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2013 Buick Enclave First Drive

The big Buick gets tweaks to make it an even smoother sailor.

What It Is
An seven- or eight-passenger luxury crossover nearly the size of the Titanic.
Best Thing
It's a legitimate substitute for a minivan in a high-class wrapper.
Worst Thing
Much like the Titanic, each row is a different class of comfort and amenities. Stick with first or second.
Snap Judgment
There's a reason Buick sells oodles of these things; now there's an even better reason.


It used to be the case that if you wanted a big Buick, you got a LeSabre, Park Avenue, or Roadmaster. Effortlessly, they graced the highways of America, boasting big, powerful V-8 engines to keep them moving. Most would hold six passengers; the Roadmaster wagon could even fit eight with a rear-facing bench seat. They were the essence of discreet luxury. They were also the essence of a bygone era of American cars that, while we lament that it's over, needed to go in order to make way for better vehicles to meet the needs of today's customers. Buick needed to get a piece of the hot-selling crossover segment, which attracted a far younger and more dynamic customer than what the brand had seen in decades.

Introduced in 2007, the Buick Enclave was the first vehicle that GM brought forth in recognition of the fact that the brand couldn't keep selling the same sort of old-fashioned land yachts it always had. While the Enclave shared its basic components with the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, it differed in having more elegant styling, plusher seats, a quieter interior, and more amenities. Customers took notice, as the Enclave jumped to the head of its three-row luxury crossover class, way ahead of vehicles like the Audi Q7, Acura MDX, and Volvo XC90.

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Still selling well, the Buick Enclave lingered in GM's portfolio unnoticed a little longer than it should have, going without much attention through the 2012 model year. After GM's 2009 reorganization, the automaker had more pressing issues. But for the 2013 model year, the Buick Enclave leapt into the market with a refreshed look all around, a more elegant interior, and even more features. With more competition facing it, such as the new 2013 Infiniti JX, we flew into Louisville, Kentucky, eager to see if the largest Buick on sale today still deserves its place atop the full-size premium crossover segment.

Walkaround

The Buick Enclave has always conveyed an aura of elegance about it, with its large chrome "waterfall" grille sitting ahead of its jeweled headlights. There's no denying that it looks upscale.

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If you were to look at the 2013 Enclave without having the 2012 model to compare and contrast, you might be hard-pressed to pick out any specific changes. So we'll point them out for you: a more upright grille, scalloped headlights that replace the teardrop-shaped ones from the original, leaner tail lights with LED accents, the elimination of the two-tone rocker panels on the lower portions of the doors in favor of a more cohesive monotone look, and redesigned 19- and 20-inch wheels. Combined, the effect makes what was a nice, but obviously aging, crossover seem wholly modern again. Whether or not you still have reservations about Buick being the "old peoples" brand, it's nearly impossible not to think that what Buick did to upgrade the Enclave looks attractive, in the same way most Lexuses do. And that's the heart of the market Buick is aiming at.

Sitting Down

Buick carried the same sort of refinement to the 2013 Enclave's interior that it did its exterior. All of the design elements from the earlier Enclave models are essentially the same, but everything has had an extra level of attention to detail. The 2013 Buick Enclave adds aqua blue accent lighting that garnishes the stitched dashboard; new, richer plastics, and more leather color options; plus a standard seven-inch color version of its IntelliLink infotainment system.

With an abundance of amenities, the 2013 Enclave projects its upscale persona quite well. You're never going to ask yourself why it costs so much more than the pedestrian 2013 Chevrolet Traverse; everything is justified.

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In the Traverse, eight-passenger seating is a big deal since most competitors don't have that number of seats available. Buick has the same option available at no extra cost, but rarely goes out of its way to advertise this salient fact. You're going to want the seven-passenger version, with plush middle-row buckets that mimic those of the front. They sit just a little too low for our taste, and toe room for middle-row passengers is blocked off by large under-seat covers. Buick uses this to cover yards of wiring situated underneath the front buckets, but even so, they were comfortable enough for most adult passengers. The seats are also practical, with a sliding track that can move the seats forward or backward to help with cargo space and third-row room.

Sliding the middle row forward, the third row in the Buick Enclave is functional for adults, too, albeit not quite as commodious. But face it, if you have three kids coming home from college and one has to sit in the third row, there are few other vehicles that can do it this comfortably without having to move into a minivan or larger, less-efficient vehicle.

Unfortunately, even though space is pretty good, the third row doesn't get the rich-feeling materials of the other two. It's bordered by cheap-feeling plastics that don't match the texture or design of anything else in the interior. We suppose there's a good reason for that, though. Most often, the third row will be the first to be folded down for mulch-hauling, garage sale rummaging, and other tasks that necessitate the use of the Enclave's gargantuan cargo hold. That hard plastic isn't going to tear or scratch quite like anything in the first two rows would.

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Driving

There are a handful of vehicles in this class -- the Acura MDX and BMW X5 come most immediately to mind -- that wear the "sport" of "sport utility vehicle" above most anything else. While there's something to be said for driving a big crossover quickly just for the sheer lunacy, we're more than relieved that the 2013 Buick Enclave doesn't follow suit. There's more to a luxury crossover than making it track-tuned so it can pretend to be something it isn't.

With a twist of its key -- it should have a push-button starter for the kind of money Buick is asking -- the Enclave's 288-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 fires up with a whisper. Buick left the engine unchanged for 2013 from the previous year but addressed an issue that customers said was bothersome in the old model: its transmission.

The old six-speed automatic used in the Enclave was never regarded as anything other than buttery-smooth, but it had a slight hesitation before going into its next gear. Not anymore. With the modern marvels of reprogramming the Enclave's electronics, the transmission shifts faster, but there's no shift shock between gears, a tough task for a traditional auto transmission.

Aiding with that is the Enclave's copious sound deadening accoutrements that, once again, serve to isolate harshness -- or much of anything -- from the outside world.

Despite the Enclave's 5,000 pound plus-sized proportions, and conservative power numbers, it never feels like a burden to drive. Its steering is light, and its suspension is smooth without being too soft or willowy. If you need to hustle through a curvy road at speeds you'd ordinarily not drive a 17-foot crossover, you're not going to fear for your life. Buick's new dual-flow shock absorbers -- exclusive to the Enclave and the high-class GMC Acadia Denali -- keep the suspension in check and the Enclave exactly where you want it.

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Summary

With very few exceptions, Buick has always offered up some of the quietest, most comfortable vehicles. But up until recently, most lacked the sophistication befitting cars with the price tags of Buicks. Instead, Buick clung to the idea of trying not to alienate older customers, keeping its cars equipped with large buttons and the green-screen Delco radio units seen since the 1980s. Buick might as well have thrown in a Jitterbug, Life Alert, and a bottle of Geritol with every new car purchase back then.

But then Buick decided that catering to a clientele that wouldn't be around much longer wasn't the best way to build a brand. At its peak, the average age of a Buick owner was 67 years old. Now, the average is 58, a much better number that's still going down as younger and more affluent buyers look at the Buick brand for the first time. What a reversal of fortunes, brought on by the fact that finally Buick is giving customers what they want: a sumptuous interior with high-tech features shrouded under elegant sheet metal.

This isn't like the Roadmasters of yore with the cheesy wood-grained vinyl wrap covering the exterior. The Enclave has curves where you want them to be, a kind of subtle sex appeal. And best of all, there's plenty of substance to go along with the style, with seating enough for nearly all of Luxembourg's army. There are some flaws to be found with the Enclave, such as the second- and third-row seats that should offer better packaging for taller passengers, the lack of a push-button starter when nearly all of its competitors have them, and small touches you may not notice as quickly like the swaths of noticeably fake wood on the inside door panels. But overall, the 2013 is a worthy update, a credible competitor, and a vehicle you should seriously take a look at if you're in the market for a plush people-mover.

Given the stiff competition that's stacking up, Buick had a lofty task to keep the Enclave in the pack amid newer competitors. But we believe it has met the challenge. You should, too.

Basic Specs

3.6-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission, front- or all-wheel drive, 288-hp, $39,270, 17 mpg city/24 mpg hwy (fwd), 16 mpg city/22 mpg hwy (awd)

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