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Buick Encore is good, not luxurious

Before Mamie Rearden died earlier this year, she had the distinction of being the country’s oldest U.S. citizen. She was 114.

Buick was born the same year, in 1899, making it one of the more geriatric automotive brands on the market. But with its Encore, the Detroit automaker is once again striving to resuscitate its formerly lustrous image, with a trendy crossover targeting the almost affluent.

Ask Joan Rivers. It’s difficult to maintain the illusion of youth without the use of procedures far more invasive than Botox, which is why Buick has packed its mini SUV with more rejuvenators than the comedian’s face.

A 7-inch, full-color display radio and rearview camera are standard across all four trims of the $24,200-plus Encore, as is the power driver’s seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and voice-activated IntelliLink system to command the audio and navigation and access online services such as Pandora and Stitcher.

Like most crossovers, the Encore is available in front and all-wheel drive versions, the latter of which operates differently than others on the market. It engages when stopped in case there’s wheel slippage when accelerating off the line and gradually eases torque from the back wheels up to a speed of 35 mph, at which point the car switches to front-wheel-drive unless it senses compromised traction.

The Encore is the smallest vehicle in Buick’s five-model lineup and is powered with its smallest engine. Its turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder makes a modest 138 horsepower to heave its five-passenger body but yields one of the best fuel economy figures for its size: 28 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive version.

I was testing the all-wheel-drive model, which I took to my usual flogging grounds of highway, inclines and twisties, where it had little difficulty climbing hills or smoothly shifting its six-speed automatic transmission.

It was, however, noisier than ideal, especially at higher speeds, where I could hear more road and surrounding traffic than desired. The Encore marks Buick’s first use of Bose Active Noise Cancellation. It was only effective at reducing engine noise.

Looking up from my tall captain’s chair perch, there were two small microphones in the headliner – part of a trio of mikes that measure interior sound and process it through an amplifier that sends canceling sound waves to drown out the engine, but it isn’t broad-band enough to combat some of the more annoying ambient effects of driving. At least the Encore Premium version I tested was outfitted with a compensatory system for which Bose is better known – seven-speaker premium audio.

There’s a lengthy list of features that can be had as options on the Encore, including various safety upgrades. My car was equipped with lane-departure warning and forward-collision alert systems, the latter of which was handy during the many times cars veered in front of me from another lane. Each time, a dashboard graphic worthy of a superhero comic flashed the words “front collision alert” and beeped urgently for me to steer clear.

The reason to purchase an Encore instead of a sedan from Buick is, in part, its functionality. It seats five comfortably, for the most part, though adult passengers in the second row will be happiest with a short-legged driver.

The second row folds flat, but the process for achieving that is more complicated than it is with some competitors. First, a tab needs to be pulled at the base of the seat cushions to flip them forward, after which the back rests can fall flat. The front passenger seat also collapses flat, opening up enough space for a surfboard or ladder.

With its Encore, Buick continues to bill itself as a luxury brand with useful, oftentimes pampering amenities wrapped in a package that’s elegant but lacks the look-at-me status. Its exterior profile is attractive in a snub-nosed, bulbous sort of way. But pull open any of its five doors, and the interior is a pastiche of high-contrast gray, black, chrome and wood accents, the likes of which would never be found in a comparable European product.

The most bothersome aspect to the Encore is Buick’s insistence that it’s still a luxury nameplate. In reality, it’s in the same league as small crossover offerings from Toyota, Honda and Mazda, which places it in a very competitive mainstream pack. It’s a less esteemed metric, but in it, the Encore holds its own.

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