First Drive: 2011 Buick Regal prototype looks to be a good sport

2011 Buick Regal – Click above for high-res image gallery

There's an odd bit of historical deja vu at work here. Back in the late '60s and early '70s, General Motors wanted to shift a few sporty-ish four-cylinder models from its Opel division into America, so they turned to their Buick dealers. This didn't work out exactly as planned – merchandising these odd European ducks in an outlet best known for sober doctor's cars meant that the GT, Manta and Kadett never managed to make much of a dent in North America's automotive landscape. This time out, with the Opel Insignia-derived 2011 Buick Regal, GM knows it needs massively better results.

This is a Buick the likes of which we have never seen before.
While attending an early drive event for the new Regal last week, we reminded vice-chairman Bob Lutz about the last time his company attempted to sell Opels in Buick showrooms. He laughed his trademark raspy laugh, and reminded us that Car and Driver so loathed the 1968 Kadett that their review featured it photographed in a junkyard. With characteristic candor, Lutz tells us, "It actually wasn't a very good car." Of course, Maximum Bob knows full well that GM can't afford another lost in space Kadett. Does the Regal have what it takes to mollify these "sins of the father" and put Buick on the right track? Click through to the jump to find out.

Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.
As far as new car previews go, the conditions for our Buick drive weren't exactly auspicious – cold, rainy, slate gray November mornings in Michigan have a way of dulling both spirits and expectations. Thankfully, the rain would relent long enough for us to get our driving in, and as it turned out, GM had lined up a more interesting cocktail of vehicles for us to sample than we expected. Not only did we find a full-dress 2011 Buick Regal, but also a stock Opel Insignia, a pair of "Regalized" Insignias (Opels that had been given the full slate of changes GM will give the car as a Buick in North America), a LaCrosse and – wait for it – a sinister black Insignia OPC (below) – the latter being a car we've admired at European auto shows but never figured we'd have the chance to drive. Suddenly, the morning was looking a bit brighter.

We would start our day with a brief drive of the LaCrosse over damp rural roads. The LaCrosse is a full-size sedan we have driven and enjoyed before on its own merits. It's reasonably good to drive considering its intended market, has a pretty wrapper and gave us hope anew for Buick when we first got our mitts on it. But it isn't sporting – that's not its purpose in life. It competes more with automotive sleeping pills like the Lexus ES350. In marked contrast to the competent but sleepy LaCrosse, with the smaller Regal, Buick officials have promised us a genuine sport sedan – something that Buick hasn't really delivered in our lifetimes. You can understand our skepticism.

The Opel of Our Eye

After our stint in the LaCrosse, we hopped into the bog-standard Insignia, Opel badges and all. Hoo-boy, now here we found a horse of a different color. Shorter than the LaCrosse by about half a foot, it drives smaller still. From parking lot velocities on up, everything immediately felt more connected and engaging – steering effort is higher and something approaching genuine feedback is telegraphed from the summer tires through the quicker rack as speeds build.

What's more, the Epsilon II chassis feels remarkably more pinned down in rolling corners than the LaCrosse, enough so that we actually appreciate the distinctly un-Buick level of bolstering in the seats. There's plenty of power from the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the pedals felt nicely firm underfoot, and while we weren't really pushing that hard (wet autumn leaves on the road and a GM chaperone in the passenger seat tends to temper one's exuberance), the six-speed automatic gearbox made consistently smart decisions as well. All-in, it's not just a competent package – as a driver, it's a genuinely enjoyable steer. The Insignia is – dare we say it – sporty.

Lost in Translation?

Of course, GM has also pulled the ol' bait-and-switch on the American public before – plying us with genuine European goods only to clinic out the edge and interest in favor of something more in-line with America's stereotypically softer expectations. Sure enough, before hopping into the Regal-spec test cars, we learned that on the road to becoming a Buick, GM engineers dialed in a bit more compliance into the Insignia's suspension, added more sound deadening, and switched to all-season tires. Oh, dear. Are we doomed to repeat history?

In a word: No. It's true that GM has seen fit to reduce the diameter of the rear anti-sway bar by 0.04 inches, fiddled with the shock tuning and swapped out the tires with all-season rubber (18-inch Michelin Pilot MXM4s), but the result is far from a marshmallowy mess. It's appreciably quieter inside (GM has fitted the sound insulation package from the overseas Insignia diesel range to the U.S. car) and although it's absolutely correct to say that the Euro-spec Insignia offers a bit more feedback both aurally and tactilely through one's fingertips, the handling difference is hardly night-and-day. Our Regal-spec tester's ride and handling balance is certainly competitive with GM's targets: the Acura TSX and the (soon to depart) Volvo S60, along with higher-end models from the Volkswagen Passat and Mazda6 ranges. In fact, had we not driven the Euro-spec car to begin with, it's possible that we would've never missed the additional feedback.

Forced Induction = Fun

The front-drive Regal will arrive next spring carrying a normally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder packing 182 horsepower (at 6,700 RPM) and 172 pound-feet of torque (at 4,900 RPM) paired with a six-speed automatic that offers a +/– manual shift gate but no paddles. Soon thereafter, the 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injection Ecotec we drove will come on stream, delivering 220 hp (at 5,300 RPM) and a healthy 258 lb-ft. of torque from just 2,000 RPM. If that's not enough, GM officials pledge that a six-speed manual transmission will eventually be offered as well.

During our brief drive, we found that the 2.0T delivers plenty of muscle with minimal torque steer, spooling up quickly and offering good passing power. GM says the combination should be good for a 0-60 mph time in the mid seven-second range (a couple of tenths quicker than a TSX), a claim that strikes us as totally believable – if not a mote pessimistic. The engine makes generally encouraging noises and turbo "whistle" has been almost completely eliminated (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste), the latter being a trait more noticeable in the Euro Insignia. The EPA has yet to sign off on official fuel economy numbers, but GM is confident that it will net 30 mpg on the highway out of the standard engine and 29 mpg with the premium-recommended turbo.

Although the turbo model will have an optional "Interactive Drive Control System" that allows the driver to individually tailor suspension firmness, gearshift times, throttle response and steering effort (paired with larger 19-inch Goodyear Eagle RSA tires) to one of three modes ("Normal," "Sport," and "Touring") the standard front Macpherson struts and rear multilink suspension package works so well that we don't see the need to spend more for the added weight and complexity of the adaptive system.

Beauty that Goes Without Saying

You'll notice that we have yet to discuss the way the Regal looks – that's because more than any aspect of the design, the exterior speaks for itself. This sedan's bodywork is taut, tidy and beautiful, with a minimal amount of chrome frosting and unnecessary jewelry that Buick is known for. Ventiports? Nuh-uh. Sweep-spear graphic? Not unless you count that nifty plunging character line that originates in the leading edge of the driver's door. Aside from a new grille, revised lighting units (more for federal compliance than anything else) and new side mirror glass (ditto), this is pretty much unfiltered Insignia, and that's just fine by us. We even like the pattern on the alloy wheels.

The Regal's interior is similarly full of win. It's easy to find a comfortable seating position, visibility is quite good and the dashboard is attractive, modern and generally well laid-out. Optioned-up cars with the touchscreen navigation may find there are a few too many buttons on the dash, but the arrangement is easier to use than the too-crowded controlfest that is the LaCrosse's center stack, and we appreciate the use of satin metallic finishes and solid feeling switchgear. Rear seat room is reasonable (think: VW Passat, not Honda Accord), but at 14.25 cubic feet, the trunk is downright spacious.

Why It Is What It Is

Crisp exterior. Turbo power. Good driving dynamics. Well-resolved cabin. If you're beginning to get the picture that the 2011 Regal is unlike any Buick you've encountered before, you're getting with the program. There are a couple of reasons for this. Executives will tell you that this brand, best known for providing transportation to legions of card-carrying AARP members, cannot afford to sit idly by as its consumer base quite literally dies out. Like every other automaker, GM wants Buick to attract younger buyers, and it sees more dynamic, tech-rich offerings as the way to do that.

Of course, there's another reason why this is a Buick unlike any other: It was going to be a Saturn before GM faltered into bankruptcy and emerged with a decimated portfolio of brands and a new set of marching orders. This explanation makes a good deal more sense as the Regal's styling and overall demeanor fits more comfortably with what we've come to expect from recent Saturns.

As history tells us, despite being good, solid products, ported-over Opels like the Astra and Aura didn't actually help Saturn stay in orbit. Come to think of it, decent Euro-influenced products weren't enough to help Oldsmobile afloat, either (like Saturn, Olds had GM's best product lineup in place when it shuffled off this mortal coil). All of which has us a bit worried for the Trishield's prospects. Good as the new Regal is – and it is very good – we can't help but worry that the brand's substantial baggage will make it hard for GM to convince younger buyers that they'd really rather have a Buick – especially in segments filled with talented models wearing more prestigious badges. Still, GM has to start somewhere, and it's already made some good headway with its Enclave and LaCrosse, so we'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt – for now.

Dollars and Sense?

Pricing will have a lot to do with this Buick's chances for success, but we don't have firm numbers just yet. Officials tell us that we should look for Regal to undercut the competition in the same way that the LaCrosse stickers for less than its chief rival from Lexus. If that's the case, we can expect the 2.0T to be $1,500-$2,000 less than the Acura TSX (which starts at $29,310), and the 2.4 model will be cheaper still, giving it some elbow room under the LaCrosse's $27,085 MSRP.

We're Down with OPC

Oh – and what of the OPC, that indelicate looking all-wheel drive, six-cylinder turbocharged monster? GM flew over an example of its 325-horsepower Audi S4 competitor to show us "the bandwidth of their toolbox" ( *ahem*). At a stopover point, Lutz tells us that it's "time to shock the market into a new awareness of what Buick can be", and that something like it would be just the ticket to "sock them in the eye."

Or the kidneys, we suspect. A quick spin reveals that the OPC is a loud and thunderous thing that would be epic fun on roads with fewer frost heaves than those in Michigan, and it'd be a fantastic weekend toy. But even with its adjustable suspension, we're not sure how many buyers outside of areas with glycerin smooth tarmac would want this sort of thing as a daily driver. Still, we love the OPC's menacing bodywork, its spidery alloys, its beautiful straightjacket seats, and we could learn to love its notchy rifle-action six-speed manual shifter, if only it meant we could dip into the 2.8-liter's considerable reserves again and again.

So it begins...

Officials tell us that this is just the opening salvo. With everything from miserly 1.6-liter inline-four front-drivers to the scorching force-fed V6 grips-at-all-paws OPC already on sale in Europe (to say nothing of wagon and five-door liftback bodystyles), GM promises that we'll see a broader Regal lineup very soon. Regardless of what ends up in U.S. showrooms, it's safe to say that this is a Buick the likes of which we have never seen before. It's also safe to say there are no junkyard photo shoots in its future. All-in, this new Regal appears to be a very complete car – but whether it's the right car remains to be seen.

Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Paukert / Weblogs, Inc.


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