It was 2006. The Detroit Auto Show. Buick was pulling the wraps off a large SUV. Granny gets a truck. I’ll take a truck-full of NoDoz, please. What happened next was entirely unexpected.
Buick hit it out of the park.
The sexy Buick Enclave – yes, I just used sexy and Buick in the same sentence — was proof that the struggling brand had a pulse. Retiring the Rendezvous and Rainier dinosaurs, Buick took the opportunity of GM’s new, unibody Lambda platform to redefine the SUV. The result was a head-turning crossover as the Enclave lit up the Detroit stage like a Baroque beauty out of a Paul Rubens painting: Big-boned, athletic, drop-dead gorgeous.
This was not your grandma’s SUV, but a sensual chassis that inspired future Buicks like the cop-magnet Regal RS and the sassy Buick Encore crossover. Buick’s daring was rewarded (isn’t it always?) as Enclaves flew off the showroom floor faster than a Rubens painting at Sotheby’s. But it’s one thing to wow the world with a new bod — and another to stay fit year after year. Just ask Kirstie Alley.
I recently drove a 2015 Enclave wrapped in $54,185, premium trim. Does it have what it takes to compete over time? The big SUV is still gorgeous, but a closer look reveals cause for concern.
Let the record show that Enclave had its best sales year ever in 2013 with 60,534 units sold. After a 2013 update, the Enclave’s looks are still fresh. Despite its size, the 4,700-pound SUV is beautifully proportioned with firm shoulders fore and slinky hips aft. Standing tall on 20-inch heels — er, wheels — the Enclave beckons you to follow it down the road.
The evening gown competition doesn’t end there. The waterfall grille is flanked by big, almond-shaped headlights. The grille carries a little too much chrome jewelry for my taste. Forget the lights, this bauble is blinding. Around back, the Enclave’s plunging v-shaped window line is exquisite (it is a design shared by the lovely Chevy Traverse, which can be confusing).
Yes, the old dame still has it. But why do I have to say “old”?
Now in its seventh model year, a second generation Enclave redesign is not soon on the horizon. The 2013 refresh is nicely done, but in a competitive mid-to-full-size SUV herd, it’s not enough for the Enclave to rest on its laurels. The Acura MDX, for example, just unveiled its stunning, third generation model after six years.
The Buick’s age is starting to show. It’s rich, much-ballyhooed interior still impresses, but has been equaled by the MDX and up-and-comers like the dashing Hyundai Santa Fe. The Enclave’s swooping dash and ambient lighting accents echo the exterior, but the vehicle is missing basic segment refinements like push-button start — while its haptic-touch console buttons can be quirky. More worrisome are antiquated exterior tics like fake hood intake ports. Once a proud birthmark of the Buick family, that DNA is now a drag on a vehicle that is a symbol of a new generation.
Like Botox on a super model, the addition subtracts from the car’s true beauty.
The Enclave offers but a single power plant — a 3.6-liter, 288 horsepower V6 — to pull its heft. At a time when the Lexus RX offers a hybrid option and fuel-efficient turbos are boosting power in Caddys and Regals to over 100 horsepower per liter, the Enclave is due for an upgrade.
That power would be welcome in a big car that feels so much smaller to drive. Inside, the Enclave sports a palatial, roomiest-in-class third-row seat — accessed with ease by Buick’s “Smart Slide” second-row captain’s chairs. Take the wheel of the big yacht, however, and my all-wheel drive version cut through wavy roads with ease, exhibiting minimal body roll and tight steering. Tip o’ the admiral’s cap to hydraulic power steering and an independent rear suspension.
The Enclave deserves its place as a franchise vehicle. It’s profitable, lists as a Consumer Reports 2014 Top 10 Most Reliable American Car, and attracts younger buyers. Yet by filling a premium niche between Chevy and Cadillac in the GM lineup, Buick’s future seems precarious. Its Regal sits on an Opel platform, the Enclave on a Chevy platform. Will the Enclave remain relevant, or will GM slowly starve it of future investment?
The Enclave’s Rubenesque figure wowed the world in 2006. When Tiger Woods advertised a Buick Rainier we snickered. But when supermodel Marisa Miller pedals an Enclave, we nod. Buick’s challenge is to keep her behind the wheel.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.