“Wouldn’t you really rather drive a Buick?”
For years, the answer to the question posed by this decades-old tagline for most people younger than 70 would have probably been “no thank you.” When my wife and I were shopping over four years ago for a new family hauler, I had my eye on the then-new Enclave, and she was less-than-eager to be seen as a Buick driver. After all, her Grandma was still driving a late-80s A-body Century at the time. We didn’t end up buying the Enclave, not because of its image, but because it was more expensive than the minivan that we settled on.
The Enclave did begin turning around Buick’s image with buyers, and subsequent products like the second-generation LaCrosse, the reborn Regal, and compact Verano served to further improve Buick’s image among the younger crowd. The funny thing is, from my point of view, after launching products like the LaCrosse, Regal, and Verano after the Enclave, the Enclave seems to cater more to the “traditional” Buick buyer than any of the others, aside from the LaCrosse. I think Buick is still working on defining its identity; it can’t go through life aspiring to be the “American Lexus.”
The Enclave is one of three very similar large crossovers built by GM on its so-called Lambda platform. No other GM vehicles share this platform, though there is plenty of parts-sharing evident both below the surface and in plain sight between the Enclave and other GM vehicles. Off the top of my head, the drivetrain, steering wheel, switchgear, navigation system are all found elsewhere in the GM lineup. There once was a fourth Lambda, the Saturn Outlook, but we all know what happened to Saturn. The Outlook’s stampings live on, however, in the updated 2013 GMC Acadia. The revised Acadia will use the Saturn’s rear body stampings for a slightly different shape than the original Acadia featured. The third member of the family is the Chevrolet Traverse, which we’ve covered several times before.
Of note, the 2013 Traverse and Enclave will also be heavily revised (particularly their interiors), but powertrains won’t change, and driving impressions will probably be similar between this 2012 and the new 2013s.
Not only is the Enclave the best looking among its corporate cousins, but it also has the nicest interior. Where the Acadia and Traverse have hard plastic on their dashboards, the Enclave has soft-touch materials. I hadn’t spent time in an Enclave in years prior to testing this 2012 model, but my earlier recollection that older Enclaves had a hard plastic dash may or may not be correct. At any rate, it’s not in the 2012, and will be covered in imitation leather in the revised 2013 models. The fake wood on the dash and door panels looks almost realistic, and there is for the most part a cohesive curve-heavy design across the dash and the rest of the interior.
Sadly, the Enclave is seriously lacking in the latest in-car technology. It does have Bluetooth connectivity for handsfree phone use, but the notion of Bluetooth streaming audio from your iPhone is a pipe dream. There is a USB port that you can use to connect your iPod, iPhone, or other media player, but it’s connected to a 2005-vintage double-DIN head unit with a low-resolution display, slow control responses, and a frustrating user interface. Don’t get me started on the navigation system, either – it’s slow, lacks detail, and generally one of the poorest examples of in-car navigation out there. I love in-car navigation systems, but I’d probably go with an aftermarket Garmin installation if I were buying a 2008-2012 Enclave rather than the factory unit.
As in the Acadia, seating comfort decreases drastically as you move from front to rear. The front thrones are wide and comfy with high backs and reasonable support (a little too cushy for my liking, but not awful). The second row has good room, and with captain’s chairs, but the seats are low to the floor (and the Enclave loses the legroom battle against the Lincoln MKT). In the third row, you can put kids back there, but adults who have fully-formed legs will hate you for asking them to sit there. This isn’t a minivan, you know.
Cargo volume – one of the primary reasons people supposedly buy crossovers and SUVs – is in short supply behind the third row when that seat is in use. However, the second and third rows fold flat to the floor, and it’s cavernous back there when you start folding seats. After all, these are very large vehicles. Though not as space-efficient as a minivan, the Enclave is lighter and has a better ratio of inside room to outside footprint than do its larger brethren like the Suburban or Yukon XL.
For a big crossover, the Enclave can move fairly well. Its suspension is tuned more toward comfort than is the Acadia’s. Since few folks will be autocrossing one of these big boys, that might be OK, even for someone like me who prefers firmer suspension. My wife complained of her head being tossed side to side when riding in the Acadia Denali at a rapid clip on a back road, but remained silent on the same road at similar speeds in the Enclave. A more isolated ride coupled with a more isolated interior (extra sound-deadening, called “QuietTuning,” for instance) may make happier passengers, both of the spousal and child varieties.
I thought that the brake pedal felt somewhat mushy in the Enclave – something I noticed as well in the Acadia. Braking performance overall was adequate; I’m not expecting a $2,500 set of track-ready Brembos in a family-hauling crossover, after all. For my right foot, though, I would have felt a little more confident in the big Buick’s braking abilities had the pedal feel been a bit more firm.
There were rumors during the Enclave’s earlier years about a future V8 option, or perhaps a twin turbo V6 (kind of sounds like Ford’s EcoBoost V6), but those rumors either were never true, or the winds changed due to GM’s financial troubles and eventual bankruptcy. It’s a shame, because the Enclave is no lightweight, and it would be a significantly more engaging drive with another 50 or so horsepower. It’s hard to imagine that such powertrain upgrades (particularly a boosted V6) would harm fuel economy significantly, since it was pretty sub-par in my time behind the wheel. During a week of mixed driving – mostly commuting solo – I saw a combined 16.5 miles per gallon, or just above the EPA city rating of 16 MPG. The EPA rates the Enclave at 22 MPG on the highway. The latter seems to be theoretically possible, but it burns quite a bit of fuel getting up to highway speed.
The as-tested price of our test Enclave was $50,950 (including $810 destination charge). The only options in this Premium Group-equipped tester were the $3,185 audio system with navigation and DVD entertainment, $1,400 power sunroof with second row skylight, $300 chrome-clad 20″ aluminum wheels, and gorgeous $195 Carbon Black Metallic paint.
You’ll find similar passenger room in the larger and more expensive Yukon XL or Suburban, and the Buick’s pre-refresh (2008-2012 model year) interior bests that of its full-size body on frame cousins, including offering similar usable passenger space. The Enclave also enjoys the benefit of being more politically correct than driving a Suburban, if that sort of thing is important to you. But the Suburban and Yukon XL can top the Enclave in towing and in straight-line performance (though at a mileage penalty). Lincoln’s MKT, while ungainly looking, offers a nicer interior and better powertrain options. As always, your choice will depend on your priorities. If you’re looking for good looks and comfort, and put less of a priority on performance and economy, the Enclave might be the semi-luxury crossover for you.
Buick provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.