Friday, June 15, 2007

Yet More Good News

Smooth Enclave SUV Flows to Top of its Class

Detroit Free Press
By Mark Phelan

June 14, 2007

ST. LOUIS – General Motors executives have been telling us for years that Buick had a bright future that grew out of a glorious past when its cars were powerful, luxurious and desirable.
Buick could compete with Lexus for comfort and quality and beat the upstart Japanese luxury brand on style and value, they said.

And for years, we've looked at Buick's product line and said, "Huh?"

It's been a long wait, but the 2008 Enclave delivers on GM's boasts. The Enclave, a fuel-efficient, six- or eight-seat car-based SUV, justifies GM's faith and immediately moves to the head of a competitive class of hot-selling vehicles including the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, Lexus RX 350 and Volvo XC90.

Enclave prices start at $32,055 for a front-wheel-drive CX model. The least- expensive all-wheel-drive model starts at $34,055. The CXL model adds standard features with a base front-drive model going for $34,255 and all-wheel-drive starting at $36,255. All models share a powerful 275-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine and GM's new six-speed automatic transmission.

I tested several Enclave models over the course of more than a week. This review is based largely on the well-equipped $38,980 front-drive CXL model I drove from St. Louis to Detroit , with a side trip to Evansville, Ind., to test its cargo capacity while helping my friend Annie move into her new house.

The Acura MDX, which only comes with all-wheel-drive, has a $39,995 base price. The Audi Q7 – also available only with AWD – stickers at $39,900. Prices for the Lexus RX 350 start at $37,400 for front-drive and $38,800 for AWD. A base front-drive Volvo XC90 will run you $36,135; AWD models start at $37,985.

The cost equation becomes even more appealing because the Enclave has the best fuel economy in the bunch and is engineered for maximum performance on regular gasoline. The MDX, RX 350 and Q7 all require premium.

Beyond the numbers, though, the Enclave has the sensual appeal to drop jaws and win new customers.

Its graceful styling flows from a single line that wraps from the Buick badge in the grille, through dramatically flared fenders and to the tailgate for a unique and athletic appearance.

Two of the three Enclaves I tested had a lovely rich, brown paint that looked like the vehicles had just been dipped in wet cocoa. The third Enclave was an attractive maroon, but the paint had some "orange peel," an irregularity in the finish that left the surface looking less than mirror-smooth.

The interior also approaches, but doesn't quite attain, perfection.

At any speed from neighborhood ambling to fast highway runs, the Enclave's passenger compartment is as quiet as a tomb – but more comfortable and better ventilated.

The interior is trimmed in attractive, soft-touch materials, the controls are easy to use, and the flexible seating system makes the Enclave the most comfortable eight-seat vehicle I've tested.

Front leg and headroom are excellent, as you'd expect in a 202.2-inch-long vehicle. Second-row space and seat comfort are also excellent, with seats that slide fore and aft to adjust legroom and tip forward easily to provide easy access to the rear seat.

The third row was a revelation, with more than enough legroom for adults to travel happily and comfortable cushions.

While the second-row seats fold flat easily for big loads, the rear seat needed a little coaxing, a reach and a push to fold flat. It didn't take much effort, but short folks may have trouble with the reach, and I expect the seats to fold away on their own in a luxury vehicle.

A couple of other minor interior-fit shortcomings showed up in my test. The two pieces of chrome trim around the classy analog clock in the dashboard didn't quite fit together perfectly. Nor did the lid of the handy storage compartment in the dash just above the clock, and there was a noticeable gap between the carpet and a piece of plastic trim in the front passenger footwell.

None of those shortcomings is enough to cost the Enclave its best-in-class rating, but the pieces will have to fit together like a parquet floor before the Enclave can challenge Lexus and Audi for the best interior finish.

On the road, the powerful V6 provides excellent acceleration and quiet, smooth cruising, though the transmission occasionally hunted between gears in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. There was also a lag before downshift for maximum acceleration in highway passing.

The steering is assured, with good feedback and well-tuned speed-variable assist. Brake power and pedal feel are excellent.

The Enclave lacks the MDX's sport-tuned handling and steering, but it's a responsive and enjoyable vehicle to drive. It's quieter and more forgiving of rough road surfaces than the Acura, and more responsive and eager to carve curves than the Volvo or Lexus.

Standard safety equipment includes front-seat side air bags, curtain air bags, ABS and stability control.

The Enclave comes from the same Lansing assembly plant that builds the Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia SUVs. It shares its basic engineering with those models, but its swoopy body and upscale interior are exclusively Buick's.

After stumbling along for too long with so-so products that were distinguished by neither substance nor style, it's exactly what Buick needs.

A few years ago, I was at a dinner with top GM executives and other auto writers. We were told GM Chairman Rick Wagoner would stop by our table and answer a couple of questions.

"I've got a question," Road & Track's Matt DeLorenzo joked before Wagoner got to us. "What's a Buick?"

We all laughed. Buick's so-what character had become farcical. We knew the cars it built; there was nothing Wagoner could say that we'd take seriously.

The 2008 Enclave is Wagoner's answer to that question: A Buick is the best six- or eight-seat luxury SUV you can buy for less than $50,000.