Hitch your Buick to a custom wooden boat

By John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Summer in Michigan is a time for driving to cool places and, if you’re lucky, messing around in boats. 

Buick just blended both these pursuits, with drives of its latest Avenir brand models and time on the water in craft produced by Van Dam, a renowned Michigan custom wooden-boat builder.

2018 Buick Enclave Avenir tows a 27-foot runabout built by Michigan wooden boat specialists Van Dam.

The connection between car and boat was all about craftsmanship, timeless design and elegant transportation. 

The exercise kicked off with a drive to the charming Hotel Walloon on Walloon Lake in the heart of Hemingway country, and one of the purest spots in Michigan. Surrounding this beautiful lake are bucolic farms, rolling hills and twisting country roads well-suited to testing Buick’s LaCrosse sedan and Enclave crossover. Both these Buicks now come in the GM division’s Avenir sub-brand trim, which sharpens elements of the exterior and interior design and raises the models’ status to near-luxury level.

Though LaCrosse sales have been sliding lately (in line with most other larger sedans, as consumers gravitate toward crossovers), the 2018 Avenir model stands out as an attractive option in its class, with good handling, strong performance and impressive overall refinement.

The same can be said of the 2018 Enclave, a roomy, seven-passenger crossover, which has turned into one of Buick’s most popular models. 

To keep the Enclave fresh and in the public eye, Buick has worked on improvements to the crossover’s noise levels, with an engineering effort dubbed "quiet tuning."

"This has led to lighter and more efficient noise abatement materials and broader use of innovative active noise cancellation,” the company says.

At the same time, Buick has worked to improve the Enclave’s towing capability, which jumps from 4,500 pounds to 5,000 pounds and outranks the model’s primary rival, the Acura MDX.

Enclave owners like to tow boats and, as demonstrated during our northern Michigan excursion, the vehicle’s 310-horse V-6 is up to the task. Credit goes in part to the well-calibrated nine-speed automatic, which as Enclave product manager Jace Stokes said, “delivers just the right amount of power and torque in each gear.” That’s an achievement as some vehicles have trouble with smooth shifts when towing, especially at lower speeds.

The Avenir Enclave comes with selectable all-wheel drive, and although it wasn’t necessary to engage while towing, the added traction does help deliver more balanced and responsive handling. Not surprisingly, it’s also useful when pulling a boat out of the water on a slippery ramp. A further aid in such conditions is an active twin-clutch rear differential (optional on the Avenir).

The time came to visit Van Dam’s facility in nearby Boyne City and experience two of its boats on Lake Charlevoix and Walloon Lake. Van Dam is a modest-sized company, but it is one of the world’s most exclusive wooden-boat builders, specializing in custom, one-off watercraft that run well into seven figures. 

Van Dam’s production rate is dramatically slower than that of a typical car company, as it takes about a year to produce each boat. The designs vary widely from pleasure cruisers to sailing yachts to sleek powerboats. So confident is Van Dam in its quality that each boat comes with a lifetime warranty. 

Company president Ben Van Dam, who studied naval architecture at the University of Michigan, compares his business to a custom-house builder. “We don’t build ‘production’ boats,” he said. “Customers come to us with a sketch or a concept and we go from there. We use many types of wood, a material that is timeless and gives us our inspiration.”

For Bob Boniface, Buick’s exterior design director, the timeless visual cues of Van Dam boats are a shared value. “Of all the GM brands, Buick is probably the most organically designed, like a boat,” Boniface noted. 

Out for a ride on Walloon Lake, the charm and feel of the Van Dam boat came shining through, and made for a good combination with drives in the latest Avenir models from Buick.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com.