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First Look: 2008 Buick Enclave
The quinquagenarian's Buick. Can we trust GM to really differentiate the new Enclave from its Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia siblings?

By Frank Markus
Photography by Brian Vance

Big things are about to start happening at Buick. We've all heard those words before, and they sounded like a load of marketing hooey at the launches of Buick's me-too truck, minivan, and midsize sedan. Our eyes rolled a little less when we heard the same pitch at the Lucerne launch, though even that car was built on hand-me-down platform architecture. The crossover 'ute pictured here will be the first Buick built on a new platform designed from the ground up to achieve the division's new goal: Get the under-60 set to U-turn out of the Lexus dealer's driveway and into the one bearing the tri-shield. But Buick didn't get exclusive dibs on the new Lambda architecture, so can we trust GM to really differentiate the new Enclave from its Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia siblings?

The answer is yes, providing 90 percent of what you see in this Detroit-show-starring driveable concept car survives to production, as all company reps insist.

To begin with, the three vehicles look nothing alike. The Saturn has a vaguely Asian aspect to it, smoothly flanked with prominent fender flares and an oversize Sky-style grille, and the GMC will appear way more rugged and trucklike. Exterior designer Ariel Choi says the Enclave is sculpted "to remind one of a beautiful golf course--nothing flat or level, yet conservative." Yeah, okay, Buick needs all the mileage it can get out of its investment in Tiger Woods. Many details are reinterpreted from the striking Velite convertible concept, like the portholes on the hood, chrome flourishes all around the car, and the oval-shaped black-chrome waterfall grille that appears to cascade from the plane of the hood down toward the bumper. Choi admits seeking influence outside the studio, often from architecture, and he credits the success of the final shape (what you see is what you'll get, except on smaller 18 to 20-inch wheels and with a dual sunroof in place of the full-length bronzed-glass roof) to a team of mostly under-30 designers and gifted clay sculptors.

The Rendezvous minivan-cum-'ute that the Enclave will ultimately supplant was designed in a dedicated Buick studio, while these three crossover triplets were penned in the Lambda architecture studio, so that all the designers could see the direction each brand was heading and ensure there were no inadvertent similarities.

Buick's Lambdan is by far the most curvaceous and carlike, and it wears the dressiest jewelry, starting with the headlamps. The main high-intensity-discharge projector lenses are ringed in blue, and the barrels for the inner high-beam projectors seem to have faceted sapphires stuck to them. Add to these the wide chrome rings around the side glass and the taillamps, plus chrome wheels and door handles, and the message is clear: This ain't no Chevontiac or Toyonda. Perhaps Choi's greatest stylistic triumph was shrinking the visual mass of what is in fact a big honkin' 'ute (it's as long and wide as a Chevy Tahoe, but six inches lower).

A big bod is needed to comfortably carry eight people, which all three Lambda 'utes will do, when configured with 60/40 split-folding bench seats in the two back rows. With one hand, the middle-row seat's bottom cushion flips up as the whole seatback rolls forward to provide a wide path into the rear seat. It can then be positioned anywhere along the track to apportion legroom and cargo space as needed. Buick claims the third row will boast best-in-class space among the crossovers. The concept car features the optional captain's chairs, though the elaborate rear center consoles and wooden tray tables aren't likely to reach production.

Most of the rest of the interior design should survive to the showroom, including the copious wood-tone trim on the dash and door panels and the brushed-aluminum accent rings and strips. Keep your fingers crossed for the light-up door-sill plates, though they're a long shot too. Interior design director Michael Burton says his team was aiming for a private-jet ambiance (hence the four separate DVD players and screens, including one that doubles as the front-passenger vanity mirror--none of which will see production as shown). The form language evokes a time when Buicks were highly expressive and aspirational, and blends vaguely art-deco semi-circular elements with high-tech execution (like electroluminescent lighting). The overall effect is dramatic, sumptuous, and considerably more appealing than any Buick in recent memory.

The Lambda crossovers were conceived to provide the passenger and cargo space Americans want (either 148 cubic feet of people room or 117 cubes for cargo with all the seats down) in a lighter, more fuel-efficient package. Toward that end, they'll all launch with a 3.6-liter DOHC V-6, expected to make 270 horsepower in the Buick. Teamed with a new six-speed automatic and front- or on-demand all-wheel drive, the Saturn is already rated at 24-25 mpg on the highway--two to four mpg better than a Tahoe with the cylinder-deactivating V-8 engine. Hence no V-8 will be available at launch, though a small-block would likely fit.

A brief drive in the concept car revealed nothing useful about ride, handling, or performance, but gave an accurate feel for the package. Visibility in all directions is excellent from the front and middle row seats, though the driver doesn't get much of a look at the hood, which may make it hard to judge when parking in tight quarters. Ride height is also just about right--up far enough to see through or over most traffic, down low enough for most adults to slide easily into the seat.

Buick is also sure to apply its full arsenal of sound-deadening gear to the Enclave, in pursuit of a Lexus-like library-quiet ambience. With a little luck, that plus the Enclave's sumptuous accommodations and sleek style will be sufficient to lure the neo-AARPers Buick covets.

2008 Buick Enclave
Base price $33,000-$35,000 (est)
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD or AWD, 6-8-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.6L/270 hp (est)/247 lb-ft (est) DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 4800-4950 lb (est)
Wheelbase 118.9 in
Length x width x height 202.3 x 79.0 x 71.1 in
0-60 mph 7.5-8.0 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 16-17 / 24-25 mpg (est)
On sale in U.S. Early 2007
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