Posted: May 26, 2009

Executive wheels: 2009 Buick Enclave AWD

A home run for Buick - finally

Jeff Rundles

When you drive into my hometown, Flint, Mich., there is a sign on the highway that proclaims the city “Buick Town.” As we all know, there isn’t much left to celebrate in that Buick is an integral part of General Motors and GM is, obviously, in big trouble.

I find it interesting, however, that with all the trouble GM is having, what they are looking to do is cancel Pontiac (they already deep-sixed Oldsmobile), off-load Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Opel, but the company is holding steady to its core units Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac and Buick.

You would think, on cursory examination, that Buick here would be the weak unit. Chevy is, of course, the bread and butter of the company. GMC makes trucks and is probably the only unit that made any money at all over the last several years. Cadillac is the only truly luxury brand (read: high margin), and its latest models, led by the CTS-V are generating quite a buzz. And Buick for 2009 is down to only three models: the LaCrosse and Lucerne sedans and the Enclave, its sport utility entry.

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Moreover, if you look around at who is actually driving Buicks, it is almost invariably an older person; the young seem to eschew the line entirely. I have a good friend who has late-model Buick LeSabre, and while he is teetering on being in the older category, he actually got the car from his aging mother when she passed away, so it fits the profile.

But here are a couple of things to consider in Buick’s favor. First, the line consistently ranks high in the J.D. Powers ranking of owner satisfaction, right up there with the Lexus’ of the world. And second, GM has apparently been having quite the successful run with Buick in the emerging Chinese market. Indeed, for 2007 Buick sold 330,000 units in China, more than twice the volume in the U.S. market, and it is the top-selling GM brand there. The Chinese seem to believe that a Buick sedan is the height of luxury.

It is all rather odd. When I look at the latest Cadillacs, for instance, they have been restyled and re-sized to appeal more to the Mercedes/BMW/Lexus buyer. They are very European looking, with the added benefit that they are equipped with some of the best muscle and performance to come out of Detroit in many a year.

Buicks, on the other hand, at least the sedans, strike me as the epitome of the American car over the last many years. They don’t look European or Japanese. They are largish sedans, the kind of ride my wife likes to call “Dad cars.” They rank high on quality and all that – which is sort of un-American, if you know what I mean – but Buick hasn’t exactly generated any wow factor, especially with younger people, for a long time.

Part of the reason may be the old-style look of the sedans, of course, but another part has to be the fits and starts the line encountered when trying to get something launched in the profitable SUV and minivan markets. Over the last several years, the line has had the Rendezvous and Rainier SUVs and the Terraza minivan, none of which met with much success and with the Terraza lasting no more than three model years. The Rendezvous was oddly shaped and never got any traction, even during the boom times for SUVs; the Rainier was a re-worked Chevy and, as such, plain and overpriced; and the Terraza was just a complete dud. They called it a minivan, but it was kind of a crossover, neither fish nor fowl; actually just foul.

Now, I have always been a Buick fan, owing to my heritage from Flint, and driving them over the years has, for the most part, been a pleasure. I remember a few years ago doing a review on a LeSabre, raving about it, only to have people snicker at me. I also did test drives in the earlier SUVs/minivan, and I remember saying they seemed as well-made as the LeSabre, just not as well thought out from a style point of view.

So I hear a few weeks back that I am to get the new Enclave, and my expectations were very low, given the line’s recent SUV history – but my hopes were high, as always. I was not disappointed.

I was not alone. All during my week-long test drive, people I encountered looked at the handsome Enclave, asked me what it was, and then gave me the good “Hmmmm….” Not rousing endorsements, but not rejection out of hand either. Once anyone got inside the vehicle, the reactions were much stronger – stronger to the good. “A Buick? Really? This is so nice!”

And I had an unusual opportunity for testing the public response. Every year my son’s school sponsors a neighborhood home tour as a fundraiser and, as usual, the event was crowded. Being spread out throughout the community, organizers have asked me every year to be a “driver” to shuttle people around. Normally, we borrow some vehicles from nearby Ford and VW dealers – and we did this year (we had several shuttle drivers), but I elected to use the Enclave. To rave reviews. Everyone asked me what it was, all proclaimed it very nice, and a few said they were in the market for such a vehicle and would now go take a closer look at Buick. “Who knew?” was what one guy said.

Then my neighbor, who between him and his wife has two Land Rover LR3s, so you know where his style quotient is, said the lease on his vehicle was out and could I recommend a replacement for his next one. His stated goal was to go for a tad less money, the Buick Enclave fit the bill, I had the top-of-the-line model right there, so I let him drive it. He was impressed. I don’t know yet if he will buy one – the decision is still a month away when the lease expires – but the Enclave was definitely high on his list which is – trust me – quite a feat for Buick. A few years ago no one coming from a Land Rover would have given Buick a second thought.

I test-drove the Enclave CXL AWD, the top of a four-model line. Essentially there are two trims – the CX and the CXL, which I assume means it is the “Limited” upscale trim – and they each come in front wheel drive and all wheel drive.

The Enclave is what I would call a mid-sized SUV – somewhat larger than a VW Toureg or the Toyota Highlander, but somewhat smaller than the Toyota Sequoia or the Ford Expedition. A very nice-sized vehicle, especially considering that it seats seven – two up front in bucket seats, two in the second row in captain’s chairs, and three, if they are small, in a rear bench.

Beautifully appointed, the one I drove had leather seats in the first two rows that were made of great leather and were very comfortable – not cushiony soft like Buicks of old, yet not as stiff as BMW. They were great seats, with plenty of leg room, shoulder room and head room. If there was any complaint about the seating at all it was that you kind of had to shuffle between the second row seats and duck to get into the third row. No big deal, and I have seen much less access. Once they were seated, all of my passengers said they loved the seats.

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One of the great things about the rear seating is the DVD entertainment system. Obviously, this is a big selling point for people with families, as the kids love to watch movies or play with their video games back there, and it keeps them occupied on long drives. Anyone with children knows what I mean. But during the home tour, I put in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and I had people lingering to see the end of the scene. Even French persons. The operation of the system was easy, the sound and picture excellent. The entertainment system was part of a package that included touchscreen navigation (easy to use and effective), a Bose sound system throughout, rear seat audio controls, a 110-volt power outlet and XM radio nav traffic – the package cost $4,045.

I have already said I thought the vehicle was handsome – for once, Buick really hit a home run on the styling. But what really impressed me was the driving. All the Enclaves feature a 3.6-liter V6 with 288 hp, a powerplant that felt much more powerful than that. Very smooth with the six-speed automatic transmission, the engine is very responsive and very powerful in a vehicle of this size. I drove it all around town, on the highway and even into the mountains and never once felt as though it lacked for power. I was quite impressed with this engine. The AWD model is rated at 16 mpg city and 22 highway; once again, those are impressive numbers for a vehicle of this size.

The handling was also impressive. In every situation in traffic and on the highway, I felt as though I was in total control and actually had fun driving. Also, the car was easy to park and a real pleasure just to ride around in. The road noise is almost nonexistent – this is a very quiet vehicle – and it is just a pleasant cruiser. Great for errands. Great for picking up the kids. A wonder for a trip to the mountains with the family.

The base price on Enclaves start at $35,070 for the CX FWD and rise to $38,440 for this CXL AWD model. On my test-drive vehicle the standards included: five-year 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, four-year/50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, anti-lock brakes (very nice), stability control with traction control, remote keyless entry, one year of OnStar, a power liftgate in the back, high-intensity headlamps, fog lamps, power windows, heated outside mirrors, 19-inch machined aluminum wheels, leather seating, heated front seats, power front seats, tri-zone climate control, universal home remote, tilt and telescope steering wheel, am/fm/cd radio, auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth and three months of free XM radio. They added on the aforementioned entertainment package for $4,045, chrome wheels for an additional $1,495, a power sunroof with a second row skylight (very nice) for $1,400, a package for $920 with review camera, ultrasonic parking assist, remote start, a luxury package for $750 with heated power-folding mirrors, articulating headlamps (they swing from side to side as you turn; odd, but cool) and power tilt and telescoping steering wheel. Heated and cooled seats for $650 and $425 for a trailering package. Add $735 for destination charges and a wheel content credit of $300, and the bottom line is $48,860.

Now, that ain’t cheap, as they say. But this is the first non-sedan Buick I have ever seen that is at least competitive on price and carries a “wow” factor. This is an upscale, luxury vehicle, packed with all the bells and whistles, and the price is better than I would expect.

A home run for Buick. Finally.

RATING: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR) 

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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Readers Respond

The Enclave is indeed a great car, but not "easy to park". Nevertheless, much better than MDX, Pilot, Flex, etc. for 3rd row head/leg room and 2nd row bucket seats (dog needs the space in between. Great styling and too many features to list. Only issue is back window visablity and taht the car seems much bigger when trying to pack. Maybe in the future they'll add auto park like the new Lincoln MKT. Proud that its a USA company. By Robert on 2009 07 21
They added on the aforementioned entertainment package for $4,045, chrome wheels for an additional $1,495,<a href="http://www.cobizmag.com">.</a> By Coby on 2009 07 03

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