The Sport Sedan of Buicks
We say that it's the first drive of the 2011 Buick Regal and it is, mostly. Sort of.
You see, one of the vehicles that we recently drove around southeastern Michigan was actually an Opel Insignia, a straight-up European sedan that we wrote about when we drove it in Europe. Two of the other vehicles we drove were Opel Insignias with the suspension settings that the U.S.-market Buick Regal will use when the model goes on sale here next spring. One was equipped with a six-speed automatic and one carried a six-speed manual, both of which will make it to American showrooms. What we didn't drive was the vehicle that Buick had on hand that actually wore Buick badges.
But, you know what? It doesn't matter. So close is the Regal to the well-loved Insignia in mechanical specification, appearance and basic demeanor that badges don't really mean much.
And with this foray into sporty sedans, Buick must be desperately hoping that badges don't mean much to prospective buyers, either. Because to the people who are shopping the Acura TSX and Volvo S60, the Buick name is, well, it's not currently even close enough to be in consideration to have even a negative impression.
It reminds us of an old Jon Stewart joke in which a Canadian friend approaches Stewart with what he claims is a common question up there in Canada. That is, what do Americans really think of Canadians? After a long pause, Stewart answers, "Um, we don't."
Like Discovering a $50 Bill in Your Coat Pocket
Like the 2004-'06 Pontiac GTO and the 2008-'09 Pontiac G8 before it, the 2011 Buick Regal is a kind of found-money car for General Motors in that a nearly identical car already on sale somewhere else in the vast GM universe turned up with just the right credentials for a slot in the North American market. Unfortunately the GTO turned out to be a $5 bill instead of the $50 bill the company hoped for and the G8, well, rest in peace, brother.
We think the 2011 Buick Regal has the best chance at success of any of them, not the least because we think GM isn't going to kill Buick any time soon and unlike the GTO, the Regal doesn't look like a half-used bar of soap.
We can't say how potential buyers will react to this genuinely attractive, Euro-style sporty sedan from the geriatric division of GM. What we can say is, if Buick can somehow convince people to test-drive the thing, the Regal's got a good fighting chance at success. Or, let's say, if it fails, it won't be the fault of the car.
Those Boisterous Euros
We were lucky to start our day of driving in the fully Euro-spec Opel Insignia, powered by the same basic turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter inline-4 that will be the optional power plant for the Regal. The Insignia is a nice piece, solidly put together yet nimble thanks to trusty, linear steering. It feels relatively lightweight, at least compared to the German sedans that are a step or two up on the prestige scale. Like other sedans direct from the roads of Europe, though, the Insignia isn't ideally suited to the crappier selection of American roads. On our warty byways, the Insignia's suspension feels awfully busy, noisy and simply too stiff for duty in a luxury-brand midsize sedan. Nevertheless, the Insignia's body is well controlled over the undulations on its MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension.
We actually preferred the two Insignias that we drove later in the day that used U.S.-market Regal suspension tuning. The rear dampers are a little softer to improve ride comfort and the improvement is obvious and welcome. The recalibration is relatively minor, intended to make the U.S. car on its all-season Michelin tires feel essentially like the Euro-market model, which comes with summer tires. A more compelling adjustment is the addition of a more aggressive sound-deadening package which not only reduces some tire sizzle but also quells the road impacts. It's easy to forget how much of your perception of a vehicle's attributes are contributed by what your ears detect.
Our early impression of the "Regal's" comportment is that it will likely make current Lucerne drivers call it "too bumpy," but would feel familiar to those who've driven an Acura.
It's been a while since any luxury-oriented brand tried to sell a car as big as the Regal with only four-cylinder engines. Even so, Buick carefully offered us a drive only in a car with the 220-horsepower, turbocharged direct-injection inline-4, which emits just the faintest turbo hiss under acceleration. What the motor lacks in charm it more than makes up for in torque, as some 258 pound-feet arrive at just 2,000 rpm. So the roughly 3,700-pound, 16-foot-long Regal squirts around town nicely. It also returns an admirable 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway. We're less convinced the base-model's normally aspirated 2.4-liter inline-4 will cut it with just 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque to call upon, but we'll see.
Both engines will be offered with six-speed automatics. The naturally aspirated engine comes with a GM Hydra-matic, while the turbo motor features a six-speed Aisin box. The Aisin snaps off clean shifts without much searching. And unlike some other recent GM autoboxes, this transmission doesn't seem obsessed with upshifting early in order to maximize fuel economy.
The availability of a six-speed manual is a calculated shock from Buick. It will be offered only with the 2.0-liter turbo, which won't go on sale until summer. And it's not even likely to be available right away, even then. Oh, Buick will sell so few of them that it might as well be exactly zero. Doesn't matter. The reaction to our recent news item that the manual would be offered generated more comments than anything else we did that day, something that doesn't often happen on Buick stories. It's a credibility-building move for this Buick sport sedan. As one commenter pointed out, a Buick will come with a manual transmission but Nissan's four-door sports car, the Maxima, is available only with a CVT? Mission accomplished.
And for all that, our early exposure to the prototype car has us convinced that we would simply just buy the automatic.
Likewise, the steering and brakes work nicely enough that you simply don't really notice them in operation. In this case the absence of vice is truly the same as virtue. Both are conventional systems designed with precision as high on the list of desired attributes as comfort. The result is consistent and predictable operation.
Buick smartly brought out a 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS (the one with the strong 3.6-liter V6) for comparative driving. There is some family resemblance in the front grille and use of chrome and such. Despite similar platforms and dimensions that are not too far from each other, the two don't share much character with each other.
The LaCrosse, which boasts a very capable and controlled chassis, pushes its dynamic ability into the background in favor of more conventional Buick attributes such as quietness and a plush ride. In comparison, the Regal wears its driving aspirations right there in the open.
Within the passenger cabin, the LaCrosse is all gloss and shine while the Regal is much more sober. Much more, well, European. It's probably more important that the Regal gain traction with those who would otherwise go with entry-level European or Japanese prestige sedans than to look like the LaCrosse.
Given a chance, it can. Buick hasn't announced pricing, but judging by how the company priced the 2010 Buick LaCrosse against the Lexus ES 350, we're going to guess that the 2011 Buick Regal is going to start in the mid-$20,000 range, undercutting the Acura and Volvo offerings by at least a few thousand dollars. Once loaded up with the turbo motor and all the options, the Regal could go deep into the $30,000 range.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.