To understand the 2008 Buick Enclave, you’ve got to understand the luxury segment of the Chinese automobile market in which Buick is a top seller.

That’s Buick as in B-U-I-C-K, long an ignored player in the U.S. automobile business and frequently the butt of geriatric jokes, as in: “He’s so old he still drives a Buick.”

Buick has been in China since 1912. There, it is a revered automotive badge, especially among the country’s upper-income groups who demand top quality and who hold prestige and honor — they call it “face” — as sacrosanct.

Buick’s status in China probably surprises many Americans, as it surprised me on several visits to Shanghai General Motors, a 50-50 joint venture between General Motors and Shanghai Automotive Industry, established in June 1997.

I said I was “surprised.” That’s an understatement. I was shocked beyond belief by China’s acceptance of Buicks. Moreover, I was stunned by the superior quality of the Chinese Buicks I drove (on a Shanghai GM test track) and saw.

Those Buicks were better than any Buicks I’d ever driven or seen in the United States. They were solid and whisper-quiet. Fit and finish were impeccable. Interior craftsmanship — the way materials blended with one another; the impressive attention to detail on the smallest items, such as the feel and weight of glove-compartment doors — was awe-inspiring.

It made me angry. I became the unruly guest railing at my GM hosts for what I thought was a slap in the face to GM’s home market. “Why do you guys give this kind of Buick to the Chinese while giving us crappy Buicks at home?” I asked.

I was in no mood for polite talk. Nor was I mollified by an answer from one of the Shanghai GM officials: “This is what the Chinese market expects from Buick,” he said.

Say what?

I wanted to punch him. I chose sarcasm instead.

“I suppose that means GM plans to live up to the expectations of the American market and stop selling Buicks in America,” I said.

He assured me that I was wrong.

NUTS & BOLTS 2008 Buick Enclave CXL

Complaints: We drove this one nearly 700 miles loaded and unloaded. (Ria managed to stuff it with 600 pounds of luggage and still have space for three people.) That’s not enough driving to find out everything that might be wrong with a vehicle. But it’s enough to decide that we like the Enclave CXL pretty much the way it was delivered to us. No complaints at this writing.

Drive, acceleration and handling: Ride and handling are superior. Acceleration is very good. The Enclave has the best riding position of any crossover utility vehicle, wagon, minivan or sport-utility vehicle we’ve tested so far. Drivers have a nearly 360-degree view of the road. That inspires confidence behind the wheel. Acceleration will please normal drivers, such as those who understand that the Enclave is a family hauler, as opposed to a race car. Head-turning quotient: Beautiful exterior sculpture, exquisite interior, all rendered with attitude. Bravo!

Body style/layout: The Buick Enclave is a front-engine, full-size, luxury crossover utility vehicle/tall wagon. It is available with front-wheel-drive or the tested all-wheel-drive. There are two trim levels, base CX and upscale CXL.

Engine/transmission: The standard Enclave engine is a 3.6-liter, 24-valve V-6 that develops 275 horsepower at 6,600 revolutions per minute and 251 foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 revolutions per minute. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually.

Capacities: There is seating for up to eight people depending on the seating configuration chosen. Maximum cargo capacity is 116 cubic feet. Maximum payload, the weight of what can be carried onboard, is 1,475 pounds. The Enclave can be equipped to tow up to 4,500 pounds. Fuel capacity is 22 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: With all of Ria’s luggage, we got 19 miles per gallon on a highway run. But with only two occupants and light-to-no cargo, we got nearly 22 miles per gallon on the highway.

Safety: Side and head air bags and electronic stability and traction control are standard equipment.

Price: Base price on the tested 2008 Buick Enclave CXL with all-wheel-drive is $36,255. Dealer’s invoice price on the base model is $33,898. Price as tested is $43,675, including $6,685 in options (onboard navigation with backup camera, rear parking proximity warning system, dual moonroof, Bose premium sound system with iPod and MP3 support capability, 19-inch chrome wheels, among other items) and a $735 destination charge. Dealer’s price as tested is $40,182. Prices sourced from Buick and

Purse-strings note: The Enclave sits at the head of the line of GM’s crossover trio, including the Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia. The Outlook is friendlier to the purses of young families. The Acadia is for people who really wanted an SUV, but who can’t live with the opprobrium of owning one.