By Alex Taylor III
April 27, 2011

The Cinderella story at the new General Motors continues to be Buick — and this fairy tale has more glass slippers than simply a supply of new models. Repositioned as the luxury brand partner of Cadillac in the U.S. and smartly leveraging its status as a technology leader in China, Buick is piling triumph upon triumph.

Last week’s opening of the Shanghai auto show provided the latest data point as Buick revealed a strikingly styled SUV concept with a carbon-fiber chassis and a plug-in hybrid powertrain. Named the Envision, the SUV’s exotic specifications mean it would never see production in its current form, but its appearance sends a clear message to the rest of the auto world that Buick is not to be messed with any longer. Wrote one impressed blogger: “Wow, the Buick and age jokes are getting old, not to mention irrelevant.”

Better Buick news for 2011 is still to come: The compact Verano reaches dealers later this year. Based on the Chevrolet Cruze, the Verano was developed in partnership with GM’s China operations. That means it will not only display the high levels of craftsmanship that Chinese customers demand, it will also benefit from the richer profit margins that come from higher production volume.

As the price leader in the Buick lineup, Verano will put a supercharger behind Buick’s already robust U.S. sales results. For the first three months for 2011, its volume is up 39%, despite a lineup of only four models, and it is nipping at the heels of slumping Lexus.

The Enclave seven passenger crossover, introduced in 2007, is now the oldest car in the Buick lineup and due for a makeover. Given its age, you would expect it to be a big drag on results, yet the opposite is true. Launched exactly four years ago, the Enclave has gotten stronger as it gets older; 2010 was a record year, and its sales so far in 2011 are even better. That’s the kind of late-in-life performance that can produce promotions for product planners and development engineers.

The Enclave is considered the vehicle that ignited the Buick revival. Based on the successful Lamda platform, it swept away earlier efforts at utility vehicles that bore such forgettable names as Rendezvous, Ranier, and Terraza. The Enclave’s voluptuous styling with its oversize fender arches, porthole-like hood markings, and prominent waterfall grille bordered on the baroque but attracted favorable attention.

Less applauded was its excessive weight – 4,780 pounds — which produced mediocre gas mileage: 16 miles per gallon city/22 mpg highway with a 3.6 liter V-6. By comparison, a Honda Odyssey minivan, which can also carry seven passengers, weighs about 700 pounds less and gets 19 mpg city/28 highway.

All that additional mass, however, contributes to a quiet interior and smooth ride, which reinforces Buick’s identity. In GM’s new product positioning, Buick moves up to full top-shelf status as the “approachable” brand in contrast to Cadillac’s edgy attitude and performance bent. With an as-tested price of nearly $50,000, my Cocoa Metallic Enclave test car certainly reflected upscale aspirations. The sticker reflected a $4,885 bump from the base MSRP due to the power sunroof, 20” aluminum wheels, and DVD system.

Inside, the instrument panel and surroundings were tastefully designed, just barely avoiding excessive use of wood-grained trim. Likewise, the center stack of switches and controls was blessedly lacking the chrome-finished accents festooned on newer Buicks, though their plain design seemed a bit dated.
Over the road, the Enclave processed more than 500 miles of holiday-weekend driving without a snarl. The suspension though, seemed tuned for older passengers, which made it a handful on random bumps and tighter-radius curves. And the 3.6 liter-V6 provided little relief from $4.25 per gallon gasoline.

The Enclave is due for a mid-cycle freshening, as a recent tour through the GM design center outside Detroit confirmed. Like other Buicks, it will likely benefit from a refined sensibility learned from China, to which Enclaves have been exported since 2008. A weight-reduction program, reflecting an American sensitivity to higher gas prices, will have to wait.

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