A road trip to San Francisco is not exactly every mom’s dream vacation. A weekend in the city, yes. Seven hours in the car with two little ones, no thank you.
But a recent test drive of the 2018 Buick Enclave demonstrated that the pains of a family road trip can be lessened dramatically with the right SUV.
From a distance, the Buick Enclave doesn’t look large enough to have a third row and sufficient rear cargo space. But it’s impeccably configured on the interior — enough so that the rear bench comfortably fits two adults.
Its body shape resembles the typical rounded, minivan-crossover mashup that’s been gaining traction in the U.S. But up close it has swagger. The snout is bold, and there are smooth lines carved into side panels. The door handles are chrome.
The Enclave is helping alter the image of Buick, long associated as a brand for an older generation.
It’s the logical move-up vehicle for younger buyers who the brand captured with its smaller Encore crossover.
“That dynamic is really changing the face of who the Buick customer is,” said Rob Peterson, marketing manager for the Buick brand. “They tend to be younger, more educated, more diverse and a little bit more established financially.”
Buick, a General Motors division, introduced the second-generation version of its three-row SUV in early 2017.
It came with a surprise makeover. Seeing that most Enclave buyers opted for premium accoutrements, the brand unveiled the top-of-the-line Avenir.
Ninety percent of Enclaves purchased in the past five years fell into the top two trims, pushing the average price of the vehicle above $50,000, Peterson said.
The tested vehicle, a loan from GM, was priced at $57,135. The base price for the Avenir starts at $53,415.
Buick already considers itself a luxury brand, so Avenir extends its features beyond basic premium amenities like leather seats and enhanced audio.
The Enclave combines the practicality of a three-row SUV with some luxury aspects; the Avenir is a step up, Peterson said.
It’s the same strategy employed by GMC with its Denali — a trim that comes mostly fully loaded with its own look and feel.
The Avenir adds more style, more exclusivity and establishes a footprint for Buick to compete against brands such as Infiniti and Acura.
There also is a light that projects the Buick badge onto the ground when the height-adjustable rear liftgate is opened. This provides added visibility when packing up the night prior to departure.
Without folding the third row there is 23.6 cubic feet of cargo volume. Even with the rear seatback in the upright position there is enough room for two carry-on bags (adults) and two smaller shoulder bags (kids). There also is space for a large cooler pack and a backpack used for overflow and other clutter. All overpacking is accounted for with room to spare.
If loading for an adventure that requires bulkier gear like camping or surfing, the Enclave would serve better with its powered third row, a 60/40 split, folded down. This offers 58 cubic feet of space to accommodate a short surfboard, snowboard or skis, in addition to weekend bags. With both rows folded, there is almost 100 cubic feet of space.
Both the Enclave front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive versions can tow up to 1,500 pounds with a trailering package that costs an extra $650.
Loading the car seats — an often-irritating experience that may require sweat-wicking apparel — is a breeze. The bottom tethers on the second-row captain’s chairs are visible. Just clip and tighten. The top tether is exposed on the back of the seat, also easy to attach.
Both second-row captain’s chairs are easy to move forward and backward. There is enough room for a full-size human to access the third row without having to fold the back of the seat all the way down.
This is a purposeful design. “The beauty of the smart slide seat is if you were to have somebody who is in a booster seat or a child seat, you don't actually have to take that out because the seat tips and slides forward without having to remove the seat,” Peterson said.
Also, kids can exit to the sidewalk no matter how the SUV is parked.
Seating flexibility is a key aspect to the Enclave’s appeal. The buyers of this vehicle often are parents with kids that are exiting the baby years.
“They are slightly beyond the young, infant age, the toddler age,” Peterson said. “They're moving more into what we refer to as the ‘tweens. They're the 7,8,9, all the way up to the 16, 17-year-old.”
With nothing short of the kitchen sink loaded into the Enclave for the drive to San Francisco, the SUV headed toward the freeway via empty surface streets in the wee hours of the morning. The brood was asleep in their car seats before pulling out of the driveway. Only a block into the drive and the comfort of the seats became apparent. The material is a buttery, brown leather, and the seat power-adjusts eight ways. The passenger side adjusts six ways. Both can be heated and cooled.
The cockpit is elegant with leather and wood-toned accents. The gauges are digital and look modern. The center console’s compartment is sizable. There are two covered cup holders next to the gear shifter, perfect for early morning coffee. There also are cup holders on either door big enough for a 28-ounce blender bottle.
The Enclave is a hot spot and offers passengers a 4G LTE connection for up to seven devices. Satellite radio is available. A home button quickly takes the user back to the main screen on the infotainment system. Most importantly, the system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. For the 400-mile haul to the Bay, the iPhone was plugged in upon departure, bypassing the built-in navigation.
The USB port was easy to access in the center console, and projection from device to the 8-inch screen brought a familiarity to the vehicle.
Later in the trip, the Bose 10-speaker audio system was entertaining, but for the first 100 miles or so, podcasts on low volume dominated the airwaves.
The Buick Enclave is a zippy SUV. It has a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that makes 310 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission that made getting up to speed on I-405 smooth. It also helped keep fuel economy efficient. The Enclave Avenir FWD has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 26 mpg on the highway. It gets 18 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg combined.
The silence in the SUV adds to its relaxed, luxurious feel. With Los Angeles in the rearview, the adaptive cruise control took the experience to another level.
This particular Buick Enclave is configured with a Technology package that costs an additional $2,095. Safety features include adaptive cruise with forward automatic braking, which can be set at a desired speed like standard cruise control but will use sensors to slow itself upon nearing a vehicle ahead. The forward automatic braking will slow the car all the way to zero.
The adaptive cruise control mitigated some of the long-distance driving fatigue.
Also helpful is lane-keep assist and lane-departure alert, which vibrates the seat when the vehicle starts to veer outside sensor-detected lanes.
The kids rose with the sun and the sentiment remained generally positive inside the cabin, which had a lot to do with available elbow space. Despite its size and after hours of travel, the Enclave kept its warm, homey feel.
Finally, the Bay Bridge appeared in the distance.
The Enclave crossed the bridge in morning traffic and pulled onto the bustling San Francisco streets. The SUV’s substantial size did not detract from its performance in the narrow urban quarters. The higher seating position made negotiating city traffic more comfortable.
The steering was precise and responsive. The Enclave boasts a surprisingly tight turning radius, which was imperative for maneuvering the city’s twists and turns. It helped in packed parking garages as well.
Even in the midst of the stop-and-go environment, the Enclave was still a comfortable ride. But getting out of the car after seven hours on the road felt good too.