2011 Buick Regal

2011 Buick Regal 2011 Buick Regal
First Drive Review

If General Motors hadn’t imploded, the Buick Regal wouldn’t have been a Buick; it would have been a Saturn. The Regal is essentially a European-market Opel Insignia—a mid-size sedan that competes with the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord, and Volkswagen Passat over there—rebadged and rebranded for the U.S. and China. It went on sale in the latter country last December.

In case people are worried about Buick’s offering what amounts to a gussied-up mid-size family sedan in the luxury field, that’s what Lincoln and Acura have done with the MKZ and TSX, respectively. We have to say the Buick is a classier piece than both of those. It’s handsome to look at and is hardly changed from the Insignia; only the grille, headlamps, taillight bulbs, badging, and side-mirror glass are different. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, with 19s on the options list.

Although the Insignia plays in that mid-size family-car arena in Europe, it looks far more expensive inside than do the U.S.-market Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. The Regal has more soft-touch plastic surfaces and more elegant finishes, such as satin-metal door pulls and piano-black trim. The Regal is reasonably commodious, too, with 97 cubic feet of passenger space allied to a 14-cubic-foot trunk. The rear seat doesn’t feel as accommodating as, say, an Accord’s, although the quoted legroom of 37.3 inches is a hair better than the Honda’s and nearly two inches better than an Audi A4’s.

Well Equipped at Launch

The Regal will be available only in CXL trim at launch, with standard leather seating surfaces, a power driver’s seat, a standard six-speed automatic transmission, heated front seats, and satellite radio. A backup camera, blind-spot monitoring, rear-seat side airbags, and a navigation system will be on the options list. The navigation system has three interfaces: a touch screen; a wheel-type controller by the driver’s right hand; and large buttons on the center console.

Mechanically, the Regal is almost identical to the Insignia. There will be two powertrains for the U.S.: a direct-injected, 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, and a turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injection four that produces 220 hp and 258 lb-ft. Both engines come with standard six-speed automatic transmissions—the 2.0-liter’s is a GM design; the 2.4’s is sourced from Aisin—although the turbo will be offered with a six-speed manual some time after launch. A Buick with a manual tranny? It seems as incongruous as a talking lion, but since the prime competition (TSX) has a stick, why not? Buick executives have no idea of the take rate, by the way, citing a wait-and-see approach. The automaker estimates that the 2.4 will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in the mid-eight-second bracket, and we reckon the turbo will run to 60 in the low sevens, comparable with the TSX.

The Regal has a MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear suspension, with aluminum lower control arms all around. To accommodate all-season tires—versus the Euro-market Insignia’s summer rubber—the rear anti-roll bar is thinner by 0.04 inch and the shock settings were altered. The turbo will be offered with a three-mode “Interactive Drive Control System”—marketing-speak for adaptive shocks. There are driver-selectable “sport,” “normal,” and “tour” modes, although the system will adapt to an aggressive driving style in normal mode, automatically speeding up shift times, increasing steering effort, sharpening throttle response, and firming up the shocks. The IDCS system is bundled with the optional 19-inch wheels and tires and a variable-ratio steering rack. The turbo uses vented disc brakes all four corners, whereas the 2.4 gets solid rear rotors.

No Floaty Boat

The Regal drives much like an Insignia, we discovered, which is a good thing. Buick had only turbo models on hand for our drive. They were equipped with the base suspension, 18-inch wheels, and a nonvariable steering rack. We have to say we prefer this setup based on previous experience in Europe with the adaptive chassis system. The IDCS gives the steering more linearity and more friction in its sport setting than in the other modes, but it is still overly aggressive on turn-in, whereas the nonvariable setup is nicely weighted and intuitive. (It is possible to change the steering independently, however, to get increased weight with the normal shock setting.)

The turbo engine is quiet and refined, with progressive power delivery. It’s not a startlingly fast car, but passing power is decent, and it feels competitive with the likes of an Audi A4 2.0T and the four-cylinder TSX. The six-speed automatic transmission is superb, with quick, well-damped shifts. The manual is pretty good, too, if notchier than the slick-shifting Acura’s. The Regal goes around corners in a nicely predictable manner, but it’s not the most entertaining of back-road companions. Torque steer is negligible, even with the standard stability-control system turned off, and the base suspension offers a composed and supple ride.

Like the Buick LaCrosse, the Regal is far removed from the floaty-boat reputation that has cursed the brand, along with an aging demographic that Buick is desperate to change. The Regal now looks and performs in a class-competitive manner. What’s shocking is that a modern Euro family sedan can be turned so easily into an entry-level luxury car, although that reflects the reality that Europeans are prepared to pay more for their vehicles across the board.

The Regal goes on sale in early spring, initially in 2.4-liter form. The turbo follows a couple months later. Pricing has yet to be finalized, but we expect the 2.4 to start in the high-$27,000 bracket and the turbo to command a base price close to $30,000. Initially, cars will be imported from Rüsselsheim, Germany, with U.S. production starting about a year later at a site that has yet to be determined.

No doubt GM is quite pleased that Saturn is gone, because branding this car a Buick rather than a Saturn means the General can charge more money for it while ensuring there is less confusion over what its brands stand for; Buick has now set its stall as a rival to the soft-luxury automakers such as Acura, Lexus, Lincoln, and Volvo, leaving the more hard-core field of German brands to Cadillac. Mind you, brand loyalists might still have a problem getting their heads around a Buick that can actually compete with an Acura.