First Drive: 2018 Buick Enclave

The secret to a truly social environment, Buick tells us, is silence. And so, in an effort to promote that social environment, Buick attacked its ground-up redesign of the 10-year-old Enclave with a team of sound engineers.

"When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all."

Together, they triple-laminated the windscreen, added triple-sealed doors, acoustic glass in the windows, sound-deadening material in the wheel arches, acoustically designed side mirrors, and even mounted special sound-deadening chambers in the engine bay – all in an effort to make the interior of the 2018 Buick Enclave as silent as a church.

And it worked. Wind noise has been almost completely eliminated, with only the slightest intrusion of road noise from a ragged concrete Atlanta highway finding its way into the cabin. The engine, a 3.6L V6 churns along with a quiet hum. It’s gentle and loping, its 310 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque are quietly competent numbers. The sort of numbers that whir in the background making the rest of the show look good.

There’s an adage, “If you’re doing your job right, nobody will ever notice,” that comes into effect here. Paired now with a nine-speed automatic and upgraded to accept stop-start technology, this Gen 1 Buick V6 is every bit the quiet achiever. Its fuel economy numbers are respectable but not spectacular, and lugging around this 2,143 kg chassis will cost 15.7 L/100 km in the city, 10.7 on the highway, and 12.4 combined. Over our day of driving through winding Atlanta countryside we saw an average of 12.1 L/100 km.

No component on this car is shared with its predecessor. The wheelbase has been extended about 50 mm and yet the turning circle has come down by over 900 mm, making this large SUV feel much smaller to drive in tight circles.

Buick has bought its full suite of technical tricks to play here too. There is 4G LTE Wi-Fi for everyone to use, and six USB chargers plus a 110V outlet spread through the seven-seat cabin. I asked why someone would pay extra for a Wi-Fi subscription in their car when they can just hotspot from their phone for similar money, and the engineer said it’s because of bandwidth. Because the car’s Wi-Fi signal is so much more powerful than your phone’s, the car hotspot is able to support games, movies, and more.

So everyone can look at their screens – in a cabin designed to be quiet so people can speak comfortably. Do you see the problem there?

Should those occupants choose to put their screens down and interact with their fellow humans, the Buick is an exceptional place to do so. I had to actually force myself to speak at a lower volume than I otherwise would, purely because my foghorn voice was too overpowering for this uber-quiet cabin.

The Enclave is available with continuously variable damping suspension – which does tighten up when you select tow mode – but it isn’t tuned for sport. In fact, there is no sport mode. The tow mode tightens up the suspension and changes the throttle and gearbox mapping in very much the same way a sport mode does, however, and so realistically tow mode doubles as sport mode.

There are even paddles on the steering wheel for changing gears, but Buick has made some decisions that fly in the face of industry trends. While other makes are accentuating their paddles with fake aluminum, making them large, and really highlighting their use, Buick has made theirs smaller, tucked them in behind the spokes of the steering wheel – and perhaps most surprisingly – shut them off in most driving situations! In fact, the only way to make the paddles work is to physically move the gear lever into manual mode. Without that, those paddles are as useless as a screen door on a submarine.

It’s an admirable approach. In the face of “sportified” SUVs and crossovers, Buick has taken a divergent tack, and worked hard to eradicate all semblance of sporty pretence. The car drives smoothly, and calmly.

The electric steering is well-weighted. It’s not too heavy nor too light, and gives just enough feedback in the middle of turns to let you know that you’re in a turn. The body rolls gently and evenly into corners in a way that is overt, but not disconcerting. The Enclave understeers, and puts a moderate resistance to changes of direction, but not in an obstructive way. Think of a large dog padding its way through the park, he’ll turn back for home when you do, but without enthusiasm.

When fitted with the trailering package the Enclave is capable of pulling 5,000 lb, something we tested gently with a 3,100 lb boat and trailer combination. While the weight of the trailer was definitely apparent, the Enclave felt comfortable and confident towing. We even stopped on a reasonably sloped gravel hill to test its ability to handle tricky conditions. After a second or two of wheel spin and scrambling, the Enclave and trailer clambered steadily up the hill.

Which is not to say the Enclave is entirely without pretence. The presentation we were given made a great deal of fuss over the air ionizer. This is an unscented air purification system that somehow reduces odours and airborne dust, etc., and honestly sounds a little bit overcomplicated.

Other than that though, the Enclave’s other innovations and tricks are all really cool, and useful. For example, the rearview camera that sits next to the back-up camera on the tailgate. It allows for a much, much better field of vision rearward from the car. In a previous car I was in that had this system, it had a mirrored surface around the outside of the camera-fed screen. It meant you always got a picture-in-picture effect when looking at the mirror and it drove me insane.

On the Enclave, that border is now dark and non-reflective, so that effect is gone and I soon came to prefer the camera mirror to the conventional one. I did switch it back to the normal version when towing a boat, but only because the boat was right in front of the camera and the mirror actually looked out over the boat.

For as long as back-up cameras have existed, we’ve been asking why none of them come with a washer. Well, now they do! I don’t remember seeing one on a car before, and so I was impressed to see it on the Enclave. It works in unison with the rear window washer, and it’s one of those “why doesn’t everyone do that?” things that will now probably be a feature on 80 percent of cars launched in 2020.

In the 668 l cargo area (behind the third row) there is a 62 l underfloor storage unit that is waterproof, which makes it the perfect place for holding groceries. There is no drain plug though, so probably don’t fill it with ice on your camping trip. Folding down the third row opens up 2,763 l of volume. Total cargo volume with all seats folded is 3,256 l.

The middle-row captain’s chairs allow easy access to the generous third row between them but for those who want even easier access, Buick has employed GM’s “pitch and slide” seat system. Even with a children’s car seat attached, the seat pitches up, forward, and down to open up an easy access passage to the third row. You should take your child out of the car seat before doing this, though.

We did a 40-minute shuttle run to dinner with a 5'9" colleague in the back row behind a 5'11" passenger and a 5'7" driver – and all of them had ample leg and head room. So yes, the third row of the Enclave is suitable for adults.

The front seats and captain’s chairs in the second row are extremely comfortable, and didn’t bother me over six straight hours of driving one bit. I ended the day as fresh as I started, and that’s not always the case on drive events like this one. The brown of the Avenir isn’t as good as the white trim available in lower trims, and the fake wood grain is a bit naff, but the cabin is otherwise visually pleasing and well executed.

In Canada, the base model Essence front-wheel drive is $49,495 including freight and PDI. That trim is $1,240 less than the outgoing base Enclave. It gets the 3.6L V6, side blind-zone and rear-traffic alert. It will cost you $3,000 extra to get AWD in this trim. The full-display mirror with the rearview camera is an option on this trim.

The volume model will likely be the $57,495 Premium trim which is all-wheel drive only in Canada (as is the top-trim Avenir). It gets a Bose audio system, driver seat memory, and radio memory functions, power-folding third-row seats, heated and cooled front-row seats, power adjustable steering column, and a heated steering wheel as well as a 110V outlet in the middle row.

You also get lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist with haptic feedback (aka, a vibrating seat), high-beam assist, and a following-distance indicator. The new Buick Experience Option package at $1,685 adds 20-inch aluminum wheels, a two-panel sunroof, and the trailering package.

An all-new trim level, the “Avenir” is something of a sub-brand. It will be used to designate the highest trims in each Buick model. At $63,495 for the Enclave Avenir, you get the Buick Experience Option package minus the trailering pack (that’s an option) standard. You also get unique Avenir wheels, a mahogany-topped steering wheel, unique Avenir badging and interior trim, and an 8.0-inch colour TFT screen nestled in between the instrument gauges. I was excited to hear about this screen, but disappointed to learn that the configurable section only fits inside the speedo and isn’t any different or bigger than the lower trim models.

Avenir edition Enclaves are identifiable by a unique mesh grill that looks sensational and harkens back to the Avista concept. 

For the box-ticking fanatics, the Avenir can be upgraded with the Avenir Technology and Safety Package which adds adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation and braking support, ride and handling premium suspension, and continuously variable real-time damping.

To be honest, there isn’t a dramatic amount of difference in the ride quality with the upgraded suspension, it’s legitimately good enough without it not to bother, but the collision mitigation and adaptive cruise control are worthy add-ons.

Buick calls itself “attainable luxury” and at less than $65,000 it’s not a far stretch to call the 2018 Enclave attainable. At least not in the realm of three-row SUVs. Whether it fits the bill of “luxury” will depend on your perspective, but for its near-silent cabin alone, the Enclave deserves consideration.

How’s the serenity?