In The City — 06 April 2013
The luxury cars hiding in plain sight

By Deborah Wilker

I was at a Hertz counter a few years back – waiting for the keys to a RAV 4 (or some other comparably small-but-solid SUV), when the guy returned with something else.

“We’re all out,’’ he said, “but I have something much better. It’s a Buick Enclave. It’s a luxury car.’’

What? This was back in the summer of 2007. The word “Buick” wasn’t on anyone’s radar, let alone as a luxury car. And as for “Enclave” – what did that word even mean?

As many have since learned, the Enclave (extensively refreshed in 2013), turned out to be one of the catalysts in Buick’s much lauded turn-around – a spacious, three-row crossover that drives like a fine sedan, turns heads with an exotic grille and envelopes you in seats so comfortable you want to put them in your den.

Six years on I’ve rented at least four more Enclaves, analyzing them all through free-for-all freeways, packed side-streets, teensy parking spaces, and I have come away with a new view of the phrase “luxury car.”

Aside from the first-class comfort and serene ride, “the Enclave also attracts a lot of attention because it’s rather boldly styled,” says Edward Loh, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend magazine. “It’s sweeping and grand looking – it has a lot of leather and wood and chrome accents. It’s certainly a luxury car.”

While the Enclave (MSRP $38,445-$47,625; MPG 17/24) typically skews older, it has younger fans in soccer moms (“who hate that term,” Loh says), “and who wouldn’t be caught dead in a mini-van.”

Comparing it recently to a friend’s sleek and powerful Volvo XC90 (MSRP $39,700–$47,600), I couldn’t help but think there must be other luxury crossovers hiding in plain sight. Despite its “ease-into-luxury ad campaign,” Volvo, with its firm drive, unique structural design and unparalleled safety stats, is sometimes still seen as a sluggish, lumbering tank.

“Volvo is really trying to change their image,” Loh says. And with its S60 line (a legitimate competitor to the BMW3 Series, he says) and the XC90s upcoming revamp, they are doing so.

Similarly, the Acura MDX (MSRP $43,280-$54,805), another classy 3-row, also jumps out as a premium ride that makes a savvy statement – without a lot of fuss. It’s renowned for its advanced all-wheel-drive, but its luxurious, restful interior seals out the World.

All three cars seem to be popular with buyers who don’t necessarily have to be conservative – but choose to be.

“Anecdotally there is evidence of that in this segment, particularly one or two years ago when the economy was more dire, some people who were doing very well thought, maybe a Buick instead of Cadillac. Or maybe even a Buick instead of a Mercedes,” Loh says. “Or, as Buick would have you believe, maybe it really is a superior car.”

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