The 2013 Buick Encore rides well for such a short vehicle, with good steering feel and roadholding that belies its tall-wagon shape. It just doesn't have enough power to let drivers really take advantage of those qualities.
Its sole powertrain is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, that's offered in the Chevy Sonic subcompact. In the Encore, it's rated at 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. The turbo is tuned to offer peak power from less than 2000 rpm to almost 5000 rpm.
The problem is that even the lightest Encore weighs almost 3,200 pounds, and adding all-wheel drive--plus passengers, luggage, and a full tank of gasoline--can push it up to the two-ton level. That means that the little turbo four has a lot of pork to move around. And to maximize fuel efficiency, the automatic is tuned to upshift quickly--meaning that to get good acceleration when you need it, it has to downshift not once but twice. In fact, we once registered the automatic having to downshift three gears to give us the power to merge into fast-moving traffic.
You can do zero to 60 mph in about 9 seconds in the lightest, front-wheel-drive Encore. That goes up to 10 seconds if you add all-wheel drive, though the 150 pounds you add seems to improve the ride as well as adding traction. That AWD system is tuned to send power to the rear wheels on every launch, shifting the power increasingly to the front if there's traction up to 37 mph--by which time the Encore is being propelled only by the front wheels. Even if it's not really needed much, we suspect the AWD system will be a popular fitting in the Northeast and anywhere there's snow to be found.
Despite its large 18-inch wheels, short wheelbase, and economy-car suspension design--struts up front, torsion beam in the rear--the Encore rides well under almost every circumstance. Urban hazards, from expansion joints to potholes to steel plates on the road, can cause some light chop, but overall, the littlest Buick belies its size when you're in one of its well-padded seats. The electric power steering is good, too, with the right mix of centering and simulated feedback even on the least-maintained highways.
But, again, weight matters. Adding three adult men to an AWD Encore exhausts any reserve power, and we found ourselves using a heavy foot just to keep up with traffic in that case. The added avoirdupois, on the other hand, damped more rough spots in the road and improved the ride. A lone driver in a lighter front-wheel-drive Encore could make time with less effort, at the expense of a slightly choppier ride.