The General’s Exquisite Knobs


2013 Buick Enclave interior


Is it sexist to think that a woman designed this?

On second thought, it’s probably just reverse-sexism. I hope compliments count towards reparations…

Nonetheless, what could only have been a very smart, careful, and ingenious woman at GM has done what Steve Jobs did with the music player – borrowed a bunch of other people’s good ideas and brought them together into an elegant and user-friendly form. The result is not only lovingly crafted but is also the best upgrade to the facelifted 2013 Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and Chevy Traverse. If you’ve driven these triplets, you’ll find the refreshed to be remarkably familiar, with the exceptional exception of 3 very expensive knobs.

This isn’t faint praise. It’s more like reverse-faint-praise.

Here’s why:

The control of a car’s interior climate is perhaps the single most important non-safety-related interaction with your vehicle. In the old days, in the absence of air contioning and frequently in the absence of effective heating systems, the openable window regulated the body temperatures of the occupants of enclosed motor vehicles. This certainly put a lot of pressure on the design of crank handles to provide adequate leverage, a properly sized grip, and convenient access. Today, with standard electric windows, reliable heating systems, prevalent air conditioning, and even seat heating and cooling, the accuracy, precision, and feedback from the buttons or knobs controlling the cabin’s HVAC system are under pressure like never before. Only the forgone crank handles – now relegated to rolling classics, basic used cars, and scrap yards – know the plight of modern climate controls.

Peruse a few new car dealerships and you’ll be able to count the number of cars and trucks with rotating climate control knobs on one hand. You won’t find a single slider. The vast majority of what’s available has either 2 or 4 temperature buttons, depending on whether the car has single- or dual-zone climate control, and another 2 buttons for fan speed. As millions of people have discovered first-hand, these buttons take your eyes off the road, take longer to adjust, and require repetitive taps that are as inelegant as they are unnecessarily precise.

Buttons were first installed to provide greater control to the occupants, or so the thinking went. No longer would driver and passenger have to suffer the indignity of just being “Hot”, “Cold” or at some nebulous point in between. Buttons were seen as a rational solution to imprecise sliders and knobs because they provided maximum precision, often to the nearest 0.5C. The only problem, as millions of newer vehicle owners are finding out for themselves, is that people aren’t rational. Ultimately, we don’t want the ultimate in precision if it comes at the cost of the simplicity, speed, and convenience.

Today, finding rotating controls for a car’s HVAC system is a quiet glory. General Motors is catching on to this fact – particularly within the Buick line-up – as shown on the dashes of the new Verano (reviewed here), Regal (reviewed here), and upcoming 2014 Encore micro-crossover (a vehicle I’m strangely looking forward to). Chevrolet and GMC are also on the road to ergonomic enlightenment but The General is taking Cadillac on a path of “high-end” tap-tappery. Good thing most of us can’t afford Cadillacs.

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All of which brings us back to the most magnificent pair of knobs… in the world. Combining the ease of a knob and the rationalism of an accurate temperature readout, the 2013 Enclave, Acadia, and Traverse have transcended the disparate worlds of our human sensibilities and our mechanistic desires. The broad range of 16-31C is controlled by a gently studded rubber ring (you would read into that). Easy-to-read, falling easily to the right hand of the driver, and requiring the lightest of efforts, these climate control knobs are simply sublime.

This simplest of joys brought more smiles to my face than any other aspect of the Acadia and Enclave tested. CarEnvy’s pick? At a convincing discount of C$4,000 over the essentially identical Enclave, the arguably more fetching GMC Acadia is the one for us.

For that kind of cheddar, we’ll take the Professional Grade every time. But we’d still recommend taking them all for an… *ahem*… spin.


The 2013 Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia were generously provided by GM Canada for the purposes of this article.

[Photo credits: author]