Buick eyes 'pure conquests' with Encore small crossover
Photo credit: GM
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DETROIT -- General Motors today unveiled a compact Buick crossover that executives say will carve out a new market niche: the small luxury crossover.
The Encore is Buick's fourth brand-new entry in the past five years and its latest bid to attract younger buyers.
Buick executives predict that the petite crossover's maneuverability will appeal to young, active urban dwellers who want the versatility of a compact crossover without giving up amenities like parking assist and a plush, quiet interior.
"This vehicle is going to play in white space," says Tony DiSalle, vice president of Buick marketing. "There aren't direct competitors in a luxury small crossover in the United States today."
Built on a version of the same front-wheel-drive platform that underpins the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact, the five-seat Encore is 168.5 inches long. That's nearly 20 inches shorter than a Chevrolet Equinox. The Encore's 70-inch width is 2.5 inches narrower than that of the Equinox.
The Encore most closely resembles two small luxury crossovers sold overseas but not in the U.S.: the BMW X1 and Audi Q3.
BMW may introduce the X1 here this year. Audi said Monday it will sell the Q3 crossover -- shown as the Vail concept -- in the U.S. market with annual sales targeted at 8,000 to 10,000. It did not provide a time frame for the Q3's launch here, but it will go into production in late 2013 in Europe.
The closest U.S. competitor to the Encore in terms of dimensions is the Mini Countryman, says Jim Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics Inc., a suburban Detroit consulting firm.
Photo credit: GM
GM plans to launch the Encore in the United States in early 2013. It will be built in South Korea and also sold in China and other international markets.
The Encore will be offered in all-wheel drive. It will have an Ecotec 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that will deliver 140 hp and 148 pounds-feet of torque. It is mated to a Hydra-Matic six-speed transmission. GM expects it to get 30 mpg on the highway.
The exterior features creases and swoopy lines, along with signature Buick cues such as a waterfall grille, portholes on the hood and plenty of shiny chrome. It'll come standard with 18-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels.
Buick marketers will spend plenty of time touting the Encore's plush interior, which has become a central focus for Buick in its continued comeback.
The Encore will get Buick's voice-activated IntelliLink system, which uses Bluetooth or a USB to connect the driver's smartphone to a color, 7-inch display radio.
GM takes Buick's quiet-cabin emphasis as step further by giving the Encore so-called "active noise cancellation." It uses ceiling-mounted microphones to detect engine noise, while computers process the frequencies and send counteracting sound waves through speakers and a subwoofer to cancel out the unwanted sound. It is Buick's first use of the technology.
The Encore's passenger seat folds flat to boost storage space to 48.4 cubic feet with the rear seat also folded flat -- room for golf clubs and luggage for a weekend getaway, a Buick press release says. Other interior features include ice-blue ambient lighting, optional heated steering wheel and rain-sensing wipers.
Hall says the interior of the Countryman is "nowhere near as plush" as that of the Encore. But the new Buick's engine could be a weakness, he says. The Encore's 1.4-liter engine delivers 41 hp less than the Countryman's turbocharged 1.6-liter engine.
Dave Lyon, Buick's executive director of design, acknowledges that the Encore's size not only "may be a little bit hard to place" in the U.S. market but may also be a shock to traditional Buick buyers accustomed to the big, floaty Buicks of yore.
But Buick isn't going after traditional Buick buyers.
"This is pure conquest," says Lyon, meaning Buick plans to poach customers from other brands, especially buyers of Japanese or European cars who've long shunned GM vehicles.
The average age of a Buick buyer has fallen in recent years amid the brand's product revival, to 59 last year from 65 in 2006, according to GM. Strategic Vision, a San Diego market research firm, puts the age higher: 67 last year down from 72 in 2007.
Lyon calls the Encore's small size a "contrarian play." He says Buick also went against the grain five years ago when it introduced the Enclave, the brand's full-sized crossover.
Back then, most automakers were still trying to give larger crossovers trucklike features, Lyon said. But Buick eventually settled on a more elegant design that struck a cord with non-Buick buyers. The Encore's sales continue to rise.
Photo credit: GM
Careful to keep it a crossover
Achieving a compelling crossover design on a vehicle as small as the Encore was tricky, Lyon says.
"We had to really manage the proportions of the glass, the position of the A-pillar, the heft of the front end," Lyon said. "If you're not careful and it ends up looking like a wagon or a hatch, it's toxic."
One key was the 18-inch wheels, which are relatively large for the vehicle's size. That, Lyon says, gives the car an athletic stance that would have been hard to pull off with smaller wheels.
"When I see companies not getting a crossover right, it seems like they decide: 'That extra wheel size is too much mass or too much cost,'" Lyon says. "You may have saved 50 bucks on the car, but now you have to charge five grand less because people think it's a wagon or a hatch."
To coax buyers into a crossover as small as the Encore, they must be convinced that it's decidedly more premium than other crossovers in the same price range, says Dave Sullivan, a product analyst at AutoPacific Inc. (Buick won't announce pricing until closer to the vehicle's launch).
"Buick is blazing a trail by being first to market with a B-segment premium crossover," Sullivan says. "It remains to be seen whether they ventured far enough away from the platform underneath it to give buyers that premium experience."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.