It's the type of paradox that makes General Motors' number of divisions such a dilemma. Buick sells 72 percent of its cars in North America through dealerships shared with Pontiac and GMC. GM hopes to have all those dealers selling all three brands someday soon, so the last thing Buick needs is a rebadged GMC. And yet, to reestablish itself as an aspirational marque for buyers (well) under 65, the first thing it needs is something with the style and elegance of the new Enclave. Success pretty much depends on whether the Enclave's unique sheetmetal and interior convince buyers to choose it over the likes of Mercedes-Benz R-Class, Lexus RX 350, and Audi Q7.
You know what the Enclave is under its voluptuous skin. GM's Lambda platform provides seven or eight seats with a minivan-size third row, a 275-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, and front or intelligent all-wheel drive in the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook. Chevrolet will get its own version for 2009, presumably priced and equipped below the $27,990 Outlook. It's a unibody replacement for the rear-drive GMT360/375 (Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy/Buick Rainier/Saab 9-7x/Isuzu Ascender) and the late and unlamented minivans. In the Buick lineup, the Enclave ostensibly replaces the cheap-feeling Rendezvous. Even if this Buick Lambda represents another example of GM platform-model proliferation through its myriad carlines (Hummer crossover, anyone?), the Enclave is a vast improvement over all it replaces.
Why should you care about this old-fashioned GM divisional madness? Because this class system of brands, perfected at GM and copied with less success by Ford Motor Company and Chrysler, is the basis of the U.S. auto industry, the reason the Big Three needs to maintain a certain production volume. These days, brand distinction is done not with "a car for every purse and every purpose," but with marketspeak catchwords and phrases. When it works well, it justifies Pontiacs and Buicks, Mercurys, and Chryslers. When it doesn't, it proves the late columnist Herb Caen's postulation that "all American cars are basically Chevys."
Thanks to the Enclave, Buick has rejustified its existence. It still needs work, but this is a start. Because you know about the Enclave's siblings, you know how it rides and handles. It's too heavy for the 275-horse, 3.6-liter variable-valve timing V-6 under the hood. It moves okay and, as our June issue's comparison test indicates, is only a tenth of a tick slower to 60 mph or through the quarter mile than the lighter CX-9. But all that weight makes the six-speed labor hard to launch you out of tight turns, up hilly roads, or onto busy freeways. Downshifts often can't come quickly enough.
GM is planning an Enclave Super, though it won't yet confirm the four-porthole, V-8 version. It looks to be a 2010 model with GM's upcoming new DOHC engine-let's call it the "high-feature V-8"-likely 5.0-plus liters with gas direct-injection and variable-valve timing for better power and economy. With higher CAFE standards inevitable, it'll be low-volume, possibly with the Enclave the only Lambda to get the engine, another potential feather in Buick's differentiation cap. The V-6 will get more power and torque, too, as soon as GM can build more direct-injection 3.6s like the one premiering in the 302-horsepower 2008 Cadillac STS.
The Enclave's ride is isolated, comfortable but with moderate roll. This wide, tall Buick is stable and planted, handling well for a large, comfortable crossover utility where the size and weight will make you back off well below the limits. Steering pays homage to the numb Electra 225s of yore with poor feedback, especially on-center. Precision is decent, though, requiring few steering corrections.
The Enclave stands out for its quiet ride. There's something to that "Quiet Tuning" marketingspeak. The Enclave gets several things at the factory that its intradivisional counterparts don't: an acoustic laminated windshield and front-door side glass, special damping material on the underbody (tar), and triple door seals and engine mounts. You don't have to raise your voice much to be heard by any passenger.
Its nicely designed interior is as tangible an improvement over the other two as its organic, Coke-bottle sheetmetal is compared with their creased lines. It offers carefully selected colors and textures, and it's well screwed together. The Enclave is still mass-produced, though. The handsome mahogany steering-wheel trim snitches on the veracity of the dash and door-trim "wood." The wood and the leather steering-wheel rim feels good in your hands, but contrasts harshly with the hard plastic on the back of the steering-wheel hub, and some of the plastic and vinyl grains could be finer.