Reinvention Happens Slowly
We want to tell you that this 2011 Buick Regal CXL is the sport sedan of Buicks. We want to tell you about our drive on scenic back roads, and how smartly the car changes direction, and how quickly it accelerates out of corners.
But that isn't the story of this particular Regal. In CXL trim, the new Buick isn't trying to be a sport sedan or reinvent the brand in the image of BMW. It's merely a competent midsize car with clean styling and modern features. Spend a day with it, though, and you realize it's different from earlier Buicks — not least because it's the first General Motors midsize sedan with an all-four-cylinder engine lineup.
The most obvious difference between the 2011 Regal and other Buicks is that it doesn't come from America. It's a repackaged Opel Insignia, an impressive, front-wheel-drive D-segment sedan developed by GM Europe that competes with the European-market Ford Mondeo and Volkswagen Passat. The 2011 Buick Regal is even built on the same assembly line in Russelsheim, Germany, though production will move to GM's Oshawa, Ontario, plant for the 2012 model year.
Of course, GM had to Americanize certain aspects of the Insignia, namely the drivetrains and suspension, because our emissions standards and personal tastes won't accommodate the diesel four-cylinders and firm ride quality that Europeans favor.
Otherwise, the Regal's European-ness is unadulterated. It's roughly the size of an Acura TSX, with a 190.2-inch body, 107.8-inch wheelbase and 62.5-inch track. Inside, it feels significantly smaller than the Chevrolet Malibu (which uses a stretched version of this platform architecture) and most other family sedans in this price range. This translates to an adequate backseat, but for 6-footers and infants in oversize baby seats, it will be a tight fit.
Up front, the ambience is luxurious if understated, though there's plenty of simulated wood trim because the Opel version has exactly as much simulated wood. Materials are up to par for the asking price ($31,780 as tested), but they're outdone by the sumptuous surfaces in the slightly more expensive TSX, a car Buick regards as a key rival for the Regal.
Disappointingly, our German-built Regal tester's fit and finish is inconsistent. There are obvious panel misalignments and some of the plastic parts have visible flashing left over. We were expecting a little more here.
We have no complaints about the familiar GM navigation system in the center of the dash. Instead of the usual touchscreen, though, the interface is a pair of multifunction dials. The Europeans seem to enjoy such complexity, but we resorted to using voice control rather than trying to learn something new.
Faster Than a Law-Abiding Prius
Until the range-topping Regal GS shows up, there's just the regular-strength 2011 Buick Regal CXL, which comes with one of two direct-injected four-cylinder engines — a standard, naturally aspirated 182-horsepower 2.4-liter engine as in this test car, or for $2,500 more, an optional turbocharged 220-hp 2.0-liter engine. Nope, you can't get a V6.
Certainly, the 2.4-liter engine is the obvious choice if you're looking to save money up front. Fuel economy is expected to be slightly better, too, and with 172 pound-feet of torque, you can't go too wrong, can you?
Well, surprisingly and sadly, you can go wrong with the base engine, as this 2011 Buick Regal CXL is the slowest 182-hp car we've ever tested. It goes from zero to 60 mph in a lackadaisical 9.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 17.1 seconds. The only current midsize car that fares worse is the 134-hp Toyota Prius.
The list of cars that are quicker than our Regal includes the four-cylinder TSX (200 hp; 7.7-second 0-60, albeit with a manual gearbox), the 198-hp 2011 Hyundai Sonata(8.2-second 0-60), the 170-hp 2011 Volkswagen Jetta (8.4-second 0-60) and, yes, even the Ford Fusion Hybrid (8.7-second 0-60).
We can't lay the blame on the Regal's six-speed automatic transmission, which executes smooth, crisp upshifts at 6,500 rpm. Neither did we find any obvious malady with the engine itself when we dyno-tested the Regal. Curb weight is a likely source of the slow, as the Regal weighs in at 3,665 pounds — heavier than any of the above cars, save for the Fusion Hybrid.
Curiously, though, the 2011 Buick Regal also lags behind both our front-drive, long-term 2010 GMC Terrain (9.4-second 0-60), which has exactly the same drivetrain (gear ratios, final drive and all), and an identically configured 2010 Chevrolet Equinox (9.3 seconds) we tested. The Equinox weighed 120 pounds more than this Regal CXL; our Terrain weighs 200 pounds more. We're still scratching our heads over this one.
And Back in the Real World
No one would even remember these numbers if the 2.4-liter-equipped 2011 Buick Regal CXL provided acceptable urge in traffic. But it struggles, and the engine becomes noisy and ill-tempered by 3,000 rpm.
Meanwhile, the transmission is oblivious to the whole affair, blithely upshifting to 6th gear just as it was programmed to do so the Regal could get its 30 mpg highway rating. It's in no hurry to downshift for part-throttle inputs, never mind that the engine doesn't make any usable power while marooned below 2,000 rpm. Routine traffic maneuvers are a continual stomp-wait-downshift-wait-downshift-OK-ready-go process. Manually shifting doesn't help because of long delays on shift requests.
In 650 miles of mixed driving, the Regal doesn't even approach that magic 30 mpg. Every single tank returns right around 20 mpg.
Hope Springs Eternal
Soon enough, you learn to carry your momentum with you as you drive the 2011 Buick Regal CXL 2.4, and when you make peace with that, you realize there's a pretty good chassis under this midsize sedan.
You can feel it in the way the car rides. It's firmer than the LaCrosse and might even be too much for Toyota drivers. The Regal CXL shows a lot of poise over impacts and manages to keep all the pitter-patter from the grooves and seams of Southern California freeways out of the cabin. It's equal parts control and compliance, and suggests that GM engineers put some care into retuning the Insignia's suspension for U.S. roads. Adaptive dampers are available with the turbocharged engine, but the conventional shocks work fine here.
Twisty back roads aren't a good place for a base-engine Regal, unless you enjoy tormenting other motorists stacked up behind you. At our closed-course instrumented testing facility, it went through the slalom at 64.3 mph. That's close to what the four-cylinder TSX, Sonata and new Volvo S60 (another car Buick has in its sights) can do — and all the more respectable when you remember the Regal has no torque to accelerate between cones. Nor can you fault the Buick's 0.81g on the skid pad, as it wears all-season P235/50R18 97V Michelin Pilot HXMXM4 tires.
Steering feel is still not present in this Buick, though the hydraulic-assist setup is precise, with enough weight to it for a secure highway feel, but not so much that parking is a hassle. You get a more advanced, variable-effort steering rack with the turbo 2.0-liter.
At odds with the rest of the package is the Regal CXL's poor brake pedal feel. Sink your foot into the squishy pedal with its gradual jump-in and you might think the old days of GM are back. Then, the Regal proceeds to stop from 60 mph in 122 feet four times in a row. The hardware is sound, so it's a trust issue.
Reinvention Takes Time — and Turbos
After years of casting about for a Lexus-like image, Buick officials are taking a bit of a detour with the European-bred 2011 Buick Regal. Current advertising gives the impression that GM executives think they can reinvent the whole Buick brand with this car, but we suspect the actual mission is simpler than that.
Buick wants to take some sales away from other niche premium brands like Acura and Volvo (and realistically, less elite brands like Hyundai and Volkswagen), and officials hope the attractive, nicely equipped Regal CXL will draw the hip under-forty-somethings this silver-haired brand desperately needs.
But even that's not going to happen with the 2.4-liter-equipped 2011 Buick Regal CXL. Even a 10-minute test-drive will reveal the car's extreme lack of hurry, and there's just no reason to put up with that — not when cheaper, better-performing sedans like the Sonata and Jetta are available. Moreover, another grand or two will get you into a more lavish TSX or Fusion Hybrid.
It's going to take a lot more than this base 2011 Regal CXL to reinvigorate the Buick brand. And if you ask us, it's going to take a car with some motor — preferably one that's turbocharged.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.