Bringing Home a Good Lesson Learned in China
2008 Buick Enclave
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007; G01
To understand the 2008 Buick Enclave, you've got to understand the luxury segment of the Chinese automobile market in which Buick is a top seller.
That's Buick as in B-U-I-C-K, long an ignored player in the U.S. automobile business and frequently the butt of geriatric jokes, as in: "He's so old he still drives a Buick."
Buick has been in China since 1912. There, it is a revered automotive badge, especially among the country's upper-income groups who demand top quality and who hold prestige and honor -- they call it "face" -- as sacrosanct.
Buick's status in China probably surprises many Americans, as it surprised me on several visits to Shanghai General Motors, a 50-50 joint venture between General Motors and Shanghai Automotive Industry, established in June 1997.
I said I was "surprised." That's an understatement. I was shocked beyond belief by China's acceptance of Buicks. Moreover, I was stunned by the superior quality of the Chinese Buicks I drove (on a Shanghai GM test track) and saw.
Those Buicks were better than any Buicks I'd ever driven or seen in the United States. They were solid and whisper-quiet. Fit and finish were impeccable. Interior craftsmanship -- the way materials blended with one another; the impressive attention to detail on the smallest items, such as the feel and weight of glove-compartment doors -- was awe-inspiring.
It made me angry. I became the unruly guest railing at my GM hosts for what I thought was a slap in the face to GM's home market. "Why do you guys give this kind of Buick to the Chinese while giving us crappy Buicks at home?" I asked.
I was in no mood for polite talk. Nor was I mollified by an answer from one of the Shanghai GM officials: "This is what the Chinese market expects from Buick," he said.
I wanted to punch him. I chose sarcasm instead.
"I suppose that means GM plans to live up to the expectations of the American market and stop selling Buicks in America," I said.
He assured me that I was wrong.
I didn't believe him then. But I believe him now. I've driven the 2008 Buick Enclave CXL crossover utility vehicle, the grandest of tall wagons from any manufacturer, probably the best Buick ever built. It has everything the upper-income segment of the Chinese market expects, right down to the exquisite, blue-ringed detail of its articulating headlamps, which turn with the steering wheel.
Clearly, the American market also loves what Buick has done with the Enclave. GM is having a hard time keeping up with demand for the model, which is a rare, happy problem for GM.
Look at the Enclave CXL. Someone at GM has fallen in love with stylistic controversy. It's about time! You'll either love or hate the sweeping boldness of the Enclave's side panels, the 1950s throwback brashness of its big-toothed grille, and the side portals on its dramatic hood. That's a good thing. Buick was headed toward oblivion trying to please everybody with vanilla, inoffensive, downright boring styling that pleased no one. Not everybody will like the new Enclave's appearance. But it's a safe bet that no one will ignore it.
Step inside. What I've found distasteful in recent automotive styling is slavish obeisance to the notion that cars must look like, feel like or otherwise reflect the high-tech world in which we live. Baloney!
After sitting in front of a computer screen for hours, I don't want to drive one. I don't want an automotive interior that reminds me of my laptop, cellphone or iPod that's already obsolete. I want timelessness. I want romance. I want to be coddled, to be seduced. I want warmth, comfort or some other element of sensual fantasy. I don't want a gigabyte.
The Buick Enclave gives me everything I want, including a jewel-like analog clock -- analog, yes! -- in the center of the instrument panel. All the high-tech devices -- sensor-laden active and passive safety systems, onboard navigation, OnStar emergency communications system, rear power liftgate door, plug-in portals for every imaginable electronic infotainment device -- are there, too. But GM wisely has relegated those gizmos to servant roles in the Enclave. They do not overwhelm, do not intrude.
This is the first Buick that I, my wife Mary Anne and my associate Ria Manglapus were reluctant to return. We worked every angle to hold onto it a day or so longer, although we had several other vehicles waiting to be driven. We like the Enclave CXL. But what we like best is that the GM that has so much "face" in China at long last has decided to save it in America.
Welcome home, GM. Welcome back, Buick.