Buick Enclave — Right sized for a big family

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Buick Enclave is in its fourth model year and feels as fresh as it did four years ago when we first encountered it.

The Enclave in 2007 was a sure indicator of the big change coming for GM’s storied brand; a brand that had slipped into an old guy car funk. Sales in 2007 were in the tank and getting worse, the Enclave was Buick’s sole highlight. Rumors abound that Buick would be the next GM division to get the ax following in Oldsmobile’s footsteps.

In large part, thanks to China, Buick survived as they did again during the 2009 bankruptcy as Pontiac got the pink slip. Buick is big in China and no way could it be terminated in the U.S. And with survival, General Motors sped up development of new, hip, up-to-date products with the nearly full-sized LaCrosse sedan and then the compact Regal; however, it was the trendy large crossover Enclave that fit neatly into and led the transformation, and in fact can be considered the beginning of the new success.

The Enclave is the high end model of General Motors’ three vehicles off the so-called Lambda platform that has been well received by consumers. Despite minimal changes over the years, the Enclave has been a consumer favorite leading Buick sales in 2009 and finishing second in 2008 and 2010. There’s been no letup in 2011. Through the first five months of this year, the Enclave has racked up about 2,500 more sales than this time last year (24,000) and is the Buick sales leader about 500 ahead of the hot-selling LaCrosse.

The Buick (as do the Chevy and GMC versions) features a 3.6-liter V-6 engine with 288 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The Enclave offers excellent build quality, acceptable handling traits, decent gas mileage, and real-world room for six or seven passengers, plus all-wheel drive bad-weather capability and upscale interiors.

The Enclave has for four years challenged the luxury market with a stylish body that includes a large signature Buick waterfall grille, huge wheels, a wide stance, a beautifully designed dashboard, soft leather seating and library-quiet interior. And for extra measure, it comes with three traditional Buick portholes.

The interior is no less classy. The surroundings are tastefully plush with upscale materials. Seams are aligned and pieces neatly fit together. The double-stitched leather in the seats is soft to the touch and inviting. Inside is amazingly quiet, offering perhaps the most solitude of any American-made crossover. The gauges have aqua backlighting with white markings making them easy to read in sunshine or with sunglasses on.

It is exactly the right vehicle for confidently and comfortably hauling six people with easy access to the third row.

The Buick did a good job attracting attention while sitting in the driveway. One woman in our neighborhood offered this unsolicited comment: “I don’t really look at cars, can’t really tell one from another, but that car is the most beautiful I’ve seen in years. I want one.”

Whether it’s the big Buick grille or the flow of the lines, including a chrome roof rack that artfully curves with the roof, or simply the whole package we can’t say. But positive remarks on the Enclave styling were so many that we would be remiss in not reporting them.

The Enclave is a big vehicle weighing in at 4,780 pounds in front-wheel-drive configuration and nearly 5,000 pounds with all-wheel drive. So it needs a lusty engine to confidently pull the weight, and the 3.6-liter V-6 is up to the task.
For comparison purposes the Enclave can complete a 0-to-60 run in a tick or two under 8 seconds. It can also tow 4,500 pounds, which is plenty for the guy who hauls a boat, and has a payload of 1,631 pounds, which will more than handle six or seven passengers and cargo. And it can carry 23.3 cubic feet of cargo behind the third row and an impressive 115 cubic feet with all seats folded.

Gas mileage is acceptable for a big hauler rated at 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway in two-wheel drive. The good thing here is that the V-6 works fine on the less expensive regular gas.

Despite its size the big Buick handles well in parking lots and acquits itself as well as most vehicles in the big crossover segment on the winding roads of America. The ride is somewhere between plush and firm and should not be distracting to any passenger. The seats are comfortable, gauges attractive and the switchgear is intuitive. The familiar GM navigation system is easy to program and use.

The Enclave comes in three trim levels — CX, CXL 1 and CXL 2 — starting at $36,640. The CXL 1 begins at $39,755 and the top of the line CXL 2 starts at $43,120.

For those who need the passenger and cargo space and want the pizzazz the Buick offers over more middle-of-the-road models, but are on a budget, the base 36 grand vehicle is loaded with standard equipment including 19-inch wheels, bi-zexon headlights, a power liftgate, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, tri-zone automatic climate control, six-speaker audio system with satellite radio, and Bluetooth connectivity.

Big-ticket options on all trim levels that may sorely tempt the buyer are an upgraded audio system with rear-seat entertainment and navigation ($3,185) and the dual skyscape sunroof ($1,400).

All Enclaves come with such safety features as stability control and a full range of airbags including full-length side curtain airbags. Also noteworthy, the Enclave earned a top five-star rating for overall performance in the government's more strenuous 2011 crash testing.

Our top line CXL 2 test vehicle came with the two aforementioned options and carried a bottom line of $47,755.

After our 350-mile test week we easily concluded that the Enclave remains a very satisfying and stylish way to carry the family and all its cargo.

Base Price: $36,640; as driven, $47,755
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 288 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 270 foot-pounds @ 3,400 rpm
Drive: front-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 118.9 inches
Length: 201.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,780 pounds
Turning circle: 40.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 18.9 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 115 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 4,500 pounds
Fuel capacity: 22 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 24 highway, 17 city
0-60: 7.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mazda CX-9, Lexus RX 350, Acura MDX

The Good:
• Classy styling inside and out
• Spacious passenger and cargo compartment
• Top safety ratings

The Bad:
• Big size hampers maneuverability

The Ugly:
• Watch out, price can climb toward 50 grand with options