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Buick Enclave Safety
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Buick Enclave

The 2009 Buick Enclave CXL in California's Valle de los Osos. enlarge.

16 September 2008     Top of Enclave Review     More Car Reviews

Over 90% of all accidents are caused by human error. That means at least one person wasn't paying attention or was doing something stupid.

It is always better to avoid an accident than to have an accident regardless of how many airbags you have.

My mom is a pilot and flying instructor. She was flying for over ten years before I was born. When you fly, safety is drilled into you from the start. Most people realize that airplanes can't pull over if they have a mechanical failure. What most people don't realize is how fast you can get yourself killed from even the slightest lapse of attention or not following the rules.

Jut the other day over two dozen people died in a local train wreck cased by an engineer who missed a signal while sending text messages on his phone. I signal was missed in a blink of an eye, and two loaded trains collided head-on.

Car crashes are just like that. We all know someone who's crashed because he diverted his attention to change CDs.

My safety evaluations always focus on how much, or how little, any vehicle takes my attention off the road. If I have to divert attention from driving just to tune the radio with menus, as I do on the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S or with BMW's unsafe iDrive, that causes accidents, and accidents kill people.

Visibility is also paramount to safety. If you can't see in a certain direction due to some part of the car interfering, called a blind zone or a blind spot, that also causes accidents.

Airbags are nice if you must crash, but far more important is avoiding a crash in the first place.

The safest cars are those where the driver can see everything, where he is comfortable and alert, and where nothing distracts him or require him to divert his eyes or attention from the road and other traffic.

Visibility       top

Glare: Poor

The glossy plastiwood and plastic chrome on the dashboard can be blinding, especially anytime the sun hits the passenger side of the dashboard.

If I owned an Enclave, I would have to rig up some method of diffusing or covering this up. It's that serious and that distracting.

The chrome plastic dial surrounds can cause severe glare, but not as often as the big dashboard.

I tried, and the sun visor can't block the sun that shines on the dashboard and blinds me.

Blind Spots: Fair        top

The first thing you notice backing up an Enclave is that it has horrible rear visibility. The rear window is a small porthole, and it's so high that you can't see anything.

The rear side windows are also small and high-up. You can't see down, where you need to.

The fat A-pillars on either side of the windshield are too wide. They cause huge blind spots big enough to hide an oncoming vehicle on your left. The best cars have A-pillars less wide than the distance between your eyes, so you can see around them.

In the Enclave, I'm constantly moving my head left and right to be sure I don't miss any cars or pedestrians coming from the left. One scary gotcha is that if you're going slowly, and a pedestrian comes from the left, he can be hidden behind the pillar as you get closer to him and eventually hit him.

The left hand blind spot, to which the fat outside mirror also contributes, is so big that it blocks my vision of the road ahead when turning left on twisty roads.

The B-pillar, between the front and rear doors, is also wide. It can hide a car in the lane to your left.

Clarity: Excellent        top

The windshield is free of waviness, but there is some fine texturing.

Backup Camera: Not Rated        top

The rear camera is almost useless because the display is in the wrong place: the rear-view mirror. You can't see it when looking behind you while backing up! A better solution is a convex mirror mounted outside and back there so you can see it as you're backing up, but that's another story that my vain wife probably wouldn't want attached to the outside of her car.

If we ignore this, the rear-view camera works great, even at night. It's mostly useful as a sales tool or to be sure that there are no kids (or your luggage) behind you if you're too lazy to look there before you get in your Enclave.

The camera gets a great image even at night, illuminated by tail lights.

I kid you not: the rear-view camera image is reversed side-to-side! I guess this is to help lazy drivers who back up without turning around to look where they're going; the orientation of the image on the camera screen matches the reflection in the rear-view mirror. Tell me it's not so: do people really back 5,000 pound trucks like this by just looking in one small mirror, not by putting their arm over the other seat and looking where they're going?

In daytime, there is serious vertical blooming (a white vertical line) if the camera sees the sun reflected off a bumper. This is normal.

Even if I could see the camera image while backing up, it doesn't tell me anything useful about whether or not I'm going to hit a curb or other obstacle on either side.


Distractions       top

Auto-Dimming Rear-View Mirror: Excellent

The center rear-view mirror is automatic, day and night. You never have to touch it.

Passenger Airbag OFF light: Fair        top

The yellow OFF light is way too bright for driving at night. It doesn't dim and is a big distraction.

Professional drivers cover these discretely with a small piece of black electrical tape, the same way we used to cover those pesky oil pressure lights.

Cruise Control and Transmission: Excellent        top

Shifting the Buick Enclav

Cruise control is always on once you press the button on the steering wheel. Press it when you get your Enclave, and so long as you don't hit it again, cruise control will always be on for as long as you own it.

The cruise control is the smartest I've used yet for descending large hills.

I was impressed when by the 1990s, Mercedes were smart enough to downshift when descending hills, but they only shifted down a couple of gears. If you're coming down a mountain, you still have to shift down manually to keep from having to ride the brakes.

The Enclave's transmission is smart enough to shift down as far as it needs to to hold speed on long, steep downgrades. It's the first car I've driven in which I didn't have to down shift manually. Yes, the Enclave was pulling 3,000 - 3,500 RPM to hold 65 MPH, which is exactly what it should have been doing. I didn't have to ride the brakes, which is a fast trip to faded and worn brakes.

If you're driving and want to do this manually, the transmission selector is defective in design because it requires you to press a button and then move the selector to "L" just to shift gears when descending a hill. The correct design, like Mercedes, is to have the shift handle's +/- manual gear control respond instantly any time the shifter is in "D." GM is designing the Enclave for distracted Americans, not careful drivers. In a real car, just tap the shifter button and you get instant manual override. Many cars are worse than the Enclave and require even stupider gyrations for a manual downshift, where none should be required.

When you pull down the selector lever from Park, it lets you pull it directly to Drive, at which point it stops. That's good.

What's bad is that when you push it forward, you don't drop automatically into reverse. Instead, you get stuck at Neutral, and need to push a release lever and count clicks (or take your eyes off the road and look at the selector) to get to Reverse.

The owner's manual warns that the transmission isn't smart enough to protect itself from your own stupidity, like dropping it into reverse while you're driving at 65 MPH. Smarter transmissions, like on the last generation of Dodge Caravans, were so smart that they didn't care what you did, and if I dripped it into reverse, the electronically controlled transmission wouldn't go into reverse until the Caravan came to a stop. I didn't try this on my borrowed Enclave.

Headlights: Excellent       top


Buick Enclave Headlights. enlarge.

The Bi-xenon HID headlights are excellent. They have almost perfect neutral color: not too blue, and not too green.

There are no halogen high beams; the xenon lamps simply move the beam restrictor as you select High beam. That's good: high beams are excellent., and come up the instant you tap High beam. There's no waiting for a fraction of a second while older style halogen bulbs warmed up as you switched beams.

UNlike European and Japanese xenon lights, the vertical cutoff is fuzzy, not sharp. As another reminder that you're driving an American car, there are still two vestigial blobs of light on the ground in front of you as you drive. (European cars with H4 lights have just lit up the entire road since the 1970s with no blobs or hot spots.)

Unlike H4 beams, there is no "kick" up on the right to light up signs and pedestrians. The headlights have the inferior American pattern, which is mostly just one flat beam that doesn't ride up on the right.

Hi-Low Beam Selector: Excellent        top

The Enclave works properly: push the stalk away from you for high beam, and pull it towards you for low beam.

You don't have to pull the stalk towards you to alternate; that's the wrong way.

Light Signals: Poor        top

Professional drivers use their lights to signal other drivers.

For instance, a blip of the high beams means "may I please pass," and blinking off your lights when another driver asks to change into your lane means "I see you and you have plenty of room. Come on in!" Blinking off your lights also means "thanks!" Try it next time a trucker asks to turn into your lane, and he'll blink off his lights to say thanks when he gets in.

This Buick can't flash the high beams in the daytime. Because xenon bulbs take a few minutes to warm up, and there are no conventional halogen high beams to blink, you're out of luck in the daytime. You can blip the high beams the usual way, but only at night or when the headlights are on. This is probably just as well, few private American drivers understand any of this.

Fog Lights: Good        top

The fog lights actually work! They add some illumination close-in.

They may or may not increase corner illumination. You can't tell, because you can't see the corners at all because of the Enclave's big blind spots caused by the overly wide windshield pillars and mirrors on each side.

Daytime Running Lights: Fair        top

The DRL seem to be the same crappy ones used on many GM trucks, which are crappy little bulbs behind what look like white turn indicators.

I call these crappy since half the GM trucks that use these have one of the bulbs burnt out due to a design flaw. GM uses a bulb with too short a life span for being on at all times.

Not only does it look stupid when someone is coming at you with one light on, it's distracting for a fraction of a second while one tries to figure out if it's a turn signal, or just another example of a vehicle designed with a bulb whose life is too short for its intended purpose.

Dashboard Illumination Level: Fair        top

Unlike better cars (Mercedes, Porsche, BMW) which have sensors to detect the amount of light falling on the dashboard and adjust their backlighting automatically, day and night, the Enclave is either on at full blast, or dimmed as set by the dimmer.

This means that the dashboard is too bright when you drive into a tunnel, and it's a bit too dark when the lights first come on at night and the dash gets as dark as you set it last night.

Having to set the brightness with a knob reminds me of the 1960s. As you go from city to country, you still have to adjust the dashboard brightness. In a modern Mercedes, I've set my control once, and for the past few years, it always adjusts itself perfectly to the conditions.

Call me silly, but every second that attention is diverted from the road is the second that something dangerous might pull out in front of you and get you killed.

I was almost killed once when assassins rolled a 700 pound (300 kg) concrete garbage fixture down a hill to collide with me as I drove, and only because I wasn't on the phone or fiddling with the radio did I see it in a split second and countersteer around it instead of hitting it head-on.

Cabin Air: Excellent        top

The automatic heating, cooling and ventilation works great. It contributes to me always being comfortable and alert.

I see no mention of any cabin air filters. Better cars filter out pollen, pollutants, smells and chemicals so you never smell trucks, refineries or sewage plants as you pass them.

Radio: Excellent        top

The radio is easy to use and control by feel, both directly and on the steering wheel.

Steering Wheel: Excellent        top

Buick Enclave Steering Wheel

Radio volume controls are easy to reach, behind the buttons on right. enlarge.

The controls don't get in the way as you're driving. This is better than many cars today.

For instance, the 2006 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S has gear shift controls where your thumbs land, so you tend to shift gears unintentionally while turning corners, and the 2007 Mercedes GL450 also has buttons on its steering wheel that often get knocked as one turns corners.

If I'm distracted trying to reset whatever got knocked on other cars, an accident could happen.

The Enclave is superior: I never knocked any buttons while turning or parking.

Wiper Controls: Good        top

The good news is that the headlights, turn signals, wipers and washers are all on the same left-handed stalk, just like industry-standard Mercedes.

The bad news is that instead of the entire shaft rotating to control the wipers, you must fiddle, locate and rotate only a small ring around the stalk to control the wipers.

For one wipe, you can't just poke the stalk as you do on Mercedes. You have to find the ring, and rotate it down a blip. If you poke the end, you squirt the washers (Mercedes have a slight delay, so a poke gets one wipe, and a push gets a wash.)

Automatic Wipers: None        top

There are no automatic wiper controls.

Just like primitive cars, you need to divert your attention from driving and play with the delay controls to match the wiping to the amount of rain or mist as the weather changes from moment to moment. This is bad in sunny California, where most of the time what little rain we get comes as sporadic mists, keeping drivers of lesser cars (like the Enclave in this case) constantly twiddling with their wiper controls.

Center Console Controls: Poor at night        top

Console at night


These are fine in the daytime. Everything is clear and well laid out.

At night, you no longer can see the actual shape of the controls, since there is no ambient lighting on the console face. (There is ambient lighting on the shift console, where you don't need it.)

At night, since all you can see are the cyan lights shining through the markings of the center console controls, everything (radio, trip computer, hazard flashers, passenger airbag, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, seat heat and cooling, rear hatch controls, etc.) all becomes a mass of confusion. Good luck sorting it all out. If you can do this from experience without having to look, you're much better off at night.

There are no visual clues at night to differentiate the different groups of controls.

Sun Visors: Good        top

The sun visors swing to the sides and slide back. That's good.

What's bad is that they don't slide far enough back to cover the last 2" (5cm) of side window, so driving north in late afternoon (or south in early morning) means that dangerous and distracting direct sunlight will shine into the sides of your eyes.

Trip Computer: Fair        top

You must take a hand off the wheel and tap buttons on the dashboard. European cars usually have a steering column stalk (Volvo, VW, Audi, Porsche) or steering wheel controls (Mercedes, BMW) for their trip computers.

Keys on the Knees: Fair        top

Kees on the Knees

I didn't think any cars still had keys that poked into the steering column.

With the Buick Enclave, half my keys are rubbing on my knees as I drive.

Parking Brake: Poor        top

The parking brake is a pedal. Push to set, and push again to release. That's bad; a center-console handle (bootlegger-turn handle) or a pedal with a hand-release is much safer.

It's easy to forget to hit it when you park.

When I park, it's not obvious from its position if its on or off, so often I hit it just to be sure. If it really was on, I just took it off. If on a hill, the Enclave lurches forward or back, and I have to put the key back in and the transmission in neutral to relieve any torque on the park lock.

The manual cautions that if you screw up and let the Enclave roll forwards or back in park because you forgot to set the parking brake, that you might make the transmission so difficult to move out of park that you'd need another car to push the Enclave back up the hill so you can pull the selector out of park. No big deal, all cars are like this if you forget to set the brake.

Worst is that it's easy to hit the parking brake accidentally as you leave, releasing it.

It's also inconvenient when getting in, since you have to lift your left foot up to be able to hit the parking brake to release it.

I much

Sadly, there is no automatic release or engagement.

Parking Assist: What?        top

There is a goofy ultrasonic DME RADAR (distance measuring) set of sensors on the rear bumper, and three lights on the top of the rear ceiling.

It has only a half order: there are sensors in the rear, but not in the front.

As you back up into another car, these lights light to tell you how close.

Like all of these systems, they are set too sensitive to be much use. They go to their maximum RED!! at only 12" (30 cm), which is usually not close enough to be helpful.

Thankfully, unlike these systems on Porsche and BMW, they don't make much noise on the Enclave. These things are a big distraction as they start going off for no reason on other cars. Better cars have many more segments to display distances more precisely; the Buick only has three lights.

The three lights all blink ON for a few seconds every time you shift into reverse, just to let you check that the LEDs are working. If you're like me, you just catch the end of this few seconds the moment I turn around after shifting.

It stays red if you forget to release the parking brake, dummy.

"Grandma's Watching You" Light: Amusing.        top

Another distraction, which can lead to accidents and deaths, is that the red light of the Parking Assist blinks at you when you're going faster than 5MPH in reverse.

As I was backing up, I was distracted to try to figure out what it was trying to tell me, instead of paying attention to what was behind me.

I was doing this on a vacant test track. I kid you not, the darn thing starts blinking red to tell you to cool it at above 5 MPH in reverse.


If You Must Crash        top

Head Restraints: Poor

Proper head restraints (headrests) and adjustments are critical to preventing injury in rear-end collisions.

There are no forward-back adjustments on any of the head restraints. You must alter the seat back angle to set this. Most Mercedes and BMW offer this, and it saved my life when some idiot came plowing into the back of my Mercedes at 45 MPH when he didn't notice that I was stopped at a stop sign. My Mercedes was totaled, while I barely felt the impact because I had my seat and headrest adjusted properly.

The front seats can adjust the height of the head restraints. That's good.

I was not able to adjust the head restraints of the middle two seats. As shipped, they are too low for adults, and therefore I would not ask an adult to ride in the middle row of seats. Their heads and necks would be injured in a rear-end collision from the lack of support.

Forget the rear seats for adults. They are comfortable, but the vestigial head restraints are unsafe. There is no head restraint at all in the middle of the rear row of seats.

There is no remote release for the rear headrests. IF someone left them up, you have to pull over, walk back there, and put them down so you can see out the back.

Seat Belt Pretensioners: Very Good        top

Better cars use explosive charges to snug down seat belts at the instant of a crash. It's like having a Sumo wrestler yank down on the belt when you need it most. Mercedes has been doing this since the 1980s.

The Enclave has pretensioners — for the front seats, only.

Brake Assist: Excellent        top

The Buick Enclave has a Brake Assist system which guesses if you're about to crash, based on you suddenly pressing the brakes hard and fast.

If the Enclave thinks you are about to have an accident, the computer kicks in and hammers the brakes all the way to stop you as fast as possible.

Brake assist was developed by Mercedes when Mercedes discovered that when accidents happened, people rarely pressed the brakes as hard as they should have. Mercedes cars have had this feature since the 1990s. People don't expect to have accidents, and they forget to hammer the brakes as hard as they should since they are more worried about jostling occupants than the fact that they are about to crash into a pole.

Brake assist works to stop accidents from happening in the first place. Bravo! I didn't try it on the Enclave, and the manual didn't mention this, but the Mercedes system automatically turns of as soon as you release the brake pedal, so don't worry.


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