Haven't we seen this play called before? Take a well-regarded European model, tweak it for the U.S. market, slap on a badge from a beleaguered North American brand, and hope for a touchdown. Indeed, the Buick Regal conforms to what has become General Motors' version of the spread offense. Never mind that this wasn't a winning strategy for Saturn, which tried selling various derivatives of Opel models from The General's European operations before its demise – GM is back at it with the Regal.
Dredging up a name from the past is a curious move for a brand that wants to reinvent itself to appeal to a younger audience. (Even more curious is that the Regal moniker has dubious value, having been hung on all manner of mediocre and mostly badge-engineered cars over the past four decades.) Yet for all the skepticism inherent in the "new" GM going back to its old playbook, the Regal might actually be the car that makes this offense click.
Photos copyright ©2010 John Neff / AOL
With a base price of $26,245, the midsize Regal CXL is surely an affordable entry-luxury sedan. It's turned out well enough that we can certainly see it tricking the uninformed into thinking it costs much more. Of course, GM is playing its own tricks, meaning that the price goes up pretty quickly for the more desirable trim levels. For instance, you'll have to add $2,500 to the bill for the turbocharged, 220-horsepower version of the car (the model we're not reviewing here). GM has also promised a cheaper Regal, one with cloth seats, and a sportier model, the Regal GS, for 2012. Pricing for the GS model has yet to be announced, but with a loaded Regal CXL Turbo running some $34,000, the new top-of-the-heap won't come cheap.
The Regal makes a good enough first impression, with several visual cues to tell you it's a near-luxury sedan, like the chrome window trim and attractively simple alloy wheels. Buick's color palate is heavy on metallic earth tones, no doubt chosen to make sure that every Regal on the road at least leaves the factory looking classy. Even parts of the design that seem, shall we say, "inspired" by other brands (like the BMW-esque bustle on the trunk or the wannabe Infiniti front end) tell you you're looking at something better than a Chevrolet.
But the Regal's nice looks are fleeting. The longer you live with the car out in the wild, parking it next to other vehicles, the more obvious the incongruities in its design become. There's a noticeable lack of flow between the front and the back, and viewed in profile, the proportions are off as well, with the front looking too heavy and too long. It's almost as if the designers carved up their task, saying, "I'll take everything from the A-pillar forward, you take the C-pillar back, and we'll do the rest later."
Inside, the problems are more basic. The instrument panel, seating and door trim are all stylish, but the materials are uneven in quality and color. The interior of our tester was a brown-over-tan GM calls "Cashmere" (the car we used for photos came with a different and darker color combination), but like so many two-tone interiors, the shades of color varied depending on the type of plastic or the finish of the material. If parts of the Regal interior feel cheap, like the austere back seat, where the nice door panel accents from the front are missed, we can chalk it up to being pretty typical for this category. But we have to call out the corporate GM steering wheel for scorn. It's trimmed with a faux-aluminum plastic piece that flexes when squeezed, giving off a noticeable squeak in the process.
Even so, this kind of stuff would be easy enough to live with were the ergonomics of the Regal's audio and navigation system not so atrocious. Why GM didn't equip it with a version of its stellar touchscreen system we have no idea, but the kludge of buttons, knobs and controllers is a deal breaker for any vehicle pretending to be a premium product.
While the design of the Regal's dashboard "button field" is nicely symmetric, there's neither rhyme nor reason to the layout. Even more random is the rotary controller on the center console behind the gearshift lever, resembling an even more dimwitted iDrive knob. Yet this cheap and seemingly tacked-on piece lacks both the tactile quality of the BMW controller and its functionality. Example? At times, the system requires the driver to press a numbered button to make a selection on the screen, despite the presence of both a second rotary controller and a four-axis joystick on the center stack.
At least the Regal is otherwise comfortable. Despite its interior shortcomings, it's a pleasant enough place to spend time behind the wheel. The way the instrument panel wraps into the doors is a bit of form-over-function, though the design doesn't intrude on the driver's knee room quite as badly as the Regal's sister vehicle, the Buick LaCrosse. The seats are clad in decent leather and are supportive enough for the average driver. There's plenty of room in both the front and back for normal-sized people, as well. Visibility is okay, at least by today's diminished standards, though it can be hard to judge just how long the back end is.
GM is aggressively marketing the Regal as an honest-to-goodness German-engineered sports sedan, which – at least in the case of the CXL tester – is like calling Coors Light a real German beer. Maybe you can make a case for the turbo Regal models having some pretense to sportiness, but the basic Regal is powered by GM's 2.4-liter direct-injected Ecotec four-cylinder engine, and there's no way its 182 horsepower is going to titillate anyone in Germany. Certainly not with only 172 pound-feet of torque on hand to motivate the Regal's 3,600 pounds. GM's six-speed automatic is the only transmission available on this model, and it does a yeoman's job here, returning a commendable 30 miles per gallon on the highway. But this drivetrain combination is not one that's going to impress anyone with its smoothness, power or sound.
It's this last point – sound – that's perhaps most frustrating, because it's one of the few areas left where near-luxury cars can truly differentiate themselves from their everyday brethren. GM has dropped the ball here in two ways. The first is that the engine sounds so grating, like a leaf-blower on full boil, that you'll be reminded to stop at the hardware store to pick up compost bags. The Regal is not the first GM car to be fitted with a version of the 2.4-liter Ecotec, but it could have been the first that didn't sound like this. If there's anything worse than the sound of the Ecotec, it would be the hiss of the Regal's sunroof. When the shade is closed, there's nary a problem. But with it open, you'd swear the sunroof was cracked even when it isn't due to the amount of wind noise present.
So there are lots of details that seem like they didn't get worked out prior to the Regal's launch. Or maybe there were so many compromises that had to be made to sell essentially the same vehicle in Europe, China and the U.S. that some things were bound to be left off. That said, the Regal does rise above the sum of its flaws once you've got it out on the road. Its handling is good for a mid-size sedan, with a comfortable suspension that picks a good middle ground between firm and floaty, even at high speed. For a front-wheel-drive vehicle, understeer is minimal and the Regal doesn't have problems with torque steer under throttle.
But even when the Regal feels best, zipping past traffic on a freeway commute, it still feels like a pretty average, everyday car. GM's list of Regal competitors is a pretty uninspired group, consisting of the Acura TSX, the front-wheel-drive version of the Audi A4, and the Volkswagen CC. Other models that seem to fit the comparison include the Mazda6 and the Hyundai Sonata. As a whole, these are the sorts of cars that manage to rise a small notch above the common Camrys, Accords and Malibus of the world. They do so by offering just a bit more style or substance. The Regal certainly has both, if only just a bit.
Photos copyright ©2010 John Neff / AOL