2014 Buick Enclave, Bad News Buick

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For every one of its strengths, the Buick Enclave has a corresponding weakness. Buick photo.
For every one of its strengths, the Buick Enclave has a corresponding weakness. Buick photo.

Just when we thought it was safe to go back to Detroit, after the hard lessons carmakers learned in the Great Contraction, along comes the Buick Enclave.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a new car—the Enclave debuted as a 2008 model, which explains a lot—but that it already needs a pavement-up makeover.

The good news, early in ‘08, just before Capitalism collapsed, was that the Enclave was a modern unit-body, three-row, front-wheel/all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle that managed its great bulk pretty well. (It replaced obsolete Buick SUVs that had been based on minivans and pickup trucks.)

The bad news was that the world then changed almost overnight, leaving the Enclave as either the first of the new breed from Detroit or the last of the old school.

Still, the Enclave has been a big hit in the US and also in China, where Buick is a brand that the newly affluent aspire to. Enclaves are now built in Michigan and in Shanghai.

Here at home, however, the Enclave now seems huge (six feet tall and wide, and almost 17 feet long) and heavy (21/2 tons with AWD). The good news? Six, seven or even eight people can sit in comfort, if we banish the kids to the third row. Our sample Enclave had two adjustable “captain’s chairs” in the second row, with an aisle inbetween to row three. Fold all the rear seats down, and the Enclave can pack a Smart ForTwo Electric as a spare.

More good news: From day one, the Enclave has had a thoroughly up-to-date 6-cylinder engine, now tuned for 286 horsepower and abundant torque. The bad news is that this motor is as thirsty as a V-8. The EPA predicts 16 to 22 miles per gallon, city and highway; we got 17 overall. And while other cars are getting 7-, 8- and even 9-speed transmissions, the Enclave has six speeds—but the transmission shifts cleanly and always seems to be in the right gear. (It also can be shifted manually by thumb, via a rocker switch in the side of the shifter knob.) The Enclave sails the highways smoothly and quietly, although with the numbest steering since canal barges went from poles to tillers.

The spacious, airy cabin is nicely laid out, but the trim is that eye-searing chromed plastic that appeals to magpies. The Enclave Premium has a computer screen and a full suite of safety and convenience features—everything from automatic multi-zone climate control to lane-warning and cross-traffic alerts—but the information appears in that squared-off, electroluminescent green type last seen in Mercury space capsules. Furthermore, I sprained a finger learning how to stab the control panel just right—after I’d flipped back and forth through the manual just to figure out how to reset the mileage.

Lighting up the motor requires sticking a metal key into a slot and twisting it. Old-fashioned, and then the key fob is in the way of your right knee. But we don’t have to hold the key till the ignition catches—just make the contact and let go. Again: One foot in the past, one in the present (but hardly the future).

OK, final example: The good news? The Enclave may be old-school, but it is competent; a buyer can say, “It’s not a car, it’s a major household appliance—I need the room, it gets the job done, it’s comfortable, I’ll dicker on the price and it’ll have a warranty.” If Enclaves cost $35,000, there’d be little or no bad news here at all. But the starting price of this Premium AWD model is $47,625—and the sticker on our sample (sitting down, are we?) is $53,155. Good lord. Do you know what else you can buy for that kind of money?

We all want to root for the home team, and some of the new-generation Buicks—the Regal and LaCrosse sedans, for instance, and the chubby little Encore—are huge improvements over Buicks of yore, but this one . . . well, let’s be charitable and ask GM please to re-do the Enclave, and soon. This should be Detroit’s answer to the Audi Q7, not a parade float.