Third Drive: 2011 Buick Regal makes even more sense on American soil

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

It was cold and rainy last November when we first drove an early prototype of the 2011 Buick Regal in Michigan. The weather was lousy, but our short time with the car intrigued us. There were far fewer complaints about conditions last month when we spent time with the sport sedan on the famed Nürburgring in Germany – its home turf. As it moves closer to arrival, Buick's newest family member once again showed us its moves in the mountains of Southern California.

We spent the better part of a sunny spring day driving both the normally-aspirated and turbocharged models – each with automatic transmissions – in an attempt to see how the imported European challenger runs on clean and dry domestic pavement. How does the four-door sedan perform in this new arena? Is it tough enough to compete in the mid-size segment? Most importantly, is the Buick Regal good enough to accomplish its goal?

Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

The Buick Regal is really an Opel Insignia that was supposed to be a Saturn Aura, but that's immaterial now. Confusing brand nomenclature aside, what does matter is that a German-made mid-size front-wheel drive sport sedan (built on GM's Epsilon II platform) is coming to North America this year, and it's a true contender.

Following in the wake of the Buick Enclave and Buick LaCrosse, two vehicles that have genuinely put the brand back into the ring, this newest addition arrives with a European design that will turn heads with its fresh, modern styling.

This is a very competitive bracket, so Buick has decided to only to launch premium CXL models for now (an entry-level CX trim will arrive next year and we're holding our breaths for a promised high-performance Regal GS model in the future). Standard CXL models are fitted with a normally-aspirated 2.4-liter DOHC inline-four, and thanks to direct injection, the all-aluminum engine is rated at 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. The mill is mated to a standard six-speed automatic transmission (a Hydra-Matic 6T45), which is the only transmission available with this powerplant. The second model, known as the CXL Turbo, features a turbocharged version of the same engine rated at 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. For now, the turbo's standard gearbox is also a six-speed automatic (an Aisin AF40), but a six-speed manual has been scheduled for introduction later this year. All CLX models are also just front-wheel drive (the upcoming performance-tuned "GS" will likely be fitted with all-wheel drive, but no manual transmission).

Manufactured in Russelsheim, Germany (to be followed by a plant opening in Canada next year), the Regal arrives in North America with only minor modifications. Buick pulled the summer tires off and replaced them with all-season rubber, then made a few suspension tweaks for good measure. The rear sway bar was slightly thinned, the shock settings altered and some of the bushings changed. As expected, the four-door has been stripped of Opel badging both inside and out and wears a traditional Buick waterfall grille. Ready to step into the ring, this handsome contender looks good.

With both the normally-aspirated and turbocharged models at our disposal, it was time to drop into the driver's seat and hit the road.

Like its exterior, the Regal's cabin is also engaging. Once the door opens, your eyes take in a tasteful mix of leather, wood grain (faux), and metal even before you settle into the seat. When your derrière does drop to the leather, the seats are European-firm while still being very comfortable. They are bolstered, but a bit wider than our 190-pound (6-foot 2-inch) frame really needed. We attempted to adjust the headrest (it was lightly pressing into the back of our hair), but moving it upwards only forced it further forward, so we gave up and left it all the way down.

We like the contrasting colors on the dashboard (dark up top, light down low), the brightly-finished door handles and the fit and finish that reminded us of its larger LaCrosse sibling. However, we had a few minor gripes with the cabin. First, the primary round gauges are far too embellished for our simple minds with numbers and hash marks all over the place. Second, there was an annoying glare on the primary instrument dials and it appears that the center console buttons were designed before they were assigned a function, as there doesn't appear to be any calculated logic to the placement.

Nevertheless, with the twist of the Buick's retractable key (a dead ringer for Volkswagen's "switchblade" fob) the normally-aspirated engine spun to life under the hood. Transmission lever pulled into "Drive," we left the hotel and crossed the city towards the mountains.

In urban settings the Regal drives like your average European front-driver sedan (think Audi A4 2.0T FWD, but with a conventional transmission). The suspension tuning is good – the Regal takes the potholes, bumps, and broken pavement with cool indifference – and power from the well-isolated four in front of the firewall is adequate, but not strong. (It earns a very respectable 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, so the trade-off is worth it.)

Once we hit the mountains (nearly the exact route we trekked in a Lotus Evora just weeks ago), the Buick seemed to wake up. We hit the first few corners rather gingerly, but then gained some confidence as we racked up the miles. Pretty soon, we were driving at about 70 percent without drama. Most FWD sedans start to plow at this point, reminding the driver that they are pushing too hard. The Regal didn't seem bothered, so we never backed off.

After a couple of hours of driving, we hopped out to grab the keys of a turbocharged model. In addition to the welcomed horsepower and torque, the turbo variant is fitted with larger brakes and may be ordered with a more aggressive wheel/tire package (the standard wheels are 18-inch alloys wrapped in 235/50R18 tires, while 19-inch alloys fitted with 245/40R19 tires are optional).

Regals with turbocharged powerplants are also offered with Buick's new Interactive Drive Control System (IDCS) that regulates the adaptive suspension, steering effort, transmission map and throttle response. On vehicles so-equipped, the IDCS system replaces the single large "Stability Control" button on the dashboard with three buttons (Sport, Tour and Stability Control). Pressing the Sport button firms up the ride, increases steering effort and makes the transmission and throttle response the way it should be (we assume Tour is fairly softer, but we really couldn't tell). We did notice that when everything was normal the steering effort felt too light. Flustered, we simply left the Sport button engaged. If you really aren't in the mood to play with the buttons, IDCS is intelligent enough to automatically adapt the vehicle's suspension settings within milliseconds when it senses the driver's steering or throttle inputs are more aggressive or during an emergency maneuver.

We never noticed the larger brakes on the turbo model (the standard setup seemed fine), but we could tell that the steering effort was marginally heavier and throttle response was more aggressive thanks to IDCS. Driven back-to-back, we credit the turbo Regal's superior performance to the additional 86 lb-ft of grunt that allowed us to pull out of corners quicker and accelerate to pass slower cars (especially at our 6,000-foot elevation). We simply couldn't push hard enough to notice any additional cornering grip, or more refined suspension tuning, on public streets.

There is no question about it though, the Buick Regal handles like a champ. However, and unfortunately, it may have a bleeding cut under its right eye.

It's the steering feel. While the system was accurate (we could hit any squirrel that we aimed at on the backcountry road), it was just too light and incommunicative. The tiller on the normally-aspirated model (a non-variable steering rack) felt like a giant rubber band was yanking it back to dead center when we moved it to the left or right. The turbo model (with IDCS) was better. However, it still had an annoyingly numb feedback. It was just boring. (In Buick's defense, we were told that the steering feel is still being refined.)

Other than that minor distracting blemish, the Buick Regal impressed us. Quite a bit, in fact.

Buick has positioned its new mid-size sedan as a direct fighting competitor to the Acura TSX and Volvo S60, which we accept. However, we'd also like to add the Volkswagen Passat, Nissan Maxima and Mazda6 to that list... and we can find more to throw into that expanding bracket. Of the aforementioned cars, our seat-of-the pants impression says that the Buick Regal does come out on top in an imaginary "front-wheel drive sports sedan" contest. Hmm... that sounds like a good idea.

But are buyers solely looking for that? Consumers shopping in this segment are as diverse as the offerings, and trying to predict shopping trends is risky. The Enclave and LaCrosse were an easy sell. Buick simply had to bring a decent product into its showroom and traditional customers would stay (book a well-known fighter and the seats sell). The Regal has a much more difficult job: to lure a new, younger generation. This is a contender that has fought on other shores successfully (both the European and Chinese market savor the Regal), but it will now be competing as a relative unknown in North America. Making matters worse, this is a match being held in Buick showrooms, a venue not familiar to the Gen X and Gen Y crowd.

Our three drives say the 2011 Buick Regal is a good fighter, in a good ring, in a venue that is really turning itself around. While the new four-door isn't going to defeat all of its competitors in every bout, it is capable enough to win a decent share of prize money, which is exactly the type of challenger Buick needs in its showroom.

Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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