The new Buick Enclave SUV follows Buick's rich styling tradition and is eminently practical and refreshingly carlike.
Buicks have been among General Motors' best-styled cars since General Motor's first two legendary, colorful chief stylists, Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, took deep personal interests in Buick models.
The first GM experimental concept car was the 1939 Buick Y-Job, developed by Earl, who drove it on a regular basis. Earl's 1953 Buick Skylark was a styling masterpiece with its lowered body and windshield, and Mitchell's 1963 Buick Riviera coupe also was a stunner.
Even late-1940s Buicks got flowing lines and, decades later, sleek Jaguar-like styling. But the Enclave is the first Buick truck that belongs with the Buick auto crowd when it comes to beauty contests.
The Enclave is similar in many respects to GM's GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook. Each has unique styling, but the Enclave looks the best.
This new Buick comes with front-drive or all-wheel drive and in CX and higher-line CXL trim levels. List prices go from $32,055 for a CX with front drive to $36,255 for the version I tested -- a CXL with all-wheel drive.
The variety of options includes a $1,300 power sunroof with a skylight for second-row occupants and a $4,320 Entertainment Package, which contains navigation and DVD entertainment systems, rearview camera, rear audio controls and an upscale Bose sound system. There also are gorgeous $1,495 alloy wheels for the CXL, which I wouldn't want to subject to winter road salt here.
Some top Japanese SUVs aren't built better than the Enclave. And even the base CX is loaded with comfort and convenience equipment, including a power tailgate for those with arms loaded with groceries. There's also tri-zone climate control, power front seats, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player and power mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry
Rear power windows zip down all the way to facilitate reaching for food in fast-food outlet drive-through lanes. But I couldn't get the express-down driver's power window out of express mode with the window switch. Stopping it when it was going up in express mode was no problem, though, and it has an anti-pinch feature.
The CXL adds upscale items including leather upholstery, heated front seats and front passenger seat with a wider range of power adjustments.
This is a family vehicle, so safety items include anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, electronic stability control with rollover mitigation technology, front side air bags and curtain side air bags with rollover deployment.
Seven-passenger seating is standard with second-row bucket seats that allow a wide aisle to the third-row bench seat. A second-row bench seat also is offered for eight-passenger seating.
The first- and second-row seating areas are roomy, although the large front bucket seats could use more lateral support in curves. The third-row seat area is remarkably spacious for two 6-footers. It can be easily reached from the outside because second-row seats slide forward and have easily used flip-forward bottom cushions and sliding backrests.
You can't just jump into the Enclave as you would a sedan. But its floor is reasonably low, and long doors with large outside handles assist entry. Occupants sit high, and large outside mirrors enhance driver visibility.
The upscale interior is quiet, with such things as an acoustic-laminated windshield and triple door seals. The luminous gauges are easy to read even in bright sunlight. Climate and sound system controls are small, but within easy reach.
The shifter partially blocks the two console cupholders for the driver, but the covered console storage bin is deep, although the pockets in all doors are too small to be of much use. Dual lights for each front visor mirror are a thoughtful touch, but the elegant-looking center dashboard analog clock is too small to be easily read at a glance.
The cargo opening is wide but rather high. There's a decent amount of cargo room even with the third-row seatbacks in an upright position, and the third seat folds flat into the floor to significantly expand the cargo area. Second-row seatbacks also fold forward to further increase cargo space.
The six-speed automatic transmission upshifts smoothly. While responsive, it can be caught in too high a gear and then selects a lower gear in a jerky manner during sudden downshifts.
The Enclave has a 3.6-liter V-6 with 275 horsepower. The smooth, quiet engine provides lively in-town acceleration and decent merging and 65-75 mph passing. But this SUV is quite heavy at 4,780 to 4,985 pounds, so don't expect neck-snapping acceleration from this fairly large, equipment-loaded SUV. (Buick might offer a 2010 Enclave with a potent V-8, and the V-6 probably will get more power.)
Fuel economy is an estimated 16 mpg in the city and 24 on highways with front-drive and 16 and 22 with all-wheel drive. Those are the EPA's lower 2008 figures, which would be a few mpg higher if 2007 estimates were used. Only regular-grade 87-octane fuel is needed, although Buick says 89-octane delivers the "best performance."
The carlike Enclave might be compared with an updated 1971 Buick Estate station wagon. Steering is precise, and the ride is smooth and well-controlled over bad roads. The tall-but-wide Enclave is stable, with moderate body sway when taking curves quickly. However, its size and weight discourage driving in an overly sporty manner. The brake pedal has a linear action and allows quick, undramatic stops.
The hood has an interior lining and swings up on a single strut to reveal a large plastic cover for the sideways-mounted engine and easily reached fluid filler areas.
Buick should have a winner with the Enclave, which is handsome, practical, safe and easy to drive.
2008 BUICK ENCLAVE
LIKES: Sleek styling. Decent acceleration. Roomy. Safety items.
DISLIKES: Shifter gets in way of cupholders. Seats need more lateral support. Heavy.