2014 Buick Enclave Long Term Update: 8 things learned driving cross-country
Tulsa, Oklahoma isn't exactly at the top of most winter destinations, but my family had its reasons for driving out there in our long-term 2014 Buick Enclave: my dad and several cousins live there. Of course, there was more planning than just grabbing the keys and piling in. First was vehicle choice, and the big Buick Enclave was a natural fit. It's easily big enough for me, my wife, and our three kids, with plenty of room left over for luggage, a cooler of snacks and drinks, Wii and movies, and a few other sundries. With two adults and three kids, we had folded down half of the Buick's third row to fit everything, and fill up the ever-so-handy under-floor storage. The Enclave managed to swallow everything without choking.
Since road trips are about discovery, the next step should have been planning side trips. However, our schedule was too compressed; we had a week to drive out, visit, and return, and considering the drive to Tulsa is 22 hours, we were going to have to have a midway overnight spot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Still, you can't drive a Buick that far and not learn anything. For example...
1: Enchanting New Mexico
Our route consisted almost entirely of Interstate 40, which passes through the Californian desert, northern Arizona, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle on its way to Oklahoma City. Outside our Buick's windows was the breathtaking variety and color of New Mexico's mesas, plateaus and buttes. I had been in New Mexico earlier in 2014 for the Audi A3 TDI Challenge [http://www.kbb.com/car-news/all-the-latest/2015-audi-a3-tdi-challenge-hypermiling-not-hyper_speed/2000011355/], so some of the route was already familiar. But without the distractions of hypermiling (see the story), I realized why the state's slogan is "The Land of Enchantment." And that's just the view from the Enclave's windows on Interstate 40. Coming back is definitely on the family to-do list.
2: "Quiet Tuning" isn't just marketing
Besides its size and features, a primary reason for taking the Buick Enclave on this trek was because of its so-called "Quiet Tuning." That's marketing-speak for a combination of sound deadening measures taken to keep outside noises from penetrating the Buick's interior. Goofy name or not, there's no question that even at highway speeds, the Buick was quiet enough that conversations with the third row passenger proceeded without a prelude of "What?" and "Huh?" and "Speak up, I can't hear you!" Combine that with the wide and comfortable seats, excellent audio system, and comfortably sprung suspension, and this Buick is a Roadmaster in everything but name.
3: What's that sound?
That said, the Buick Enclave wasn't without shortcomings. Part of it is the age of the platform; the same basic vehicle has been on sale since 2007. It's quiet and comfortable, but there's a lot of old-school GM about it, such as dated controls, a low-res navigation and infotainment system, and an odd mix of materials straddling the line between GM's high-quality newer offerings and its older, less desirable cars. The best fuel economy I saw from the 3.6-liter V6 was about 22 mpg in highway driving, not great by today's standards. Plus, things broke. The USB input in the hidden dashtop compartment ceased working, but more importantly, the right rear hub bearing went out while we were in Oklahoma, resulting in a steadily worsening drone that followed us all the way home, Quiet Tuning or not.
4: There's cold, and then there's COLD
Being from California, my kids had never really experienced cold before. About the coldest it ever gets where we live is the high 30s, and even in the local mountains, it only drops below freezing on rare occasions, and usually at night. So imagine their shock when at a gas stop in Gallup, New Mexico, we climbed out to discover it was only 15 degrees. "Breathtaking" is exactly the right word, as not only were the kids shocked by the sensation of the air hurting their faces, but the visible vapor of each exhalation was entertaining enough that if we'd stayed much longer, they'd hyperventilate from it. Good thing the Buick has heated seats.
5: Big country
To drive straight from Los Angeles to Tulsa would be about 22 hours behind the wheel. Even in something as comfortable as the Enclave, that's a lot of miles to pass in a single sitting. Factor in that in certain parts of the country -- I'm looking at you, Texas panhandle -- the scenery is something like an old cartoon from the '70s, with a constantly repeating background which makes for some dreary driving. Still, it makes you appreciate the country in which we live all the more. We couldn't help but think as we paralleled old Route 66 toward Oklahoma, how many people came the opposite way in decidedly less comfortable cars than our Buick. Despite the tedium that's sometimes involved, even when you make an overnight stop, it's worth it.
6: Desert snowstorm
There are few things more magical than the look on a kid's face when they experience their first snowfall. Ours was in Albuquerque, right after dinner, and although it wasn't particularly heavy, nor did it stick around, one thing was proved: trying to catch a snowflake on your tongue must be instinctive, because all the kids did it without prompting. The next day we were treated to the rare sight of a desert covered in snow. It was still cold, of course, but sunny and clear. The snow stretched from horizon to horizon, sometimes a gentle dusting, other times showing accumulation several inches deep. It was irresistible, and we stopped to indulge ourselves with a snowball fight.
7: Drive carefully
The reality of our long-term Buick Enclave is that its SUV body and oversize persona is a disguise: this big brute is front-wheel drive. Without the added security of all-wheel drive, and with the very real possibility of running into snow or other foul weather, I brought along a set of tire chains, just in case. Luckily I never needed them; despite mile after mile of frosty roads and some bitter cold, the roads were clear for the whole trip. However, as we headed home on the west side of Flagstaff, Arizona, the highway patrol was routing traffic around the aftermath of a single car accident: an RV had lost control and was now lying on its side, a reminder that even if there's no overt sign saying to drive carefully, it's important to keep it in mind.
8: Welcome home
The Buick Enclave's navigation system includes live traffic updates, so imagine our total lack of surprise when we saw the familiar red line of a traffic jam as we approached Southern California. Not surprisingly, this little welcome home gift was the only traffic tie-up we faced during the entire trip. It was construction, of course, and it was on Interstate 15, the major artery leading into town. Traffic was backed up for miles, and my usual Los Angeles-bred instinct of finding an alternate route was useless. There was no work around, and what should've been a 10 minute downhill cruise stretched into a bladder-busting hour wait. Welcome home, indeed.