Last week, while getting ready to drive the new 2013 Buick Encore in Atlanta, I learned a new marketing term: "white space." This refers to a product aimed at a previously untapped vein of customer. In a business where every vehicle gets focus-tested within an inch of its carbon life and yet often still struggles to lure buyers, white space doesn't come easy.
With the Encore, Buick thinks it's not only created a new car, but also an entirely new mini-segment where once merely white space existed. Among luxury sport utilities, Encore is The Littlest Duckling, 168 inches and change long and only about 70 inches wide. Buick has gone small, almost as small as the Mini Countryman, and is aiming straight for the hearts of, well, some very specific people.
In a marketing presentation that was longer than its technical one, Buick representatives explained who they're lusting for. The first target, recent empty-nesters who don't need to drive big SUVs but still want something comfortable, sounded generic but made sense. The annoying car-business term for this phenomenon, which Buick used repeatedly, is "right-sizing."
But their second target seemed a bit mythical. A marketing guy described a meeting he'd had with a 25-year-old female urban professional who'd received a Scion xB from her parents for her 16th birthday. She liked the car's size, but she was a big girl now and wanted a grownup car with grownup amenities. That, the marketing guy said, was the person for whom Buick had built the Encore, a dream customer who's "open-minded," "creative," "active," and "spontaneous." In other words, they're targeting Zooey Deschanel's character in New Girl.
But will Buick pin down its ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Consumer? Let's examine the evidence. The Encore has a lovely and evocative name, one of the best in recent years. Unfortunately, the name comes bolted to a pretty unattractive car, albeit one with some nice accent features, including a flowing waterfall grille, a few bits of headlamp "jewelry," and a cooler version of the traditional Buick hood portholes. But that can't obscure the fact that, in the Encore, Buick has taken the underpinnings of the Chevy Sonic and engineered a vehicle without a face or a rear end, almost entirely wheelbase. Imagine the Buick Enclave with a butt tuck and a nose job, and you're in Encore-land.
The Encore's lead designer told us that "it's small on the outside, has oodles of volume on the inside," like (he didn't add but it would have been awesome if he did), Doctor Who's spaceship, the TARDIS. The Encore interior actually felt pretty cramped, but the car does contain oodles of what they call "premium" materials: Bright chrome accents, wood grain trim, ice-blue ambient nighttime lightning, and "fabric with leatherette accent." I sat in several different trim levels, and liked one, alluringly called "saddle up and cocoa," which was many different shades of leatherette brown. But the whole thing felt fake to me, like a Cheesecake Factory hiring a sommelier.
The Encore's chief engineer said that it offered "a spirited driving experience." Mightily though I tried, I couldn't locate much spirit. Buick sent us on a cruise through some Georgia country roads, largely traffic-free, with long, sloping drops. The car rolled nicely downhill, with an accelerator so soft it felt like I was pressing down on a cream-filled pastry. When I had to go uphill, or even straight ahead, the Encore protested, but eventually the 138-hp 4-cylinder got the job done. The brakes were fine, and the electric steering more than adequate, though at one point when I missed a turn and had to flip a U, the Encore displayed the turning radius of a tortoise. If you're going to trumpet your car's smallness, it should be able to spin on a nickel.
I found the seats cramped, though my experience improved when I discovered a button that inflated the lumbar area like a little balloon. But the rear-view mirror was way too small, and the side mirrors weren't big enough, either. I was pleased to see that the center console wasn't excessively high-tech, but it also wasn't particularly intuitive. It took my co-driver and I several minutes to try and figure out how to activate the digital map.
But now, to the car's best feature: It's an acoustical marvel, featuring a fantastic Bose Active Noise Cancellation system, until now only available in Cadillac models, that makes any engine noise sound like a pleasant, distant hum. Also, the Encore has the same Bose stereo system as the seven-passenger Enclave. For at least a few minutes, the system turned a dull drive into a crazy rolling dubstep party. If someone wanted to build a mobile recording studio, the Encore would be perfect.
The other guys on the drive trip — and they were all guys, as usual — seemed to like the Encore. One of them said to me, "it's got a lot of pep for a little four-banger." I wondered if I'd missed something, or if they'd lost their collective minds because Buick had bought us a nice dinner the night before. Depending on the trim level and options selected, the Encore runs between $24,950 and $33,700, which seems like an awful lot of money for a car with a 1.4 liter engine, mediocre leg room, and minimal trunk space. Its EPA fuel economy is 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, which is good but not groundbreaking. Yes, the floor mats are plusher than average, but will that be enough to win faux Zooey Deschanel's heart? "Better than the Nissan Juke" isn't going to be a workable slogan. With the Encore, Buick has left open some precious white space.