Achtung, Buick! An Unexpected Player Joins the Sport Sedan Game
John DiPietro , Automotive Editor
Please, for now ignore the car's name. Give up whatever associations you may have with the words "Buick Regal" -- squishy velour seats, lazy handling, bumper stickers proclaiming "My grandchild was student of the month." Just click and drag those descriptors to your mind's trash bin, because they certainly don't apply to this reincarnated 2011 Buick Regal.
Essentially a twin of the Opel Insignia, the 2011 Regal is without question a sport sedan. Considering GM's Opel division is based in Germany and the two cars are produced side by side there, this should come as no surprise. And this is a good gene pool -- the Insignia snagged the prestigious European Car of the Year award last year. But enough of that; the Buick Regal is here in the States to serve notice to entry-level luxury sport sedan buyers that GM's former AARP division is now looking to play hardball, not shuffleboard.
Coming into the sport sedan game, the 2011 Regal is suited up and ready to go. There are two trims: the mainstream CXL that's on sale now and a turbocharged version to follow shortly thereafter. But even the CXL (likely to be the volume seller) is tuned for responsive driving, and the engineers were adamant about keeping the donor platform's sporty personality intact.
Stepping up against the likes of the four-cylinder-powered Acura TSX and Audi A4 as well as the six-cylinder BMW 328i and Lexus IS 250, the Regal makes a solid showing. It boasts comparable performance to the TSX and IS (though it lags behind the sprightly A4 and 328i), a comfortable ride, a more accommodating rear seat, solid build quality and a much lower starting price even with its generous standard features list, which includes leather upholstery, heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity. All things considered, the 2011 Buick Regal should go a long way toward erasing old stereotypes and writing a new chapter for this hard-working car company.
Initially, the 2011 Buick Regal will be available only with the 2.4-liter, direct-injected 182-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine seen in some other GM products. The sole transmission will be a six-speed automatic. Later in the model year a turbocharged version will debut, with a 2.0-liter, 220-hp engine again teamed with a six-speed auto. Rumor has it a six-speed manual may become available with the turbo variant.
The standard mill is a smooth operator, with ample thrust around town and a relaxed demeanor while cruising on the interstate. It was only when trying to pass a semi while running uphill at about 55 mph did we wish for more beans under the hood. But even when pressed to the max, the 2.4 remained unflustered, never giving off any unpleasant noise or vibes. On the spec sheet, the turbo may not look overly impressive, as you might've expected a higher peak output of, say 250 or so hp. But it's tuned for a broad power spread and the net result makes it feel like a larger, more powerful engine -- like a V6, actually.
With more in reserve at mid and upper rpm than the non-turbo engine, passing power is notably stronger and hills are simply flattened. With either engine, the six-speed automatic was smooth up and down through the gears, and stepped down a gear (or two if needed) without requiring you to nail the throttle to the carpet. Should you want to shift manually, you can, via a separate gate wherein you flick the lever fore and aft to change gears.
Though we weren't able to track test the cars, Buick estimates the 0-60-mph times at 7.7 seconds for the 2.4 and 7.0 seconds for the turbo. Our seat-o'-the-pants meter agrees with those numbers as we got to sample both cars. Fuel mileage estimates stand at 19 mpg city/30 mpg highway for the 2.4, with the turbo (not yet tested by the EPA) coming in around 1 or 2 mpg less. As for stopping power, on a run down a mountain pass, the Regal's braking gave us confidence with a firm, progressive pedal and correspondingly strong performance when needed.
When the road begins to wriggle, the 2011 Buick Regal starts to really shine. Pressed into the corners, the Buick responds with turn-in that's impressively crisp for a front-drive car. A few staffers felt that the steering could've used more weight in the wheel (a chassis engineer we spoke to said the turbo version's is still being fine-tuned). But apart from that, we had no complaints, as the rack was precise and offered a decent amount of feedback.
With the standard power seat's wide range of adjustment and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, short and tall drivers alike could get comfortable at the helm. Once under way, those well-bolstered sport seats held us fast during rather spirited driving on winding roads. The front buckets also provided proper support for backs and legs during long stints on the interstate. With 37 inches of rear legroom, the Regal offers considerably more stretching-out room than its rivals. The backseat is well-shaped and comfortable for two and offers a high, wide fold-down armrest. Headroom is adequate even for 6-footers, but as expected three abreast is a bit tight.
The Regal's suspension provides a slightly firm, but still comfortable and controlled ride, as bumps are handled without drama. Minimal wind and road noise at 75 mph make for a serene freeway cruiser.
For the most part, the Regal's various displays and controls are intuitive. Large gauges are accented with cool blue lighting. And should the top of the steering wheel block part of the speedometer (as it did with a few shorter staffers), you can always use the digital speedometer function of the central display. The power lock control is mounted on the center stack (as in some other GM products), which annoyed some of us who kept looking for it on the driver's door panel.
The audio system has a fair number of similar-looking flat buttons that can be confusing, though you'll get used to them with more time in the car, plus the driver can always use the handy steering-wheel-mounted controls. The standard USB port allows you to hook up and easily operate your iPod via the car's audio system controls. On that note, the seven-speaker system puts out clean sound with crisp highs, though a few rockers would've liked a little more punch to the bass. The automatic climate control system (dual-zone is standard, as are heated front seats) is straightforward, even if the controls are located rather low on the center stack.
The 2011 Buick Regal's trunk capacity stands at 14 cubic feet, about a cube or two more than most rivals. Should that not be enough, one could always employ the standard 60/40-split folding rear seat.
Design/Fit and Finish
Leading the way is the Regal's classy waterfall grille, a recent Buick styling cue that works well on a variety of the company's body styles. The rising beltline and swooping roof line -- a styling theme in vogue nowadays -- give this sedan a sleek, coupelike look that should appeal to the younger demographic that Buick has in its sights.
Likewise, the cabin has a sporty theme with heavily bolstered seats and a wide center stack chock full of buttons and displays. Tasteful metallic accents are complemented by either piano black or wood tone trim that impart an upscale vibe. Those with a discerning eye toward cabin materials and overall fit and finish should be pleased, as our test car displayed solid build quality all around.
Who should consider this vehicle
Consumers considering a sporty, uptown sedan would do well to put the 2011 Buick Regal on their short list. This Buick is athletic enough to satisfy driving enthusiasts (provided they don't require a manual gearbox) and is comfortable and quiet enough to take the rough edges off the daily grind. Those looking for a more spirited drive may want to wait for the turbo, which offers plenty of performance to go with the already adroit handling chops.
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