Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Buick Enclave Avenir

Not necessarily on the wrong side of “No Boring Cars”

HIGHLANDS, North Carolina – After a couple of decades trying, Buick designers figured out how to properly modernize its classic, toothy chrome grille look with the new-for-2008 three-row sport/utility flagship, the Enclave. The ten years during which that Buick Enclave has gracefully aged has been kind to General Motors’ middle brand.

Buick is the number-four bestselling brand in China. Thanks to the world’s biggest auto market, it’s GM’s second bestseller globally, though third in the U.S. after Chevrolet and GMC. Thanks to the Enclave, Encore, and now, the Envision, sport/utilities account for 77 percent of Buick sales, according to marketing director Sam Russell.

In the years following the first Enclave’s launch, marketing and product planners cut and readjusted some of the lower trim levels so that the “base” model was a clear step up or two in price, content and image from its Lambda platform siblings, the Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia (and, through 2010, the Saturn Outlook). At the same time, Buick managed year-over-year sales increases for most calendar years. The outgoing model boasts a 90-percent take rate of the top two of three trim levels, with more than 50-percent having a manufacturers suggested list price of more than $50,000.

With the all-new 2018 Enclave, Buick has a clearer road ahead, at least until Cadillac unveils its unibody three-row SUV on the same large-Chi platform. The new GMC Acadia is on the small-Chi platform, and while it’s still a three-row SUV, is 10.7-inches shorter in overall length than the new Enclave, and rides on a 112.6-inch wheelbase, compared with the Buick’s 120.9-inch wheelbase, which itself is two-inches longer than the old model’s. That should make things a bit happier in the many Buick-GMC dealerships, and it gives Buick marketing the chance to tout the new Enclave’s cargo space behind the third row, compared with the Acadia.

Buick says that only 3 percent or 4 percent of Enclave buyers chose the second-row bench, so that’s gone as an option for 2018. The only interior configuration for the Buick Enclave is 2/2/3, with second-row captain’s chairs, and a middle seatbelt justifying the three-wide third row. If you want eight-passenger space, the Chevy Traverse comes at a more family friendly base price, $10,095 cheaper than the base Buick Enclave (at $40,975), though the top-trim Traverse High Country comes in at just $1,395 less than the $56,690 Enclave Avenir.

Also unique to the Buick Enclave, and available only as part of the $2,095 Technology Package that also adds adaptive cruise control (standard on the current Honda Civic Touring at half the price) and full automatic braking with full-speed stop/go, are the continuously variable dampers. The system allows for “a tremendous amount of pre-loading” into the shocks, says chief engineer Dan Perelli.

The 2018 Enclave Avenir is the first of Buick’s new Avenir models, a “Denali for Buick” trim that adds a unique mesh grille, standard 20-inch six-spoke aluminum wheels (optional replacing standard 18-inchers on the next trim level down), five premium paint colors that are optional on that Premium trim model, upgraded leather seats, and heated and cooled front seats (heated only on other trims) with heated second-row seats.

Avenir and Premium Enclaves also come with a twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system, when ordered over the standard front-drive on either model. The rear wheels can be locked out from the torque split, which is 60/40 when AWD is engaged. You’ll want AWD on with the trailer-towing button engaged for best handling on twisty mountain roads.

The heavily reworked update of GM’s “high-feature” 3.6-liter V-6 now makes 310 horsepower, up 22 horses, while torque is down by 4 pound-feet to 266. It’s mated to GM’s new nine-speed automatic and loses 1 mpg in the AWD’s EPA highway fuel mileage compared with the Traverse with the same drivetrain. FWD fuel efficiency is the same for the Enclave and the 3.6-liter V-6. Buick says it has no plans for the 2.0-liter turbo-four that’s available in the Traverse.

With the standard V-6, the AWD Enclave is quick for such a large SUV. It makes a nice roar under full-throttle, though I felt some driveline lash on a steep, high-load uphill. With the AWD system turned off, I could feel a bit of torque steer-wriggle under full-throttle launch.

The 2018 Buick Enclave Avenir benefits from the same sort of ride/handling balance as the new Chevy Traverse thanks to the MacPherson strut/five-link with auxiliary spring aids and hollow anti-roll bar front/rear suspension. The 4,358-pound SUV is about 400 pounds lighter than the model it replaces, credited to a 150-pound structure diet by using lighter-weight, higher-strength materials, and another 250 pounds via other weight-reduction techniques.

In normal mode, the Enclave Avenir exhibited moderate but well-controlled body roll on the snaky roads, and the rack-mounted electronic power steering is reasonably precise without being too quick for a 69.9-inch tall utility. Press the Buick a bit and moderate understeer keeps you in check and makes the Enclave feel big, again, as its tight 39-foot turning circle and body control otherwise make it drive smaller than it is. But click the AWD button and turn on the trailer towing and the twin-clutch AWD system acts as a kind of torque vectoring system (though it’s not real torque-vectoring, in that the front/rear axles don’t change relative speeds). The understeer pretty much disappears.

By the way, the tow haul button also triggers the continuously variable damping. There will be a new “sport” button to turn on this system on the 2019 Buick Enclave Avenir.

No, it’s no BMW or Porsche or Alfa Romeo “sport/activity vehicle,” and that may place it in your mind on the wrong side of Automobile’s “No Boring Cars” credo, but if like me, you’re wary and weary of those European automakers and their attempts to defy their centers of gravity to make their SUVs handle “almost like a sports car,” you might see the 2018 Buick Enclave Avenir as a worthy do-almost-everything garage mate for your Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ or Miata/Fiata or Porsche Boxster/Cayman.

The new Enclave is very handsome, in a modern Buick way, just as the Traverse is very handsome in a modern Chevy way. Buick claims Acura, Lincoln (which has no competing model, yet), and Infiniti as chief competitors, though not Audi. If Buick, and indeed all of GM, could step up its interior quality and fit-and-finish just a bit more, the Buick Enclave Avenir might be able to take on something like the popular—and expensive—Audi Q7.

The Enclave’s new standard eight-inch infotainment screen is as good as anything GM has, and the Avenir’s padded pleather dash looks and feels richer than it is. Even the plastic woodgrain trim is fairly convincing, but there’s still cheap, hard plastic along the lower inner doors and in the third row between c- and d-pillars. I couldn’t even find cupholders for the second row, though switching to the third row for that airport transfer provided an interesting experience—in a good way. Even for 90 minutes, the back seat was not bad, as that row benefitted from the full two inches of the two-inch overall length increase, at least with the second-row passenger in front of me moving her sliding seat forward.

Pricing for the new Buick Enclave is pretty aggressive, even if so many upper middle-class buyers are switching to this segment of SUVs. The base model, a cloth-seat FWD-only Enclave, starts just under $40,000 before the required destination fee is added, which helps boost web search results (this is not criticism of Buick … everybody does this). Next level up is the Enclave Essence, at $45,190, plus $2,000 for the AWD option. The FWD Enclave Premium starts at $48,990, plus $2,300 for AWD because it’s the twin-clutch system, and the Avenir is $54,390, plus $2,300 for AWD.

I sampled an AWD Avenir and then an AWD Enclave Premium. The Premium was optioned up with the trailer package (5,000 pounds, for any Enclave, by the way), and 20-inch wheel package, bringing it to $56,455, just short of the AWD Avenir’s base price. It seems to me the twin-clutch system should be the only AWD option on the Enclave, so why not meld those two mid-trim levels, the Essence and Premium, into one, perhaps priced and positioned just below $50k, so there would be more space before you reach Avenir?

And one shortcoming is that the new Chi platform was designed too early to get it on the electrical architecture that works with GM’s Super Cruise. While I’m not in any hurry to hand over the steering wheel to a self-driving system, the Cadillac CT6’s Super Cruise feature would make a lot of sense on this family highway cruiser, and it would make the Buick Enclave Avenir a stronger potential competitor for the Volvo XC90, as well as the Audi Q7. But we’ll have to wait for the third-generation model, which you can bet will replace this Buick Enclave in less than 10 years.

2018 Buick Enclave Avenir AWD Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $56,690/59435 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/310 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 266 lb-ft @ 2,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 17/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 204.3 x 78.8 x 69.9 in
WHEELBASE 120.9 in
WEIGHT 4,358 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph

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Buying Guide
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Cargo (Std/Max):

23 / 115 cu. ft.

Seating:

7/7

Horse Power:

302 @ 6800