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Edmunds drives an Enclave

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First Drive: 2008 Buick Enclave

A twice-around-the-clock test-drive in Buick's next big thing
By Daniel Pund, Senior Editor, Detroit
Date posted: 05-08-2007

What can be accomplished in 24 hours? Well, one could run the entire length of the annual Le Mans endurance race. One could fly from Los Angeles to London, by way of Tokyo. Or one could even finish an entire dinner in Italy — well, almost.

We have chosen instead to spend our 24 hours test-driving the 2008 Buick Enclave. We were unable to get an Enclave from Buick, since the company's official media test-drive won't happen for another couple of weeks. But the 2008 Enclave, Buick's most significant new vehicle in years, is already on sale, so we took matters into our own hands and secured a test vehicle from a Detroit-area Buick dealer. Although General Motors discontinued its 24-Hour Test-Drive Program a couple of years ago, we learned that if you ask nicely a salesman will let you have a vehicle for a day.

So let's see: 24 hours minus dinner equals 23 hours. Twenty-three hours minus giving the child a bath equals 22 hours. Subtract a little time for sleep and various other assorted bits of personal business, and we figure we'll have a solid 12 hours in the SUV that Buick says carries the brand's new face and is its most significant introduction in many years.

Hey, that's more driving time than manufacturers typically give on a first-drive opportunity.

New Blue Eyes
Though General Motors would have the world believe that the Enclave (along with its fraternal twins the Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia) represents a dramatic, new concept in motor vehicles, it doesn't. People movers with carlike unibody platforms and SUV pretensions are nothing new. Some German and Japanese makers are well into their second-generation versions of such vehicles.

What is new, however, is the concept of compelling, cohesive styling from Buick. The Enclave concept vehicle that appeared at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show proved to be a surprise hit. And the production vehicle maintains all of the concept's graceful lines and voluptuous curves. Even the fake portholes and the headlights with the blue rings made it to production.

The Enclave comes in two trim levels: the base CX and feature-laden CXL. Both versions are equipped with the same 3.5-liter V6 matched with a six-speed automatic. Both come standard in front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available as an option.

The dealer loaned us a front-wheel-drive, base-level Enclave CX, and even its boring silver paint and painted 18-inch wheels couldn't completely conceal the Enclave's beauty. At an MSRP of $32,295, our test vehicle carried zero options. The window sticker noted that the company cut $495 from the price because this CX has a second-row bench seat instead of the second-row captain's chairs.

It Ain't "Mini" Anything!
Simply looking at photographs can't give you a sense of the Enclave's dimensions. Like many natives of Michigan, the Enclave is a massive, bulky thing. It's an impression backed up by the specifications. The front-drive Enclave weighs in at a whopping 4,780 pounds. Throw a couple passengers and a small piece of luggage into the back and you'll be driving a vehicle that presses the pavement with more than two-and-a-half tons of shiny mass. An Enclave with the optional all-wheel-drive system starts at two-and-a-half tons.

Because General Motors has given up on minivans, the Enclave must take the place of those not-so-mini people movers. And this requires size. At 118.9 inches, the Enclave's wheelbase is only a couple inches shorter than the extended-wheelbase version of the outgoing minivans and almost 3 inches longer than the full-size, V8-powered Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon utes.

Thanks to its unibody construction and independent rear suspension, however, the Enclave offers more maximum cargo capacity than the thirstier Tahoe, 116.2 cubic feet to 108.9. And for passengers in the standard third row, the Enclave offers almost 8 inches more legroom than does the Tahoe.

Sweet Marshmallow Fluff
And while the 275-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 has a heavy load to carry, the Enclave isn't slow. A mechanically identical Saturn Outlook that we tested ran to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, and we anticipate the Enclave will do about the same. If you've been reading only sport-sedan road tests lately, this will seem slightly slower than a large mountain. However, in our comparison test of 2006 minivans, not one of them could do the deed in less than 9 seconds. So slow is relative.

More important, the Enclave feels plenty quick enough. This is in part thanks to the engine's respectable 251 pound-feet of torque. Our one powertrain quibble is that the six-speed automatic transmission is too eager to upshift and too lax about downshifting. This is no doubt designed to optimize fuel economy. The EPA estimates a front-drive Enclave will return 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. According to the vehicle's trip computer, our very green example averaged 16 mpg in mixed driving.

Regardless of how many miles the Enclave will roll on a gallon of regular gas, each mile will likely pass by quietly. The Enclave glides around town as quiet and smooth as Buick would have you believe it is. The engine sends just a faint vibration through the steering column and pedals under acceleration. Otherwise, the Enclave driver is almost completely isolated from the outside world — in a mostly good way. The softly tuned suspension and the tall tire sidewalls smother all but the biggest bumps. The four-wheel disc brakes respond to the pedal smoothly and progressively. And wind noise is nearly nonexistent.

As you might expect, driving the Enclave quickly down a curvy road is something like ushering a very drunk friend down a hallway. There's lots of weight lunging left, then right. There's nothing spooky or unpredictable about the way the Enclave handles. It just doesn't want to be rushed. And we're not sure that handling prowess is very high on our list of things we require from an eight-passenger vehicle. We suspect we'd be much more interested in keeping our passengers comfy and quiet. This the Enclave will do.

Near (If Not Beyond) Precision
Unlike many recent Buicks, the Enclave's cabin feels upscale. Its surfaces are low-gloss and the various panels fit together nicely. Unfortunately, Buick appears to have spent its entire allotment of interior money for those in the front two rows. By the time the company got to the third row, the designers had only enough money left for a single, almost featureless piece of hard plastic as wall decoration.

Luckily, getting to the third row is easy with what Buick calls "Smart Slide" second-row seats. With one pull on a fat plastic lever, the seat bottom flips forward and the seat back slides forward, pushing the seat bottom to the back of the front seat. It's easier to do than to describe. It's a clever solution. The mechanism is occasionally balky and the lever feels cheap.

And those third-row passengers do at least get the same roof-rail-mounted airbag protection as the second-row folk. These two bags are part of the six-airbag arrangement that's standard on all Enclaves; the standard OnStar Automatic Crash Notification system will call an advisor if an airbag does blow. But standard traction control and stability control with rollover mitigation should help reduce the chances of testing those airbags.

Buick has made some odd choices for standard equipment convenience items. For example, our front-seat passenger wondered why all Enclaves come with a standard power-operated rear hatch, but she had a manual control for her seat recline. Also we'd prefer a power-folding third-row seat more than a power-operated rear hatch. But a power third row isn't even offered as an option.

Other than semi-cheesy velourlike upholstery, the CX feels nicely equipped. Standard goodies include power windows, remote keyless entry, HID headlights, automatic three-zone climate control, a sassy wood-and-leather-covered steering wheel and a decent stereo that includes an auxiliary input for your MP3 player.

The CXL brings standard leather upholstery, fully power-adjusted front seats that are also heated and 19-inch wheels for $34,990. Add the optional navigation system, the articulating headlamps, remote vehicle starter, ultrasonic parking assist, rear-seat DVD, power sunroof, rearview camera, and you'll push well past the $40,000 mark.

In the Enclave
Still, that price represents a good value in the luxury crossover market. And while the 2008 Buick Enclave might need some further refinements to bring it all the way to a Lexus RX-level of execution, that we can bring ourselves to mention the Lexus in the same sentence as the Buick illustrates what a huge improvement the Enclave is compared to previous Buick people movers.
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