CHATTAHOOCHEE HILLS, GA – Cue the dueling banjos, as the new-for-’13 Buick Encore embarks on a journey into the unknown.

Arriving at U.S. dealers now, the 5-passenger compact cross/utility vehicle joins a sparsely populated segment consisting of the Volkswagen Tiguan, Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke.

During a media preview here, the CUV demonstrates a competent and fuel-efficient powertrain; surprising roominess for its spritely frame; flexible cargo-carrying options; and the sort of maneuverability that could make it an urban darling.

Encore pricing across four trim levels ranges from base, front-wheel-drive models starting at $24,950 to all-wheel-drive versions beginning at $28,940. Loaded AWD models top out at $33,700.

General Motors makes one powertrain choice available, the 1.4L turbocharged direct-injection 4-cyl. engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission .

The combination boasts excellent fuel-economy ratings, and we average an equally impressive 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) while flogging a well-equipped FWD model on mostly rural back roads in upstate Georgia. The Encore bests its rivals on fuel economy.

The Honeywell turbocharger sends the CUV off the line quickly enough, and the transmission’s steep first gear lets the engine’s 148 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) of peak torque run freely. A tall overdrive delivers the fuel economy at cruising speeds.

In a short stint along downtown Atlanta’s busy Peachtree Avenue, we deftly dart about traffic. With a relatively tight 36.7-ft. (11.2-m) turning circle, the Encore parallel parks in a snap and makes quick, uninterrupted U-turns between the curbs.

As at home as it feels in an urban setting, we can imagine it being comfortable prowling the malls of suburbia, too, with its 48.4 cu.-ft. (1.4 cu.-m) of total rear cargo room loaded to the gills from a day of shopping. Light rear seats fold easily to open the space.

However, the Encore might face a hurdle on the showroom floor against its competitive set, which each offer bigger 4-cyl. engines either approaching or surpassing 200 hp.

The deficit is not easily addressed: Nothing larger than the 1.4L fits between the Encore’s frame rails.

The CUV boasts the brand’s suite of QuietTuning technology, such as an acoustically laminated headliner, acoustic front glass and thicker side glass, and foam insulation in body cavities where noise amplifies.

The 18-in. Continental tires, big for this size vehicle and awfully attractive, were designed to minimize rolling noise.

This Buick also adds for the first time active noise cancellation from audio expert Bose. The system specifically targets engine noise and ably mitigates underhood whine using microphones inside the cabin to identify unwanted sounds and then emits a frequency to offset them. GM says the technology is predictive, too, anticipating when to react based on engine speeds.

On the road, the Encore is quiet but lacks the tomb-like cabin of the more refined Enclave large CUV or LaCrosse large sedan. Despite the technology, the interior suffers from a very un-Buick-like amount of noise from the pavement and other vehicles passing us on the freeway.

There are other quibbles with the cabin.

The 2-tone saddle leather looks great on seats and door panels, imparting the rich Buick colors to which we’ve become accustomed, but on the instrument panel it comes off as bland as a terra cotta pot.

Rear seat ingress and egress is tight, although Buick points out the yuppie and newly minted empty nesters the vehicle targets probably will never use the second row. Unusually large rear head restraints obscure the driver’s vision when they are up, so the standard rearview camera comes in handy.

There are fit-and-finish issues as well, such as spots where the leather puckers along the stitching and where lower inside door panels come together. We also notice an exposed fastener in the passenger-side footwell.  

All is practically forgiven, however, by gripping the meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel that comes standard. It looks great and feels even better.

Ice-blue ambient lighting, a standard Buick cue nowadays, also scores points, as does the 2-tier glove box and numerous little cubbies for stowing personal items. The Encore makes smart use of modest space.

Do not let the Encore’s exterior proportions fool you, either. The tall roof allows for surprising headroom and elbow room, even in the second row. Second-row legroom is adequate.

Exterior styling leaves no mistaking this CUV for anything but a Buick. There are plenty of attractive family traits, such as the waterfall grille, portholes on the hood, tasteful use of bright work, blue-accent projector headlamps and prominent 3-shield Buick badges in the front and rear.

Painted lower panels give the Encore SUV ruggedness, while a wide track and razor-thin overhangs convey sportiness.

A kink to the chrome trim wrapping the rear day-light opening is particularly fetching, and those big tires surround available 7-spoke chrome wheels that look fabulous against the metallic-painted sheet metal.

The optional BorgWarner Active AWD system always starts with 4-wheel sure-footedness before switching to the more fuel-efficient FWD mode. If slip is detected, it remains engaged until conditions become safer.

Expect a 5-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., as well as Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, GM says.

Ten airbags come standard, and so do forward collision alert, front- and rear-park assist and the rearview camera that connects with a rather modest 7-in. (17.8-cm) display screen that also houses Buick’s user-friendly IntelliLink infotainment system.

The Encore is underpinned by a MacPherson-style front suspension with coil springs and an oversized stabilizer bar, while the rear uses a compound crank torsion-beam design.

The CUV exhibits good road manners, and we especially like the absence of body roll in the corners, a bit of a surprise given the short wheelbase and tall roof. The fuel-saving electric power steering system comes from Nexteer.

As many great attributes as the Encore has, it comes to market at a time when fuel prices remain relatively low and consumers still largely carry a more-is-better attitude.

Still, North American production in the small CUV/SUV segment will grow 10.5% to 2.1 million builds in 2015 from 1.9 million this year, according to a forecast from WardsAuto and Automotive Compass.

Globally, the forecast calls for output of the pint-sized people movers to rise 11.1% to 13.6 million units from 11.7 million in the period.

Output of the Encore, which is assembled in South Korea and China, is expected to be between 101,000 and 107,000 units annually over the 3-year period, and early U.S. dealer allotments will be reserved to the higher-volume-selling franchises among Buick’s 2,200 store fronts.

The China factor will further constrain availability stateside. The CUV is all but assured unqualified success in the People’s Republic.

That makes the Encore an adventurous, but hardly reckless, play for GM. Sort of like paddling into the rapids with a tightly drawn life jacket.

jamend@wardsauto.com

’13 Buick Encore
Vehicle type Front-engine, FWD small CUV
Engine 1.4L turbo gasoline direct-injection DOHC 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 138 hp @ 4,900 rpm
Torque 148 lb.-ft. (200 Nm) @ 1,850 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 72.5 X 82.6
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 100.6 ins. (255.5 cm)
Overall length 168.5 ins. (428 cm)
Overall width 69.9 ins. (177.5 cm)
Overall height 65.2 ins. (165.6 cm)
Curb weight 3,190 lbs. (1,390 kg)
Base price $24,950
Fuel economy 25-33 mpg city/hwy est. (9.4-7.1 L/100 km)
Competition Volkswagen Tiguan, Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman
Pros Cons
Punchy, efficient 4-cyl. Rivals more powerful
Handsome exterior Imperfect interior
Fits downsizing trend But is it too small?