by Bob Plunkett
JEROME, Ariz. -- We're scooting over Arizona's pine-covered Weaver Mountains on a winding route leading from Prescott to the cliff-hugging mining town of Jerome. But the car which is so deftly carving out a sure-footed course, cutting through hairpin curves in a taut line and bounding exuberantly up long grades at altitude is not some European sport sedan, but a domestic -- a mid-size Regal LS sedan -- from Buick.
Regal performs so well on this trek, in fact, that we have to keep reminding ourself that the wheels performing such maneuvers are attached to a family car -- from Buick!
This Regal shares a General Motors platform Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Intrigue, Buick's sedan emerged last year as a new expression of a familiar label. However this Regal has moves unlike any previous Regal -- and no other Buick.
We feel this new generation Regal is better outside, inside and underneath. The Regal features a subdued yet sophisticated exterior fashioned with curving wedge-shaped forms, while the interior space is far more generous than earlier Regal models. The chassis has a set of engineering assets which give it the kind of precise road manners which closely mimics the agile nature of imports. It produces firm and controllable handling attributes, and reacts with clear athletic agility when asked to steer around slower road traffic.
Regal measures 1.5 inches longer in wheelbase than the previous generation, and it is more than two inches longer. Wheels are stretched to the outer limits of the rectangular body. The broad stance sets up a stable performance attitude which, when combined with a suspension that's independent at all four corners and a power-assisted rack and pinion steering system that's lively and quick, gives Regal the kind of aggressive handling on dreamed about by its predecessors.
This year's two trim offering begin with a base Regal LS, equipped with GM's 200-horsepower, 3800 Series II 3.8-liter V-6, and extend to the sporty GS. The same engine sits under the hood of the GS, with a mechanical supercharger added to delivery a healthy output of 240 hp.
Our evaluation of these two Regals on Arizona highways showed both engines are enjoyable to drive with comfortable seats and practical interior fittings. Buick's intent here is to make the Regal more appealing to those forty- something Boomers whose kids are no longer in tow, who seek dependable and affordable sedan transportation, which is more appropriate for carrying adults than a minivan. While offering four seats, Buick also decided to blend in a spark of performance, since the target buyers a no longer looking for a family taxi.
The Regal looks were designed to reflect the new performance profile. "We wanted an exterior shape that seems sporty but not faddish, certainly not extreme," the designer, Wayne Kady, confided. "Regal incorporates a number of Buick design cues, such as the oval grille, but it still makes its own statement."
The look appears mildly aggressive, with a wide stance and monotone treatment to trim elements, plus a subtle blackout of the sedan's B-pillar to evoke the image of a sporty coupe.
But who says a domestic GM sedan can't be sporty? Here are the valid reasons why the Regal feels so athletic. Regal's independent suspension checks undue body roll and forges a ride quality that's both soft and easy over potholes yet still firm in feedback to driver. The car's unibody structure has an underbody with extra bracing to develop more rigidity and torsional stiffness when the vehicle moves down the road. Also, higher shock absorber valving and more rigid chassis bushings increase ride isolation as larger new front and rear stabilizer bars reduce body roll.
Another noticeable feature is the quiet ride -- a Buick tradition. Now the ride is even quieter. Special engineering measures and insulation ward off bothersome road and engine noises.
In terms of power, Buick should be commended for offering not only a naturally aspirated engine with respectable power, but the kick-butt supercharged powerplant as well. Starting with the Regal LS, the improved 3.8-liter V-6 responds quickly when you tap the throttle. But you really get a kick in the pants when you add a supercharger to a smaller engine like the GM 3.8-liter V-6. Horsepower jumps to 240 hp, and provides a truly swift sedan that's also easy on fuel. Further, the torque generated from this horsepower climbs dramatically through supercharging -- to 280 lb-ft at 3600 rpm -- which means there's more punch available in the lower gears.
New safety features on both Regal models include a more efficient anti-lock disc brake system and a handy tire inflation monitor for Regal LS. Dual airbags with decreased power for Regal rank as an improved safety system, as do daytime running lamps.
Regal's interior arrangement functions well and there's ample space available, particularly head room -- so much that Texans can wear a cowboy hat without crimping the crown.
Interior comfort is also improved. The Regal's seats receive special attention, with added folds of plush layers and special contours to fit a body for more comfort. The interior plan delivers twin buckets up front (and, unlike other Buicks, there's no option for a front bench), with space for up to three on the back bench. Both Regals carry a lot of standard features, including air conditioning, power windows and door locks, full instrumentation and plush leather seats for the GS. Prices seem reasonable, too, starting around $22,500.
Those who test drive a Regal like we did are bound to come away more than a little bit impressed. While they may have expected the quiet ride and attention to comfort for which Buick is known, I'm sure they'll enjoy the added benefit of a car that handles much better, and with more power (especially on the GS) than they expected.
© 1998 The Car Connection