Reader Review: 2017 Buick Enclave, the Lambda’s Long Kiss Goodnight

Occasionally, we at TTAC allow you to do our jobs for a day and offer a reader review of your own ride. Here is a review of the outgoing Buick Enclave from reader thegamper.

A decade. That’s how long General Motors’ Lambda platform has been in production. Not many volume vehicles can claim such longevity, especially those sold primarily to retail customers.

The last remaining Lambda is now in the throes of death. I was unable to definitively verify, but the last Lambda in any variety, the Buick Enclave, may have rolled off the assembly line in mid-May, right as GM was announcing layoffs at its Lansing Delta Township Assembly plant ahead of retooling for the 2018 model. New Enclaves ride on a new platform.

I think a look back is appropriate as we come full circle from a time when the Buick Enclave was the first of the Lambdas, to today, when it’s now the last of its kind. The Enclave is the final Lambda model produced in 2017, but examples will likely linger on dealer lots in significant numbers into 2018.

In 2006, GM showed the nearly production-ready Buick Enclave at the North American International Auto Show. This is after GM’s U-body minivan flopped. The minivan segment was tanking, and a decision was made to give the GM minivan a dirt nap and focus on vehicles people would buy, hopefully for a profit.

Enter the Lambda platform. The first models to go on sale were the Saturn Outlook (RIP) and GMC Acadia, both beginning production in late 2006 as 2007 models. This was followed by the 2008 Buick Enclave and later by the 2009 Chevrolet Traverse.

The Chevy, predictably, was the least expensive and most plebian offering. The GMC was the trucky “professional grade” version, whatever that means. The Enclave was the upscale version that got the party started with a crowd-pleasing, and dare I say iconic, design at a time when GM was trying desperately to remake its image.

I’ll begin this review with some background — context is everything, after all. I have three kids, ages seven to 11. As a father of three, my family-hauler fleet over the years has included a 2009 Ford Flex Limited FWD, a 2011 Honda Odyssey EX-L, a 2014 Buick Enclave Leather Group FWD, and presently a 2017 Buick Enclave Leather AWD.  This last go-round I considered the Infiniti QX60, Mazda CX-9, Ford Flex, and Acura MDX, but ended up with another dish of Lambda.

I did consider the Enclave in 2009. However, I ended up with the Flex due to my wagon fetish and the fact that Ford offered employee pricing at the time. The Flex served my young family incredibly well. It was comfortable, capable, semi luxurious, had excellent road manners, and could carry our babies and gear. Where the Flex and most other family-oriented vehicles falter is on long trips, which require you to carry mountains of gear, clothing, and food over long distances.

Thus, after the Flex, my wife was determined to go for function over form and we decided on a Honda Odyssey in 2011. After three years in the Odyssey, my wife decided she’d had enough minivan to last a lifetime and required something else, anything else, provided it wasn’t shaped like a minivan. I was completely on board for ditching the automotive equivalent of “mom jeans” and set out to find a suitable replacement.

In hindsight, the Odyssey was perhaps the least satisfying vehicle I have ever owned — for a variety of reasons. It made the Flex shine that much brighter and brought me back to the sensuous curves of the Buick Enclave, which was priced a bit too steep back in 2009.

This time however, it was able to seduce me with the price concessions required of a six-year-old model (with a minor 2014 refresh).

Interior

The Enclave, though billed as a luxury crossover, has what I consider a “nicer” interior vs a luxury interior. It all fits together very well, with plenty of soft touches where your fingers are likely to wander. The vinyl padding covering the dash, which mimics the real leather of the seats, is a nice visual touch, as is the accent lighting wrapping around the dash and over the front doors.

With widely adjustable seats, it’s an easy car in which to find a comfortable driving position. I don’t even have to adjust the seat or tilt the wheel to comfortably drive the Enclave using the same settings as my wife, who is five inches shorter than myself. The second row provides plenty of legroom and can slide fore and aft about six inches. The second row’s captain’s chairs make access to the third row easy.

Alternatively, the second row seats slide forward, with the seat bottom lifting to allow access to the third row. The third row itself is a somewhat comfortable place to be, even for people with long legs. We use the third row almost exclusively for my 11-year-old, who stands 5’8” (and is more limber than an adult). The ability to transport full-sized humans in the third row is a rarity among three-row crossovers and perhaps the Lambda’s greatest draw.

Not only that, but there is actual usable cargo space behind that third row. Even a two-child stroller fits back there. A small well in the cargo area is about four inches deep and provides additional storage. The Odyssey offers something similar, but the Honda’s is much deeper. The problem is easily remedied with a few accessories, such as a cargo box for use on long trips (pictured), which makes the available cargo room on par with an actual minivan.

With rows two and three folded, you have a cavernous cargo hold with a flat floor. If you’re so inclined, you can transport 4×8 sheets of plywood and sheetrock from Home Depot, though you won’t be able to lay them fully flat or close the hatch.

Ample cup holders, USB ports, and vents are found throughout. However, the Enclave falters when it comes to the interior details and features. The IntelliLink infotainment system is entirely adequate, but lacks a large screen and does not include Android Auto or Apple Carplay. The driver information display in the instrument cluster, while perfectly functional, is reminiscent of the dot-matrix era.

While there’s an appropriate amount of brightwork around the gauges, the faux wood is appallingly faux. Even the allegedly real wood on the steering wheel is not very convincing. As a substitute for wood grain on the fake bits, there is what I would call a tie-dye or blotchwork pattern that’s unlike any piece of wood I have ever seen. I will say that the faux wood treatment looks better in black than brown.

The ugliest thing about the Enclave and other Lambdas is something easily hideable: the key. The ‘90s called and wants its keys back. Quite a letdown in a world where most new vehicles come with stylish fobs with gizmos and do-dads you’d be happy to display. Alas, pushbutton proximity entry and pushbutton start are not available.

Additionally, both the front and rear moonroof panels have a decidedly not luxurious manually operated sunshade. Knobs and switchgear are also a touch low rent for a vehicle with to a mid $40K MSRP, but they look and work well enough and don’t detract from the family hauling mission.

Exterior

The Enclave saw a few exterior tweaks for the 2014 model year. Among them, a monochromatic paint scheme, a new hood, new grill, LED exterior lighting, and the puzzling migration of the signature Buick portholes to a position pointing skyward.

The basic leather model I leased in 2014 had smaller, but tasteful, wheels. While the facelifted Enclave retains the overall egg-like shape of the original, a larger and higher grill places a bit more emphasis on the Enclave’s swooping shoulders. The Leather Package trim adds HID headlights, chrome door handles, chrome roof rails, body colored mirrors, and excellent Michelin tires.

Buick’s Enclave is pleasantly shaped, standing out in a sea of me-too crossovers. In order to satisfy my enthusiast urges, I opted for the Sport Touring Package on the 2017 model. Despite its name, the package probably actually hampers performance with additional unsprung weight, thanks to massive chrome rims with black pocket inserts.

The wheels and blacked-out grill (with chrome pinstripes that come with the Sport Touring package) adds just enough visual flair to overcome some of the boredom of leasing the same vehicle for two consecutive terms.

At the end of the day, despite its age, the Enclave still looks the part of a thoroughly modern car.

Safety

Enclave earns a “great” safety rating in both Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) results. It contains a bevy of airbags, including one between the two front passengers, which may be a first.

It also has blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, plus a backup camera and an audible lane departure warning. The warnings are welcome, but automatic braking remains absent. Perhaps it’s a bonus, depending on your view – I have certainly not been a fan of radar cruise control in newer vehicles.

On the Road

One thing nobody will ever accuse any of the Lambda-based vehicles of is excessive power/acceleration. The 3.6-liter V6, which produces 288 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, is just adequate for a vehicle with this much mass (Nearly 5,000 pounds, depending on configuration). Instrumented tests generally put the 0-60 time at just over 8 seconds, which feels about right. Even at full throttle, the big Buick does not feel peppy in any way, shape, or form. That said, it never feels overworked.

Weight aside, the engine still allows for passing on two-lane roads and merging onto the highway without too much effort.

I find the six-speed automatic transmission smooth and compliant, with no annoying gear-hunting. It doesn’t upshift too early, either. On a recent 500-mile round trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes with the vehicle packed with roughly 1,200 pounds of passengers and gear, the Enclave spent a considerable amount of time in fifth gear at 80 mph on any stretch of pavement that wasn’t completely flat or downhill. The Enclave has a tow rating of 4,500 pounds when properly equipped, and while I don’t doubt it is possible, that would certainly be a very taxing load for this vehicle.

The Enclave’s supple ride is not the wallowy, tippy, roll-and-dive kind of supple you might expect from Buicks of yore. It stays planted and feels in control, which is the kind of feeling you want while transporting precious cargo. The steering is fairly numb, but precise.

Braking always feels direct, linear, and strong. Nothing about the Enclave makes you want to seek out its limits on the road, which is just as it should be. Quiet, comfortable, confident. This is a family hauler, after all.

After turning in the 2014 model and driving off in the 2017 model, I can definitively state that the smaller wheels with more rubber between rim and road provide a noticeably better ride than the flashy 20-inch rims on my 2017 model. That’s the price you pay for visual flair.

Additionally, my 2017 was equipped with a two-panel moonroof. As much as I enjoy seeing the sky and having natural light enter the fray, a certain amount of wind noise at high speeds had me looking up and questioning the wisdom of ticking that option. Due to the smallish rear window, rear visibility is also an issue, particularly if you leave the third row up or carry passengers back there. Thankfully, a backup camera is standard. Wind and road noise are otherwise kept to a minimum in the cabin, with the moonroof being the exception.

In my mind, the addition of all-wheel drive (AWD) adds unnecessary weight and provides no discernable performance improvement for the average driver. Even for people (like me) living in the Snow Belt, AWD is only a benefit a few days a year. Unless you tow with regularity or live in an area where snow plows do not frequent, the weight/fuel economy penalty is simply not worth it.

Which brings me to the Lambda’s low point: fuel economy. It is varying degrees of below average. Expect mid-teens in normal mixed driving. On my recent road trip, I saw just under 18 mpg on the highway. Granted, the vehicle was quite stocked with gear inside and out, but it doesn’t get much better — the very low 20s on the highway is probably the best you should expect in an AWD Lambda when unburdened with extra weight and aerodynamic drag.

The Lambda’s Legacy

GM sought to create a minivan replacement with the Lambda, hopping on the people-mover bandwagon. I submit, and Tim Cain will certainly agree, that nothing can replace the cold efficiency of the minivan for people who need the space on a regular basis.

Depending on your number of children, the decision to purchase a minivan versus any crossover alternative may very well be made for you, as more people + more stuff = more minivan. I have driven many of the three-row crossovers over the years and have come away with one clear conclusion about the Lambdas: these crossovers are among a small handful of CUVs capable of replacing a minivan in terms of passenger volume and cargo volume.

There is simply not much else out there that isn’t shaped like a van that can comfortably carry adult-sized third-row occupants and leave cargo space behind said third row. For the occasional long trip, a roof-mounted or hitch-mounted cargo box fills the void between Lambda and minivan.

As such, I think GM hit a relative home run with the Lambdas. This is evidenced in school pick-up lines and the parking lots at kids’ soccer games. It was the right vehicle to build at the time and its practical usefulness and functionality automatically put it on shopping lists of a large swath of the population, despite some glaring omissions on the option sheet later in its life. By offering it in so many flavors across such a wide price range, GM increased the appeal even further.

If you look at the sales figures for the GM Lambdas, they sold at a low 200k/year volume for most of their existence, close to the combined sales of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan in those same years.

Though cash on the hood has certainly helped to move Lambdas of late, I think a thoughtful design and a Goldilocks sizing strategy was just right for minivan intenders to cross over (see what I did there), so much so that GM was able to keep sales fairly strong for a decade. With regard to the Enclave, its styling has held up well in my opinion. It’s still a handsome shape, even somewhat elegant, 10 years on.

The new-for-2018 redesign clearly follows the form its predecessor set, which seems like a rarity for many GM vehicles. The mandatory diet the Traverse and Enclave have been put on for their next iteration, the continuing emphasis on functional passenger/cargo space that exceeds the competition, and some much-needed tech updates should be a recipe for a successful follow-up.

The Lambda, its successors, and competitors who creep ever closer to minivan-sized interior volumes will likely continue pushing the decline of the sliding-door segment, like it or not. Not to worry though, the Odyssey will at least have a second calling in autocross circuits if the family hauling gig doesn’t pan out – a feat I doubt the Lambdas could ever have accomplished.

[Images: thegamper, General Motors]

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