2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo: Short Cut
April 27, 2011
Swapped test cars with Brent Romans midway between the office and his place out in the Central Valley. He took the Mustang GT and I came away with the 2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo, which sounds like a bad deal for me.
Only it didn't turn out that way.
We made the swap at the Denny's at the foot of the Grapevine. The last weather of April was blowing through and it was one of those days where you turn your head sideways at every crossroads and look down roads where you've never been before.
Lucky for me there was a Sig Alert on Interstate 5 at Templin Highway, so there was no getting back to L.A. on the freeway. Instead I turned the Regal toward the old Ridge Route, a road that no sane person would think to drive a Buick. Hey, it's a short cut, I told myself.
You get off at CA Highway 138, then just past Quail Lake and that weird old mansion that used to be a duck hunting club, you bear right on the old Ridge Route, the first highway into L.A. from the north when it opened in 1915. It's mostly intact even now, but unless you like driving at the speed of a Ford Model T and don't mind off-roading across the wash-outs, you probably want to take Pine Valley Road where it bears left toward Elizabeth Lake.
This is a great road beneath the oaks and across rolling foothills, open enough to get some speed on and yet winding enough to require some real driving. I've been going this way a long time now, in everything from motorcycles to a Ferrari 575M. The road is wide and well-paved but old, so the corners don't have any camber and it's easy to slither off into a dirt bank, especially when there's still dried mud on the road after the winter rains, like now.
You'd think a Buick would be fat and sloppy on a road like this, but you'd be dead wrong. It's so poised and supple that you want to get out and check the badge on the grille. Ah, that's right, there's an Opel-engineered chassis here, so the basic hardware is right and the Buick guys have tuned it great. The Regal bends into corners with excellent coordination the body is under control and there's plenty of suspension travel to let the chassis roll across the bumps without upsetting the tires. This car is fluid rather than precise, yet you find the car flowing down the road effortlessly and just rolling up the miles.
I confess that I'm way more sensitive than most to the moment when a car makes its transition into a corner since I'm a left-foot braker, something that came to me because I happened to be standing in the vicinity when ex-Saab rally driver Stig Blomqvist explained the technique to C/D's Patrick Bedard. I'm always dragging the brakes a bit to make that transition as smooth as possible, keeping the front end from plunging to the suspension bump stops at this critical stage in cornering so you can use the grip in the front tires to best effect. I'm also persuaded that this is a smart thing to do on the open road when you don't really know the pavement ahead.
By the time I turned the Regal down Bouquet Canyon (William Mulholland laid down the Los Angeles aqueduct just one ridge over), driving downhill through those short, quick corners along the little ankle-deep creek than runs down from the reservoir, I'd pretty well decided that there would be no going back to the office. Instead I decided to do the whole test route, right across to Angeles Crest. So I turned left at Vasquez Canyon and cut across to the Serra Highway, the old road that the hot rod racers took to Muroc Dry Lake back in the 1930s. Finally I came to Soledad Canyon Road and drove through the trees there where the little river comes off the back side of Angeles Crest and across you can see the railroad tracks.
You turn right up Aliso Canyon (where almost no one goes), climbing at pretty good incline while diving in and out of the ravines. The turbo four-cylinder is really no help here, since it likes to percolate along at low rpm and let the transmission do all the work. Even so, the powertrain is not terrible, and just moving the transmission from gear to gear (ah, actually use the shift lever; what a concept!) lets you sustain momentum pretty easily. Just don't make a mistake, because there are no pretty noises to be made from the engine or the gearbox as you get up to speed again.
Since the big fire in the fall of 2009, the south side of Angeles Crest has been closed, so this run backwards up the north side was my first trip all the way across the mountains since then. All the chaparral scrub here on the dry side had been scorched right down to the rock and hardly a blade of grass showed even now after the winter rains, and you could still see the red blotches of fire retardant dropped by helicopters and the way the steep ravines had become chimneys of terrific heat. It was all a burned-over country, and the little place where we stopped for a drink both on motorcycles and in cars was just a stone chimney.
Even so the sun was cutting through clouds drifting across the stony gray peaks and there were moments when you might have thought you were in the Rockies (or even Switzerland). All the roads here are well engineered and the long, nicely cambered corners let you load up the tires and chassis pretty heavily. Again the Regal just shrugged it off as if you were driving to the bank, although again this is a momentum car predictable rather than quick, best at sustained speed rather than quick bursts, and unresponsive to clumsy inputs to the steering wheel and pedals. If you're a grownup, you'll love it; if not, you'll hate it.
Since the main road down to La Canada was still closed, I turned the Regal down Big Tajunga and spilled out into the L.A. megalopolis in Sunland just past that big tree nursery. Finally I got on the freeway at Interstate 210 and found my way to Pasadena, but for all my afternoon's trouble I still myself trapped by commute-hour traffic between me and home.
So I hung out at a place and looked at about 200 paintings of California landscapes, of all things. (Hey, it's Pasadena, after all.) It was a perfect place to park a Buick, even one ticking with waste heat and covered in dead insects. It reminded me that no less than four cars pulled aside to let me through on two-lane roads during the afternoon, something that never happens in California. Maybe this is because this Buick looks good enough to convey a sense of purpose, yet doesn't seem self-indulgent like an Audi or BMW. Or maybe it's because I don't rush up into people's mirrors with headlights flashing and piss them off.
A typical short cut, since not only did I drive twice as far but also it took me twice as long to get there. But still a reminder that driving a car is more than pushing buttons and getting numbers as if it were a test tube experiment. When you drive, you go places, and it leads to things that you might not have otherwise seen.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 4,444 miles