navigation and satellite radio ($795).Total sticker price was $32,480, including freight and options. The exterior was Brilliant Blue Metallic, and interior was Saddle leather.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org