The Borg of Star Trek fame are one of the best TV/movie villains ever. An amoral, impersonal collective that obliterates both individuals and worlds, it really strikes at all of our primal fears. They don’t usually kill you, they erase your identity and assimilate you into their collective to become a drone in a fate worse than death. They are kind of a cross between an invasive species of fish and Communists. The crossover SUV has likewise come onto the scene and assimilated both individual car lines and in some cases entire model lineups. They started small but now threaten to take over the entire automotive world. Click through if you dare, just know the Borg are out there…
I knew I wanted to end my SUV series on a crossover. There are many I could have chosen to represent the breed but I landed on the Buick Enclave because it’s something of a flagship like the others we’ve looked at, it’s had a profound effect on its division and I am just generally a Buick man.
If you’ve caught any of the previous articles in the Give Them What They Want series, we’ve examined some of the early flagship SUVs from Lincoln, Cadillac, Ford and GMC. In their ways, they were all groundbreaking in terms of expanding market segments and putting more car buyers into SUVs. When they were introduced, large SUVs were truck-based: separate ladder framed, big engined, rear or all wheel drive. Those qualities were actually an integral part of the appeal for many folks. They wanted big, rugged, and able to go anywhere, or at least have the image that they could leave it all behind at a moment’s notice and strike out anywhere with or without roads.
The truck platforms were also a limiting factor. A lot of people who might otherwise have wanted many of the features and benefits of SUVs were not interested in driving any sort of truck. This was especially true if we’re talking about Buicks, the buttoned-down banker’s/doctor’s near-luxury cars.
Buick did offer a truck-based SUV for four years: the 2004-2007 Rainier, built on the GMT-360 platform shared with the Chevy Trailblazer and several other models. A 5-passenger vehicle powered by a 4.2L straight 6 or optional 5.3L V8, it didn’t light very many people’s fire despite the adequate power. Its best sales year by far was its first, at 24k, dwindling to about 5k in its last.
For Buick loyalists with a more practical bent, Buick offered over the same time period the 2005-2007 Terraza minivan. Not surprisingly, it turned out a minivan with a Buick grille was not what the world had been waiting for. Like the Rainier, it had a decent first year at 20k but quickly dropped to about 5k by 2007. In case you’re wondering, Terraza means balcony or terrace in Spanish, as inscrutable of a name as was the idea of introducing a Buick minivan in 2005.
Neither of those vehicles were Buick’s first attempt at something that wasn’t a passenger car. That honor goes to the 2002-2007 Rendezvous. Like Gonzo the Muppet, it’s not immediately clear just what the Rendezvous is. It was built on GM’s U-body minivan platform along with its “special” cousin, the shorter two-row Pontiac Aztek. It was front-wheel-drive and carried up to 7 passengers like a minivan, but didn’t have the requisite sliding rear doors. It was clearly going for an SUV vibe, a claim it justified by a higher ground clearance and available all-wheel-drive, but it’s proportions are minivan, only more awkward-looking. FWIW, my uncle’s sister had one and swore it was her favorite car ever!
I always thought of the Rendezvous as an underdog, so I was surprised to see that it averaged over 60k sales a year for its first four years, which was well over twice what the Aztek did and far exceeded GM’s sales expectations. Why? Researching this article, I came to the conclusion that it was probably only the second three-row SUV released that was built on an automotive platform rather than a truck platform. The 2001 Acura MDX beat it to market by about 6 months, but the Rendezvous went on sale about a year before the Honda Pilot. The Toyota Highlander didn’t get a third row until 2004. If you know of any I’m missing, please chime in below. It seems to me that Buick was almost accidentally tapping into the future of the car market, like thinking you’re opening a water faucet and it turns out to be a fire hydrant.
By the time GM was conceiving its Lambda-platform SUVs, crossovers were clearly the direction that the market was going. Since the late 90’s, more and more SUVs were being built off car platforms. These had started with the smallest SUVs (a.k.a. the Cute Utes) like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, and slightly larger ones like the Lexus RX. The Lambda SUVs were a big step up, as they were the largest crossovers to date, seeking to offer the interior capacity of a full-size SUV with the driving dynamics of a passenger car [“Your technological distinctiveness will be added to our own…”].
The Lambda line was planned as a major part of GM’s lineup strategy. It replaced all GM minivans (including the Astro/Safari) as well as all truck-based midsize SUVs. As a key vehicle line, GM wisely sought to distance itself from its well-deserved reputation for badge engineering. The GMC and Saturn were most similar, which turned out OK since the Outlook died with the rest of Saturn in 2010. However, the GMC, Buick and Chevrolet versions all had individual sheetmetal and even their own greenhouses except for a shared windshield.
Buick received swoopy fender lines, two-tone body cladding (not matte black!), and portholes, projecting well a traditional Buick image [“Your biological distinctiveness will be added to our own…”]. Reviews at the time all had good things to say about the Buick’s styling. Putting aside the question of whether a traditional Buick SUV is an oxymoron, it’s hard not to like the looks of the Enclave. It’s an attractive vehicle, though I personally can’t avoid the qualifier “for an SUV”.
GM’s quest for differentiation continued inside. Each model’s interior was about as unique as it could be while still sharing general layout, switchgear, steering wheel hubs, etc.
The Enclave got the most woodgrain seen this side of either the R.M.S. Lusitania’s first class smoking lounge or possibly a 1983 Electra. Like the Electra, it is of the simulated variety, except for the steering wheel, which received genuine mahogany that would make the Cunard Line proud.
Also like the 1983 Electra, the Lambda SUVs have a 119 inch wheelbase. However, with modern front-wheel-drive space efficiency, much taller height and 3 inches more width, interior space is significantly more commodious than even that C-body beast. Rear bucket seats were standard with a bench optional.
As a successor to the Buick Estate Wagon, the Enclave at least proves its worth by being able to take 4×8 sheets of plywood with its seats down, a neat full-size wagon trick that many minivans and crossover SUVs haven’t been able to pull off.
Lambdas were the largest crossovers to date when released and are still among the biggest. At 4,800lb with 2WD, they outweigh that 83 Electra by about 1000lb and are only one inch shorter and 400lb shy of the 2WD Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon. Still, it’s EPA rating of 16/24 (2WD) is quite close to the 83 Electra and probably beats it in real world gas mileage.
The model differentiation was only skin deep. Mechanically, the Lambdas are all drones [We are the Borg…], virtually identical with a 275hp, 251 lb⋅ft 3.6L naturally aspirated “high feature” V6 assimilated from the Cadillac CTS and available “intelligent” automatic all wheel drive (the engine received direct injection and 13 more horsepower and 19 more lb-ft for 2009). However, Buick spent more effort than its sister divisions on sound dampening. It got acoustic laminated glass, extra underbody insulation, triple door seals and unique engine mounts.
When releasing the Enclave, Buick teased the idea that a “Super” version, probably with a V8, would be available in the near future. Sadly, that never happened. The 2021 model still has a mildly updated version of the 3.6L V6 as the only choice.
At the time of its introduction in spring 2007 as an ’08 model, it was a welcome addition to the showroom. As mentioned earlier, it replaced three different SUV and minivan models with an undeniably superior product, joining the Lucerne, Lacrosse (and soon the Regal) to give families and anyone else needing a high capacity vehicle a very pleasant alternative, much like the Estate Wagon did in years past. Buick stated at release that they anticipated the Enclave would represent 20% of Lambda sales, to the tune of 20k or more a year. As it turned out, it averaged 58k over its first generation through 2017. In its first long model year of 2008 it sold over that, which is not bad at the beginning of a recession from an automotive corporation that was soon to go bankrupt (though 2009 was its slowest year at 43k sales).
By 2009, the Enclave was outselling the Lucerne, which would depart after 2011. By 2013 it was outselling the LaCrosse and Regal and selling more than both of those combined in 2016, by which time it had been joined by the cute little Encore SUV, which sold more than its big brother. In making the chart above, I forgot all about the
memorable forgettable 2012-17 Verano sedan, which sold around 40k for a few years, then dwindled. Yet another SUV, the Chinese-built midsize Envision, joined the lineup in 2016. The second gen-Enclave came out for 2018.
The assimilation was complete in 2019, at which point Buick’s North American lineup became SUV only [“Resistance is futile…“]. Who can blame car buyers for not offering much resistance? The crossovers drive about as well as passenger cars, except at the limits, where most people don’t generally drive. They hold lots of people or things, have all-wheel-drive available if you live where that’s useful, are well suited for roadtripping on America’s highways, and gas has been cheap enough the mileage penalty isn’t that much. There’s not a lot of sacrifices with a crossover (full disclosure, our family car is a Highlander).
None the less, traditionalists like many of us here at CC shed some tears when Buick cars were no longer available since the division has made so many sleek, handsome, and dignified automobiles over the decades. When better cars were built, Buick built them. Car companies are in the business of giving people what they want, however, and it seems what they want is SUVs (and trucks). It’s hard to find a passenger car model that isn’t in danger of cancellation. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Did the Enclave kill the Buick we knew and loved, or did it save the division? Let us know what you think!
2012 Enclave photographed 4/7/21 in Houston, TX. I wasn’t settled on doing the Enclave for the finale until I spotted this vehicle. It was in such fantastic condition for being 9 years old and it looked resplendent in white, the color of all the other subjects in the series (except GMC Denali; catch J.P. Cavanaugh’s fantastic articles on white cars if you haven’t already). 2012 was the last year before a minor facelift, 2008-12 being visually indistinguishable as far as I can determine.
Postscript– I brought up the 1983 Electra because my great uncle, Gene Curry, used to own one. Uncle Gene always had Buicks, which probably has a lot to do with my preference for them. He was a role model for me as a teen when I knew him as a vibrant and engaged septuagenarian who always had an easy smile, interesting conversation and a sense of fun. When I got my learners permit and later license, he would let me drive the Electra. It had the 4.1L V6, which he always said was a fine engine as long as you didn’t need to pass on the highway, or climb a hill. This grainy photo is of his actual car, taken shortly before he traded it in on a new 1991 LeSabre. If he were alive today, I don’t know if I could see him driving an Enclave. Possibly.
Previous articles in the series: