Payne: Buick’s three-row Enclave handsome inside and out

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Buick’s big car, the LaCrosse, is a stunning vehicle with elegant looks inside and out, acres of interior space and a light, all-wheel-drive chassis that makes it feel a size smaller on the road.

Trouble is, full-size sedans have as much appeal these days as professional ballroom dancing.

So Buick’s tailors fit the LaCrosse wardrobe to a three-row SUV and called it the Enclave. The result is one of the most head-turning SUVs on stage today. The fact that Buick isn’t sweating the cratering of the sedan market is testimony to the remarkable pivot the premium automaker has made from being a clueless sedan brand to a cutting-edge crossover player.

As the ads say: That’s a Buick?

Buick is now a full-line SUV manufacturer in the hottest segments on the planet with the cute-ute subcompact Encore and compact Envision. But it’s the Enclave that saved the brand’s bacon.

“The Enclave resuscitated Buick,” says ex-General Motors product guru Bob Lutz. “It sold to people in their 40s and 50s (as opposed to 60s and up), shared up-market garages with German sedans, and achieved what all the wise specialists said was impossible: It made Buick relevant again.”

Introduced in 2008, the first-generation Enclave was unmistakable. With its signature “boat bow” rear window, pronounced hips and huge kisser, it high-stepped into view like Ashley Graham on heels. This was no ute box. This was a super-size SUV proud of its super-size curves. It was a hit, forcing GM to add a third shift at its Lansing line to meet demand.

The second generation is made even more stunning by following the mantra that less is more. Like the LaCrosse, the Enclave is about simplicity of line. This car just flows. With generous use of chrome highlights, its lines connect as if inked from a draftsman’s silver pen. The signature winged grille bleeds into the headlight’s LED “eyebrows,” which are then picked up by curvaceous shoulders, then finished with a wide chrome stroke connecting the rear taillights.

Did I say the Enclave is as lovely as the LaCrosse? No. It’s better.

There is more daring here, from the way the grille integrates with the headlights to the familiar boat-bow window to the scalloped rocker panels — a touch that got lost on the LaCrosse in the transition from sketch pad to sheet metal.

Making the feat even more impressive is the Enclave’s size. Short of ginormous truck-based utes like the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade or Infiniti QX80, the Enclave is the biggest three-row unibody-frame SUV out there. Its 204-inch length dwarfs competitors like the 196-inch Acura MDX or 194-inch Volvo VC90.

The sculpture continues inside with long, chrome bezels and parallel lines that lap across the dash like waves on a Caribbean island: natural, rhythmic, simple.

“That’s really nice,” my neighbor John, a former interior designer, cooed when I drove up.

This smoothness translates to the ride thanks to sharing its lightweight platform with GM’s Chevy Traverse.

Merging with authority onto the Lodge Freeway, the big car’s diet is immediately apparent. Shedding 350 pounds from the previous generation, the car rotates easily, its twin-pack all-wheel-drive system distributing torque and traction. With a butter-smooth nine-speed transmission and 310 horses available from a 3.6-liter V-6 (also shared with Traverse), my confidence grew with each mile as I hustled along behind a V-8 powered Dodge Challenger R/T whose driver must have wondered how the land yacht in his mirrors was keeping up.

Eventually, macho got the best of him — that’s a Buick! — in traffic as he tried to lose me by swerving onto the right shoulder and flooring it past a line of cars. Easy, Bullitt.

The Traverse DNA is both a blessing and curse.

The Buick’s best-in-segment size is reason alone to buy this beauty. But like the Traverse, it forces stop-start engine shut-off on drivers while holding back on standard features found on mainstream models costing $20,000 less.

The stop-start stall at stoplights is annoying to many — yet premium buyers moving up from Chevy coach to Buick first-class will be even more annoyed to find they still don’t have the choice to turn it off.

Speaking of first-class seating, a simple tug on the second-row captain’s chair side handle will cause the seat to tumble forward. The feature is both effortless and practical as it can be accomplished with a car seat intact. But the Traverse-shared feature is only available on the car’s curbside, meaning passengers on the left have to clamber through the middle of the seats to reach the third row.

Versatile seats like these are some of autodom’s most expensive items, so the curbside-only feature in the Chevy may make sense. But the Enclave? Shouldn’t luxury get more? Even Honda’s Pilot offers similarly clever, one-button collapsible seats on both sides.

Climb into the third-row and space abounds — including double cupholders for each passenger to accommodate, say, their Shake Shack milkshake and burger. Spoil your passengers with the $1,400 dual moonroof option to let the sun shine in. Its third row doesn’t make you feel like a third-class passenger.

Yet, starting at $51,290, my Premium trim Enclave did not include adaptive cruise-control — a standard item on competitor Acura MDX. And a $27,000 Mazda CX-5 or a $35,000 Honda Pilot, for that matter. Only the top-trim $55,000 Enclave Avenir offers it.

Happily, other goodies abound, like standard-in-all-trims smartphone connectivity, heated front seats (heated steering wheel on my Premium trim) and power liftgate.

Also standard is an open-sesame rear-kick liftgate. How to know where to waggle your foot to open the trunk when your arms are full of groceries? A Buick logo illuminates the spot on the ground.

Once in the cavernous rear trunk (with 8 more cubic feet than MDX), there is another 3-cubic-foot storage bin beneath the load floor. Which reminds me of another clever, hidden space in this roomy manor.

Made possible by the Enclave’s cable-free monostable electronic-shifter, Buick carves a cave under the shifter for hiding, say, a purse. Mrs. Payne loved it, even if it meant coming to terms with the sometimes-confusing e-shifter.

Buick has come a long way thanks to Enclave. With a little more generosity on standard items, its three-row yacht can be the bargain of the segment. She’s already making me forget why we need big sedans.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Buick Enclave

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $40,970 base ($56,455 AWD Premium as tested)

Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 310 horsepower, 266 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing capacity: 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,358 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: A three-row sculpture; as handsome inside as out

Lows: “SmartSlide” rear seat is only smart on the right side; standard adaptive-cruise, please


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★