Turning Away From Tradition
The 2011 Buick Regal is a car with a double life. Maybe even a triple. In Europe, it is known as the Opel Insignia and has won 38 awards, including European Car of the Year. There is also a Chinese Buick Regal (China buys about twice as many Buicks as the USA; nearly 100,000 Regals have already been sold there), made in GM's Shanghai factory. But the one that comes to America will be produced in Germany, at least for the first year of its life. The Regal is a mid-size sport sedan and, in its American incarnation, runs with the premium pack that includes the Acura TSX and Lincoln MKZ.
In the U.S., Buick has an image problem. The average age of its buyers in America is 65. It wants – no, needs – 35-year-olds to buy the Regal. And, Younger folk will at least be able to get their heads around the fact that this is really a European car with a Buick badge. A Euro flavor is something that can work to the Regal's advantage and go some way to make up for reviving a non-sporty name that was around before those coveted 35-year-olds were born. The company has even gone down a distinctly un-American route to offer the Regal with a six-speed manual transmission, just to underline the "sports" part of sports sedan, although it has no real idea about how many buyers will go for it.
It's what's inside that counts
The Regal is beautiful on the inside. Soft-touch plastic surfaces, satin-metallic door handles and piano-black trim bring an air of sophistication to a generously spaced cabin; 37.3 inches of rear legroom is a welcome asset in this class, as is a trunk of 14 cubic feet. A 12-way power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment is standard throughout the range.
Buick has succeeded in changing the actual image of the Regal at first glance. Sleek lines and sweet proportions have combined to appeal to a variety of car cultures and look good on Main Street, a German autobahn or parked next to the Great Wall. The Regal's styling is simply superior to anything from GM in quite some time.
Upper-class road manners
Two engines will be available initially, both driving the front wheels. The entry-level engine is a 2.4-liter four making 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque, which is a respectable set of numbers; claimed fuel consumption is a 20 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. More intriguing is the turbocharged 2.0-liter four that kicks out a punchier 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, yet can still return 18 and 29 mpg during city and highway driving respectively. This engine has a refinement to it, matched with a progressive delivery of power. Buick hasn't issued acceleration figures yet, but the 2.4-liter version will hit 60 mph from standstill in around eight seconds; the turbo model is probably capable of taking a second less.
The standard-issue six-speed automatic transmission functions with a pleasing smoothness and speed, although the manual shifter isn't quite in the same league of precision as something like the Acura TSX's counterpart.
Negotiating the first corner highlights a trait not usually associated with older, super-soft Buicks. This car's suspension has a buttoned-down stance that complements a comfortable ride. The turbo car offers an Interactive Drive Control System (IDCS), with is GM-ese for an adaptive suspension. There are three modes going from taut to relaxed: Sport, Normal and Tour, and it tweaks things like throttle response, chassis settings and shift times of the automatic transmission. However, even the base-level suspension works well. It's the Euro tuning that makes all the difference.
The price of regaling
A well-equipped trim level, CXL, is the only version available when the Regal is launched next spring. Starting with an MSRP of $27,745 (including destination), a Regal driver will enjoy leather, heated front seats, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and a year's free subscription to GM's OnStar navigation/security/communications/remote diagnostic system. Getting into a turbo model will cost an extra $2,500. Options include a back-up camera, rear-seat side airbags and blind spot monitoring. A more powerful version with all-wheel drive, the GS, will follow the CXL into Buick showrooms, but not for a while.
An Acura TSX currently starts at $29,310. Compared with the Regal, it has a little less rear legroom, a slightly smaller trunk and slightly smaller standard-issue wheels. Then again, it does have more power and better fuel consumption. And Honda/Acura build quality is exemplary.
The 2011 Volvo S60 is a new generation. While it has slightly less space in back, it more than makes up for it with extra power, good looks, smart ergonomics, plenty of cutting-edge safety systems, and some of the best seats in the business. These attractive attributes, however, make for an expensive choice. It starts at $37,700.
Another American contender, the Lincoln MKZ, is also worthy of consideration. It beats the Regal on power and already offers all-wheel drive. But it takes at least $34,225 to get one on the driveway, and fuel consumption does not compare well (although there's a MKZ Hybrid coming soon).
It's not hard to imagine 35-year-olds lapping up the Audi A4 2.0T. Although it doesn't pack quite the same punch as the Regal's turbo engine, the A4's equivalent is a well-known and well-loved powerplant. When it comes in a package that is so exquisitely designed both inside and out, then who cares if it offers two inches less rear legroom? With the Audi brand quickly gaining popularity, $31,450 to get in the game doesn't seem too bad.
For some people to even look at it, a GM product has to be better than other offerings. The good news is that the company's build quality has risen of late and, like the Buick LaCrosse before it, the Regal is another beneficiary of a new way of doing things at GM. Being what is essentially a German sedan with the refinement that such a thing implies can't hurt either. The 2011 Regal makes a strong case for itself in this "affordable premium" segment.
Lou Ann Hammond is a long-time transportation and energy buff with writing experience at Chevron, Wired Magazine, Green Car Journal and several others. Today, she is the owner of two automotive industry and legislation sites, www.carlist.com and www.drivingthenation.com.