2011 Buick Enclave: Driven

October 18, 2010
When the Enclave crossover was introduced for 2008, it not only replaced the half-hearted Rainier and Rendezvous but gave the brand a smooth, class-leading vehicle; it could be seen as the first of a new generation of Buicks.

Oh, how times have changed. Normally, three years isn't a big deal; but since then Buick has seen a bounty of new models, including the Lucerne, LaCrosse, and now, for 2011 Regal. And, as GM recently confirmed, a Chevy Cruze–sized 2012 Buick Verano is on the way. The Enclave hasn't seen any major changes since and is now looking like one of the more aged designs in the lineup—a relic out of the Tiger Woods era.

Well, maybe not a relic yet. The Enclave's exterior still feels quite fresh; its silhouette, sheetmetal, and details are soft and organic. The Enclave carries into 2011 with only a few minor changes, though—new 19-inch, nine-spoke chrome-clad wheels, and a few new exterior hues are the only bits of news to speak of.

Inside, it's beginning to feel a bit more like the Buick of old than the fresh new Buick we've seen of late. The Enclave's interior design is attractive, but there are a few more dull surfaces and hard plastics than you might expect from a vehicle in this class, and there's none of the more cockpit-like appeal that's been brought to the brand's newer products. The cheap-looking chromed analog clock, mounted on a dull plastic background, feels like an ever-present, half-hearted effort at luxury, while the nav-equipped test car included a rounded center stack with low, small climate controls. And the seats themselves, leather in our CXL2 test vehicle, felt overly soft with zero side support. The whole setup could use a rework.

Three spacious rows don't go out of style

It all gets better from there. Crane your neck back from the driver's seat, and the Enclave makes a whole lot of sense—especially versus one of the compact-to-mid-size crossovers that, even if they offer a third row, don't offer space for adults. The third row of the Enclave is for real: Adults can sit back there—including those way over six feet, like me. The seat's a little low and crunched, but you can do it for a trip out to the soccer game.

The Enclave's back seats fold down to a completely flat cargo floor, allowing a minivan-like space behind the second row good enough for just about any purchase from big-box stores, and the second tow tilts forward for even more space. Aside from the long rear doors—necessary to allow entry to the third row, it makes just as much sense as a minivan.

At more than 200 inches long, the Enclave is downright long by today's standards, and it proved difficult to park and maneuver in the parking lot of one of my local markets—where, seemingly, every spot should be labeled 'compact only.'

And with a curb weight of about 5,000 pounds, it's hefty. You feel that weight whenever you're starting, stopping, or making any abrupt change in direction, and the Enclave has more nosedive in hard braking than any other vehicle we've been in recently—minivans included—but the brakes are confidence-inspiring, with a firm pedal feel.

The Enclave might ride like a car, but it doesn't handle like one. That said, steering itself is about as nice as you can get for such a heavy, front-wheel-drive vehicle; again, you won't want to be changing direction quickly, but the Enclave can hold its own surprisingly well.

Smooth, sweet powertrain; lackluster fuel economy

While the Enclave's V-6, rated at 288 hp, isn't as brawny as the EcoBoost V-6 that's offered in the Lincoln MKT and Ford Flex, it reaches higher into the rev range in normal driving compared to other vehicles in this class, which gives it a perky feel. That's no issue, as it's sweet and smooth. The six-speed automatic shifts nicely, though it seemed a bit too eager to downshift and exhibited a lumpy second-third upshift through the whole test week.

Fuel economy is about typical for the class. EPA fuel economy ratings are 17 mpg city, 24 highway, and over nearly 100 miles of driving, a good mix of conditions including about a third of that around town and a third on the highway, we saw just 17 mpg altogether, according to the trip computer.

When we had a rainy day, the front wheels seemed to have trouble gathering traction to get the hefty Enclave moving quickly—especially when pointed slightly uphill. Although all-wheel drive isn't something that you necessarily need, a more proactive stability control setting, or stickier tires, might help, and putting a load of kids in back, or attaching a trailer, could only make it worse.

Sticker shock!

The Enclave's price is surprisingly high. The base Enclave starts in the mid-thirties, but at a bottom-line of more than $48,000, and a starting price of $42,095, for our loaded 2011 Buick Enclave CXL2, the Enclave isn't cheap. At that, it's priced in line with more luxurious models like the Lincoln MKT, Acura MDX, Lexus RX 350, and even the Volvo XC90

Like Tiger Woods, the Enclave doesn't quite have the sparkle it used to. But you can bet there's a comeback in the works; with the new direction for Buick, we're sure of it.

See The Car Connection's full review pages on the 2011 Buick Enclave for an up-close look at how it matches up, as well as images, specs, and pricing.

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