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.
As with other modern unibody SUVs, this living-room luxury-along with market demand for three rows of seats, every type of stability and traction control, and every possible airbag iteration known to man-has offset the weight advantages these new car-based SUVs intend to offer. The 2008 Enclave is 8.4 inches longer than the 2007 Buick Rainier (a two-row SUV) with a six-inch-longer wheelbase. The Rainier tows up to 2200 pounds more than the Enclave and is about 450 pounds lighter. Compared with the three-row V-8 GMC Yukon, though, the Enclave is just 0.2 inch shorter and 600 pounds slimmer.
At the $3.50 gas pump, this means plus-2 mpg city and plus-3 mpg highway versus either the Yukon or Rainier six, based on 2007 EPA numbers. The 2008 Enclave uses the new EPA calculation, which drops fuel mileage 1 mpg city, 2 mpg highway for AWD models and 2/2 mpg for FWD models. The real advantage these new things have over trucky SUVs is that they can legitimately be called cars. Tall as it is, with its length and proportions, the Buick Enclave melds SUV and minivan into a modern station-wagon shape, heir to an early 1950s Roadmaster Estate or a 1971 Estate Wagon. Squish one of those wagons at both ends to make it not quite so long, but taller for good interior space, like watching a wide-screen movie on a small, square TV, and you've got the Enclave.
Further adding to its Buickness, the Enclave starts out more opulent than the Acadia or Outlook. The CX comes with patterned cloth seats, six-way power driver's seat, two-way power passenger's seat, power liftgate, MP3/CD/XM six-speaker stereo, power liftgate, rear backup camera, and HID "blue-eye" headlamps, shades of Frank Sinatra. Base price is $32,790, plus $2000 for AWD. The CXL trim package adds unique-tread Michelins on 19-inch wheels, perforated leather seating surfaces with eight-way power, heated seats with memory and driver lumbar support-$34,990 for FWD and $36,990 for AWD. Options include a large, two-panel sunroof, premium audio, DVD player, nav, and power tilt-and-telescope wheel; and dealer accessories include 20-inch wheels and a two-way advanced remote-start system that'll let you check such things as security status and whether any doors are unlocked from afar. The Buick costs a couple grand more than the Acadia, which costs a couple grand more than a base Outlook; and they all can be luxed up to within an inch of each other. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see whether Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealers demand an Acadia Denali. If the Buick Enclave does its job, dealers won't want one.
Building a better brand: What Buick must do next
Once upon a time, Buick was on top of the world. Design chief Harley Earl blessed it with his attention, bringing modern, flowing lines to the 1949 models. By 1954, the preternaturally aspirational brand passed blue-collar Plymouth for third place in sales. GM doesn't need to sell to people who remember those days, but just as 1959 Cadillacs set the attitude for GM's luxury division, early-1950s Buicks can inform that brand how to compete with low to mid-Lexus and Audi models. Here's the recipe:
Enclave: Add the V-8 Super for 2010, exclusive to Buick's Lambda, plus maybe a hybrid version.
Epsilon front-drive sedan: When the 2009 LaCrosse gets this platform, it should start as well equipped as a midlevel Saturn Aura and option up to full-boat luxury for those who don't want to give up front drive, competing with Lexus ES 350. Include a luxury-equipped hybrid version.
Zeta rear-drive sedan: North America gets the Holden Statesman-based Park Avenue just introduced in China for 2010 or 2011. For cost, it'll probably come over virtually unchanged, but it could use new sheetmetal with Enclave-style side surfacing and perhaps a more formal roofline. At the very least, it must lose the Impala-like taillamps. It should range from the low $30s, with a direct gas-injection 3.6-liter V-6 to the $40s for a full-boat high-feature V-8 model, positioned like a sedan version of the Enclave. Name? "Velite" still sounds good, though "Invicta" or "Electra" would add a nice touch of post-modernism.
Halo: Buick is pushing for a production coupe like the Riviera concept or the Velite convertible concept, but it awaits approval. Once Buick's comeback is secure, it deserves a halo on the short-wheelbase rear-drive platform. A Velite ragtop could be to the Zeta sedan what the 1953 Skylark was to the Roadmaster, but the Riviera is much more likely.
| 2008 Buick Enclave CXL AWD |
| BASE PRICE || $32,790-$36,990 |
| VEHICLE LAYOUT || Front engine, FWD/AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV |
| ENGINE || 3.6L/275-hp/251-lb-ft* DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
| TRANSMISSION || 6-speed automatic |
| CURB WEIGHT || 4800-5000 lb (mfr) |
| WHEELBASE || 118.9 in |
| LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT || 201.8 x 79.0 x 72.2 in |
| 0-60 MPH || 8.2-8.4 sec (MT est.) |
| EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON || 16-22/16-24 mpg** (AWD/FWD) |
| CO2 emissions || 1.063693-1.030625 lb/mile |
| ON SALE IN U.S. || Currently |
| *SAE certified; **2008 EPA method |