Buick turns up the burners.
by Tony Swan
Just when we thought Buick was committed to unswerving conservatism, along comes a car like the 1997 1/2 Buick Regal. (Why is it a 1997 1/2? Go figure. Buick knows, but we don't.)
Yes, the Regal embodies the virtues -- roominess, smooth ride quality, lots of features -- that go with Buick's marketing slogan: Premium American Motorcars. But it also goes beyond, treading perilously close to Pontiac's Excitement territory.
This is particularly true of the supercharged Regal GS, which can match Pontiac's nifty Grand Prix GTP stride for stride, sprinting to 60 mph in about six and half seconds.
That's pretty brisk for a conservative-looking mid-size family sedan. But we're not complaining. And we don't think you will either.
If you have any lingering doubt that General Motors can build dramatically different cars using the same basic chassis, compare the new Regal with the new Buick Century. These two share the same platform (along with the new Olds Intrigue, Grand Prix, and Chevy Lumina), but aside from dimensions they're about as much alike as milk and champagne.
We wouldn't call the Regal's new exterior treatment particularly exciting (though Buick did depart from tradition by substituting a horizontally-barred grille for the familiar chrome waterfall). But it's clean, nicely proportioned and free of excessive bright trim. The GS takes this look a bit further with a body-colored grille.
Thanks to the switch to a new platform, this is a substantially larger car than its predecessor. The wheelbase is 1.5 inches longer, the front/rear track is 2.5 and 3.3 inches wider, respectively, with corresponding increases in body dimensions: 2.3 inches and a surprising 3.3 inches taller. What this adds up to, of course, is more room inside the car, as well as in the trunk.
The new model is offered in two models, the basic LS and the sportier GS, our test subject. Both are sedans; the coupes have been dropped.
Trim and feature differences notwithstanding, the major distinction between the LS and GS lies beneath the hood. The LS is powered by a normally aspirated version of GM's uniquitous 3800 Series II V-6, rated at 195 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, the GS by the supercharged edition, with 240 hp and 280 lb-ft.
Both engines drive the front wheels through four-speed automatic transmission, though the GS has a heavier-duty version to handle the extra torque of the supercharged engine. The GS also has 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with slightly more aggressive tires and firmer suspension tuning. However, the 16-inch wheel/tire package can be added to the LS, as can the handling upgrade, with the Y56 suspension option.
Although the Regal's pricing had not been fixed when we went to press, we expect the LS to start at about $21,500, the GS at about $23,500 and a loaded GS to be pretty close to $27,000. Our tester, which had most of the goodies offered in the Regal lineup, would be right around $26,500.
The Inside Story
The Regal is the sportiest of the Buicks, a trait that's reflected inside. Although the controls and instrument panel design look pretty tame compared to a Grand Prix, it's pretty daring by Buick standards, with an attractively curved cowling sweeping over the instrument panel and the dashboard, in turn, sweeping nicely into the door panels.
The major instruments are readily visible through a large, leather-wrapped steering wheel, whose upper half is open to afford just such a view. Auxiliary audio controls are built into the upper wheel spokes, and you can honk the horn by pressing on the center of the hub, which also houses the driver's airbag.
The bucket seats -- leather-clad in the GS -- don't offer quite as much lateral support as those in the Grand Prix GTP, but they're certainly long-haul comfortable, and a definite improvement over the previous Regal. The seats in our test car had the optional heating feature, which was welcome in the depths of a midwest winter; so were the heated outside mirrors.
Part of GM's formula for winning the mid-size sedan wars is packing in more comfort and convenience features than its target competitors, and the Regal is rolling proof.
The Regal LS is well-equipped, with dual zone air conditioning, excellent audio, power windows/mirrors/locks, anti-lock brakes and low-speed traction control, just to hit the highlights.
The GS is loaded. Rather than detail its contents, we suggest you study the data panel; it'll take awhile, because there's a lot to read. However, one thoughtful item -- a warning light to let you know when you have low pressure in one or more tires -- does bear mention here. Low pressure is the prime cause of reduced tire life, and can also throw any car's handling out of whack.
Demerits are minor. We wish the Regal had the same dashboard ignition key as the Intrigue, instead of the same old hard-to-find steering column location. And we think the old-fashioned, gathered-leather look of the door panels is out of step with the sporty look of the rest of the interior.
But any quibbles are more than offset by the Regal's roominess. There's plenty of space up front, which you'd expect, and plenty of space in back, which you might not. Three adults can sit back there comfortably, without territorial squabbles or contortions, and they can do so for extended periods of time. And because the rear seats are slightly elevated, they'll have a good forward view, to help them critique your driving.
The center seating position isn't quite as comfy as the outboard spots, and it lacks a three-point belt, but in general the Regal will shame its import competition for rear seat roominess.
The rear seat also features a center pass-through to the trunk, for stowing longish cargo, and the option of an integrated child safety seat.
Speaking of safety, the Regal stacks up as contemporary, though not outstanding. Besides standard ABS and traction control, it has the required dual front airbags, plus side impact protection and, GM's new favorite, daytime running lamps.
Ride & Drive
Thanks to its excellent torque, the standard 3800 V-6 can haul this far-from-small sedan out of the blocks in a faster-than-ordinary hurry. But it pales beside the supercharged engine.
Although it has 45 more horsepower than its normally aspirated counterpart, the supercharged V-6 also specializes in torque; mass quantitites of torque. That's the grunt you use to get off and running when the light turns green, or pull out to pass on a two-lane highway, two power tricks the GS performs with gratifying zeal.
Like the Grand Prix GTP, the Regal GS exhibits a bit of torque steer, pulling to one side or the other at full throttle, particularly at low speed. But this trait becomes almost transparent after a bit of familiarization.
The only thing that requires constant attention is just how quickly the supercharged V-6 pulls the Regal beyond legal limits. It's deceptively quiet, and its power is habit-forming.
Even with the stiffer Gran Touring suspension package, the Regal GS isn't quite as athletic as the Grand Prix GTP. On the other hand, its ride quality is distinctly smoother.
The variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering -- GM's new Magnasteer -- is accurate and exceptionally quick, and braking performance is a definite cut above the previous Regal, with good control and pedal feel.
What's going on here? The Regal seems a little out of step with its more sedate stablemates. In fact, we think it's sportier than even the Riviera.
Then again, who cares? The new Regal is an excellent blend of posh and performance, with plenty of space and lots of features. And the Regal GS joins the Grand Prix GTP as one of the hottest mid-size sedans you can buy.
So maybe it's a little out of synch with the rest of Buickdom, but we won't tell them if you won't.
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