First drive: 2018 Buick Enclave [Review]

Enclave gets an Encore. Is this Buick\'s best yet?

A competent three-row crossover is a must-have for any modern full-line automaker, and while crossovers just about sell themselves these days, there's a serious arms race going on in the people mover category. Even lower-volume automakers are making this segment a priority (see: Mazda CX-9).

General Motors has the market share to rest on its laurels, but the past two years have seen an onslaught of all-new and significantly improved people movers from the juggernaut's various brands. The 2018 Buick Enclave is the latest in that offensive, but does late mean great? Buick invited us to the American South to find out.

That's a Buick?It's a bit played-out, but Buick's advertising is reflective of a brand that has made several attempts at establishing a new (younger, hipper) identity.

What is Buick then? For the moment anyway, it's a near-premium model range slotted (intentionally) below the likes of Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and--of course--Cadillac.

Even if Buick's own marketers aren't entirely sure what the brand is, they're definitely comfortable with what it isn't. This is not a company with any intention of competing in what we enthusiasts traditionally view as upper-tier luxury. They're targeting Acura, Lincoln, and (at the upper end of their aspirations, we'd argue) Infiniti.

If it ain't broke...Enclave, unlike some of the company's other nameplates, would seem like an opportunity for GM to "act like" GM--play it conservatively and count on the status quo continuing for the life cycle of the vehicle. And to hear it from the Enclave's product planners, that's not too far off the mark. This wasn't a project conceived with aggressive lightweighting or materials advancement in mind. They simply went out to build what they saw as a complete package--a crossover worthy of succeeding the (well-received) model it was to replace.

In that context, the results are surprising. The new Enclave is some 400lbs lighter than the vehicle it replaces. Usually when a number that substantial gets thrown around, it's couched in PR buzz surrounding the use of advanced, lightweight materials despite the fact that the biggest contributor to the weight loss is usually a downsized (or "rightsized") engine. Not so here. There's no four-banger anchoring the lower end of the Enclave's lineup. The 3.6L V6 carries over--tuned for 310 horsepower and 266lb-ft of torque--and is paired to a nine-speed automatic. It's equipped with standard auto stop/start, and as was the case in the LaCrosse, it cannot be overriden.

If you're expecting the caveat to lie in the Enclave's capability, you're out of luck there too. 5,000-pound towing is just an inexpensive check-box away, and this Enclave is roomier and more comfortable inside than the old. There's 23.6 cubic feet of cargo space with seven passengers on board, and 58 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat. If you really need cargo space, drop the second-row seats and you have access to 97.6 cubes.

In addition to the base model's front-wheel-drive layout, the new Enclave offers two flavors of all-wheel-drive. The first is a simple single-clutch system. The second is the dual-clutch, torque-vectoring system Buick has been implementing on its more premium-oriented crossovers. It's available only on the Premium and Avenir trims, and is branded as a "positraction" unit--offering the benefits of a limited-slip rear differential.

EPA fuel economy figures for the Enclave are as-expected for a three-row. Front-wheel drive models are rated at 18 MPG city and 26 highway; AWD hits you for 1 MPG on each (17/25).

Avenir Buick announced last year that its Avenir concept car would give way to a trim level that is essentially equivalent to GMC's Denali. Roughly half of the test vehicles Buick had on-hand were Avenir models fitted with unique leather upholstery (in Chestnut brown only, for the time being anyway), a wood-accented (and heated) steering wheel, "Avenir"-script door sills and exterior badges, a unique grille, 20-inch wheels, and other interior and exterior touches.

Needless to say, the Avenir trim also incorporates (and in many cases, replaces with more robust offerings) options found on the Limited and Premium models farther down the order sheet.

Even without the Avenir treatment, we find the Enclave to be significantly more attractive than its Chevrolet sibling. Even with the gimmicky "floating" element incorporated into the d-pillar, the design seems a lot more cohesive. In fact, in conversations with other journalists present at the launch, we couldn't come up with many consensus betters to the Enclave's exterior design. Mazda and Volvo were the strongest candidates, though the Mazda CX-9 targets a slightly less-premium corner of the market and neither it nor the Enclave is nearly as luxurious as an XC90. As mainstream three-row crossovers go, the 2018 Enclave may well be the belle of the ball.

On the goOur expectations for the Enclave's on-road performance weren't particularly high. It's a three-row crossover which, despite a lighter-weight chassis and significant suspension changes, is still a 4,400-pound people mover at heart. Suffice it to say that we were quite pleasantly surprised to find that, like its cousin, it's an incredibly competent hunk of steel.

Credit goes to two things in this regard. For starters, the new five-link rear suspension delivers a startlingly effective balance of ride and handling for such a large car. Buick's engineers went to great pains to make this trucklet drive like a car. They are not unique in that, certainly, but suffice it to say that some are more successful (or at the very least granted more leeway) in that department than others.

The second key element to this is the Enclave's available continuously variable real-time damping (CDC; don't ask us how they got there). This is a two-mode adaptive damper setup that is available on higher-end trims. In normal mode, it actively samples data from chassis and powertrain sensors to offer ideal ride/handling balance for the road conditions and the driver's inputs. A "Sport" mode (and integrated with tow/haul mode if the vehicle is so-equipped) sharpens the responses and ties in with more aggressive powertrain programming to keep the Enclave in the sweet spot if you want to push it.

The question is, do you want to? Buick sent us on a route from Atlanta, Georgia, to Highlands, North Carolina, and made sure to check the box for just about every on-road scenario you'll encounter in America, from congested city streets to switchback mountain roads. Think we're exaggerating? Check out GA-246/NC-106 on a topography-enabled map. Charging up those hills with our Premium tester made believers out of us. The "Sport" programming kept the nine-speed in gears we could actually use, and between the CDC and the twin-clutch all-wheel-drive, we were thoroughly comfortable using every inch of the passing lane we encountered to great effect.

A different perspectiveWe could discuss the Enclave's performance merits all day, but if we're being realistic, that's missing the point. The Enclave seats seven. Only one person can drive. What of everybody else on board?

Well, we're pleased (and more than a little relieved) to report that the Enclave's third-row seats aren't just for show. Buick used its test cars as shuttles to and from all components of the media event, and in the course of doing so put journalists (ourselves included) in the third row for hours-long rides. We had no complaints. Bored? There's integrated 4G LTE WiFi and standard USB charging ports at every seating position save the middle-rear. Fear not, however. You're squished-in center-rear passenger can stick a 120V brick and reach the second-row console with ease.

And it's quiet. Oh, man, is it quiet. Even in the third row, you'll not experience noise fatigue in a 2018 Enclave. Advanced acoustic engineering paired with active noise cancellation assures that the Enclave boasts one of the quietest cabins you'll find in any car with a sub-six-figure price tag, period.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2018 Buick Enclave is one of the best non-luxury three-rows we've ever tested, hands down. It's comfortable, competent and capable. It may not be cheap, but its base equipment justifies a premium price tag.

2018 Buick Enclave base price, $39,725

2018 Buick Enclave Premium AWD base price, $50,135; As tested, $56,455Dual moonroof, $1,400; 20" Aluminum wheels, $1,400; Rear camera mirror & surround vision system, $825; Trailering group, $650; Navigation, $450; Destination, $975

2018 Buick Enclave Avenir AWD base price, $55,715; As tested, $59,435Avenir technology package, $2,095; Trailering group, $650; Destination, $975

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Buick.

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