Review: 2011 Buick Enclave CXL AWD

By Charles Krome

Sometimes, reviewing two vehicles in a row from the same brand can border on the redundant, but not this time around. A 2011 Buick Enclave CXL with all-wheel-drive ended up in my driveway the day after I said goodbye to a 2011 LaCrosse, and experiencing them back-to-back was an eye-opening affair. Although both are, obviously, current production vehicles, their different positions in their respective life cycles was much in evidence, and much to the newer LaCrosse’s advantage.

The Enclave is probably best thought of as a reboot of the Buick Roadmaster station wagon from the mid 1990’s—that is, as a premium full-size people hauler that’s not a minivan. But speaking of which, the key here is to remember that GM’s big crossovers (including the Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and the late Saturn OUTLOOK) were designed to replace the General’s minivan lineup, not necessarily to be SUV alternatives. That helps explain the size of these vehicles, too. The Enclave is listed at 201.8 inches in length, and the only other crossover that big is the Ford Flex, essentially Ford’s minivan replacement. To put this into context, the three-row Honda Pilot is Honda’s largest crossover, but it’s “only” 190.9 inches long; the Honda Odyssey minivan is 202.9 inches. (The punch-line here? The Roadmaster wagon stretched a yacht-like 217.5 inches.)

My point is that the Enclave’s ability to handle passengers and cargo is a key part of its role in the marketplace, and while it does well with the former, it shows some notable disadvantages with regard to the latter. The seating in the CXL was 2-2-3 (2-3-3 is an option), and both of the back rows provide a fair amount of room. In fact, I’m about 5’8″ and I managed to fit in the third row without bumping the seatback ahead of me. Also notable was that the last row features stadium-style seating, which lessens feelings of claustrophobia, and that the second row could be manipulated into allowing for excellent third-row access.

The second-row setup was particularly nice, as the Enclave was kitted out with a second-row console that allows those passengers to adjust the climate and audio/DVD controls on their own, and listen to their choices without interrupting front-seat audio by using wireless, noise-cancelling headphones.

But the floormats needed to cover the Enclave’s various rear seat tracks and what have you, which gives the Enclave its interior cargo flexibility, also leaves the vehicle looking a bit messy. It’s as if someone decorated a house by randomly tossing area rugs on the floor. Further, while the Enclave’s third-row seatbacks fold down to create a flat load floor, be aware that the result is not on the same level as the vehicle’s actual floor. The seats don’t fold up into the floor as in the Chrysler Town & Country. Reconfiguring the interior was no easy task, either; even though it’s just a matter of pulling straps and pressing levers, the seats snap into place so hard that I managed to bloody my knuckle folding one of the second-row chairs.

And the more time I spent in the Enclave, the more I noticed this kind of slightly-behind-the-times content.

Push-button start? Nope. Blind-spot alert? Nope. Heated steering wheel? Nope. Head-up display? Nope. Real wood trim? Nope. Leather dash accents? Nope. DVD-based navigation? Yep. I know these are high-level accoutrements, but the LaCrosse had them all—well, not the DVD nav—and that’s despite it also having an MSRP that was some $12,000 below the Enclave’s sticker price. Including its $750 destination charge and $5,000 worth of options (primarily the audio/nav/entertainment system and power sunroof), the Enclave I tested topped out at $49,755.

Now, there’s still plenty to like about the Enclave. It’s 3.6-liter V6 delivers 288 hp and 270 lb.-ft. of torque, the latter available at a relatively low 3400 rpm. Mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, you get unexpectedly brisk acceleration, even pulling around nearly 5,000 lbs. of all-wheel-drive Buick. The vehicle handles well for its size, too, without a disturbing amount of body roll and with a fair amount of road feel making it through to the driver. Needless to say, it’s planted and confident at highway speeds.

But on the other hand, the ride can be noticeably bumpy on Michigan’s frost-heaved roads, while the Buick’s EPA line is an abysmal 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway, which turned into about 12 mpg around town in my hands. A V6 Odyssey can get up to 19/28 with the EPA. There also was too much pedal travel before the brakes really began biting, and I was reminded once again last night about the benefits of AWD. After hitting 50 degrees late last week, Mother Nature hit back by dumping about six inches of sleety wet snow on the area, starting late yesterday afternoon. Cars and trucks were strewn alongside of the road, but the Enclave remained unfazed.

The bottom line: The Enclave remains perhaps the best-looking large crossover on the road—it’s got much better proportions without the snow on top of it—and showcases curvaceous sheet metal and the kind of “tight,” streamlined skin that makes its daunting dimensions seem a bit less daunting. But it’s simply not as nice of an all-around package as the LaCrosse. The same thing is happening at GM that I noticed in recently comparing the Lincoln MKZ and the Ford Edge. In both cases, the vagaries of new tech and new vehicle introductions mean the fresher vehicles (i.e., the LaCrosse and Edge) set benchmarks the “better,” yet older vehicles can’t reach. And with the Enclave and MKZ not being up to snuff in their own divisions, it leaves them at an even more marked disadvantage against their latest rivals from other companies.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. Question about the third row – I am the owner of a 2008 Enclave CXL AWD and have never removed the third row, it folds right down. Granted, it doesn’t fold down into the floor, but does the 2011 not fold at all? I don’t believe we can even take that row out of our model! Secondly, the captain’s chairs for the second row easily fold up with the tug of a strap, how did you fold up the chairs?

    I love my Enclave and am still impressed three years later by the attractive interior and the way it easily and quietly drives and hauls.

  2. ’08 Enclave owner and love the vehidle after three years of ownership. Agree with the comments about the interior could be nicer but ours has held up very well and appears to be durable and I could care less about things like pushbutton start. Also agree the rear floormats are inelegant due to the flexibility of the 2nd row chairs being able to slide forward to access the third row. I don’t get your comment about the thrid row though. We have never removed our third row since it folds niclely flat and level with the rear cargo area (how could you miss this?). Minivans will provide more cargo capacity with their lower load floors but the Enclave provides ample storage for most families.

  3. Thanks, JV, I appreciate the feedback. Regarding the third-seats, you are correct in that the seat backs do fold flat onto the seat bottoms, creating a flat load floor. What threw me off was that the resulting floor isn’t at the level of the floor proper, but at the level of the seat bottoms, and then the owners manual provides further directions for entirely removing the back row. My apologies here.

    That being said, I wonder if the next generation actually will feature something closer to the minivan approach in which the seats fold under the floor for maximize room?

    Also, I just want to clear up one more minor thing: My complaint about what the Enclave is missing (like push-button start) isn’t so much that people can’t live without features like this. It’s that if even a Ford Fiesta can be ordered with the system, it makes the $50,000 Enclave, which can’t, “look” bad.

  4. Sigh. Brenda, please see my other comment regarding the seats.

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