First Drive: 2011 Buick Regal Turbo

By Chris Haak

The all-new 2011 Buick Regal has several pairs of shoes to fill.  This rebadged Opel Insignia – the 2009 European Car of the Year – carries the same name as both the 1970s/80s personal-luxury coupe and the late 1980s through early 2000s front wheel drive family car.  It also has to help to make up for lost Pontiac and Saturn sales volume, lower Buick’s median buyer age, improve the brand’s standing with consumers, and avoid cannibalizing LaCrosse sales.  It needs to be a pretty good car to do all of this, and frankly, even if it is, its prospects for success in the market are still uncertain.

Buick’s marketing folks tell us that the Regal name – which has been absent from the US market for the past seven model years – resonated better with consumers than some other names from the brand’s history.  Just think about some other possibilities (Skylark, Century, LeSabre, Electra, Invicta): Regal apparently was detached enough from any negative connotations, yet familiar enough to buyers as to not be considered ancient history.  It also helps that the car is already sold in China as the Regal, avoiding the previous-generation LaCrosse (US name)/Allure (Canadian name) situation.

The new entry-level Buick is not an entry-level car in the traditional sense.  Yes, it’s equipped with an all-four-cylinder engine lineup (Like Hyundai’s new Sonata), but this German-built sport sedan is coming to the US for its first year in only mid-level CXL trim.  In contrast to the hundreds (if not thousands) of color, trim, and equipment combinations available in some vehicles, there are just 13 variants of the 2011 Regal.  Once production shifts from Russelsheim, Germany, to GM’s flexible Oshawa, Ontario, plant, additional trim levels  will become available.

General Motors has confirmed a base Regal CX for the 2012 model year that will lose some equipment and a few thousand dollars in base price.  On the other end, the company just confirmed at this event that the Regal GS (shown in concept form in Detroit this past January) will see production.  The GS adds at least 35 horsepower to its 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct injection four cylinder plus additional go-fast goodies, and a more aggressive look thanks to a sport body kit.  Depending on how well the Regal is received by the buying public, additional variants are possible; in Germany, the Insignia is available as an estate (wagon) and a five-door hatchback, so building those two additional body styles  would be simple if GM sees demand for them. While the Regal enters the Buick lineup as the marque’s entry-level model, the eventual plan is to introduce a C-segment (compact) entrant one size smaller than the Regal.

I sampled the Regal at a drive event in sunny San Diego last week, and the region’s various types of road surfaces, elevation changes, straightaways and curves showed  that Buick has confidence in its German-accented car.  Over drinks the evening before the drive, I asked Jim Federico, GM’s vehicle line executive for large- and midsize vehicles, if he brought any Regal Turbos with him.  He answered in the affirmative; suddenly the next day’s forecast became even sunnier.

The Regal has a feline shape with many gentle curves; more than one fellow journalist commented on similarities to recent Jaguar offerings.  The Turbo’s 19 inch wheels are even similar to those fitted to the Jaguar XF Premium.  However, the Regal’s greenhouse is a bit taller proportionately than the XF’s, which helps with interior headroom and outward visibility, but doesn’t quite capture the elegance of the Jag.  The car does, however, have trim proportions and a cohesive (if non-Buick-like) design language.  Of the three design elements that I was told 18 months ago would be found on all future Buick models – the sweep spear, VentiPorts, and a waterfall grille, only the waterfall grille made it onto the Regal.

Though the exterior shape is modern and cohesive, the interior is where the Regal impresses most.  The leather seats in the CXLs are constructed of decent leather, and though they did not have any substantial side bolstering, the seats did feel supportive on my back and bottom after many hours behind the wheel.  The upper dash is constructed of soft-touch plastic material, and the structure was rattle-free over pavement imperfections.  The vehicles provided were all equipped with the optional navigation system, which suffers from a fairly small screen and whose operation took some time to get used to.  The screen’s resolution was good, but it suffered from the same condition that many other GM navigation systems do:  even in the most zoomed-in map setting, most street names are not displayed.  Ford and Toyota do a much better job of this with their navigation systems.

Harmon Kardon provides the upgraded audio system featured in the test cars, and though we only had the radio on briefly at low volume, it sounded good, with decent power and clarity.  The navigation screen is not a touchscreen interface, which keeps the display free of fingerprints (except from the time when I poked the map with my index finger, thinking it was a touchscreen), but forces you to use buttons and dials to change radio stations and navigation settings- and they weren’t always very intuitive.  To wit:  I had the map displaying on the screen and pressed one of the radio preset buttons, but the system refused to change the XM radio station in map-view mode.

Most comparisons (dimensional and otherwise) made during Buick’s presentation about the Regal focused on two competing vehicles, but one of those competitors is sold in the same showroom.:  the Acura TSX and Buick’s own LaCrosse. The Regal’s center stack is very button-intensive, not unlike the Acura (or the LaCrosse, for that matter).  The Regal’s buttons are all done in satin-finish dark gray plastic and impart a high-quality feel when pressing them.  In other words, they feel very Honda-like in their actuation.  Backlighting is “ice blue,” again perhaps echoing Jaguar’s decor, yet the Regal’s dash manages to look more contemporary in spots than does the Motorola RAZR-like design of the XF.

The Regal is slightly larger (and heavier) than the TSX and it tops the TSX in torque (though not horsepower) when pitting its 2.0 liter turbo against the 3.5 liter V6 in the TSX.  The Regal gives up 6.7 inches in length to the LaCrosse and 3.9 inches in wheelbase, as it’s built on the short-wheelbase version of GM’s new Epsilon II platform. All of the length missing from the Regal’s wheelbase also disappeared from rear-seat legroom versus the LaCrosse’s large back seat. At 6′ 4″ tall, I can tell you that  it’s not really cramped in the Regal’s rear quarters, but those with long legs will want to think twice before spending long periods in the back.  Rear-seat legroom is three inches better than in the competitive bogey, the TSX.  The rear headroom is reasonable- my hair did not brush the ceiling.  Surprisingly, in spite of its near-bobtail looks, the Regal boasts a reasonably-sized 14.2 cubic foot trunk, which is larger than its big brother’s.  It has gooseneck hinges that throw the lid upward when unlatching it, but the hinges are hidden in the trunk lining  to protect your luggage from being crushed when the trunklid is closed.

Should Buick be concerned that most of the comparative discussion so far has focused on the Regal’s stablemate?  Perhaps.  The company expects the Regal to sell in lower volumes than the LaCrosse does, and to far younger buyers.  It is targeted at buyers in the age range 35 to 45 (which I’ve just grown into), and while I’d consider a Regal, the LaCrosse is too glitzy (some may say gaudy) and large for my taste.  Confusing matters further, the Regal and LaCrosse both start at the same price point:  $26,995.  However, the LaCrosse gives more size for that price and the Regal gives more equipment.  A $26,995 Regal includes leather seats, rear obstacle detection, 18 inch wheels (vs. the LaCrosse’s 17 inch wheels), and fog lights.  Basically, the mid-level Regal is priced the same as the entry-level LaCrosse.

Having driven a 2010 LaCrosse CX with the base 2.4 liter four cylinder/six-speed automatic combination just a few days prior to my time with the Regal for a baseline comparison, I had fairly low expectations for the base car’s acceleration.  Truthfully, it didn’t dazzle me;  asking 182 horsepower to move 3,600 pounds of Buick quickly is going to give predictable consequences thanks to the laws of physics.  It felt nearly as pokey as the four-banger LaCrosse did (there’s only about a 250 pound weight difference between the two), and had the same leisurely (yet smooth) 1-2 shift that just hasto be killing the car’s accelerative momentum.  I really think that I could do that shift more quickly with a three-pedal setup and a good manual gearbox.

That being said, plenty of people have driven the Regal without the turbo; it’s available on dealer lots right now.  I really wanted seat time in the Regal Turbo, so I was always happy to find an unclaimed Regal Turbo at the beginning of each leg of the drive.

When I started the Turbo I felt as though I had found a paragon of four cylinder refinement.  The Turbo’s drivetrain was quieter, less frenetic, and it shifted more smoothly than did the base car’s with the 2.4 liter direct injection four cylinder.  The Regal Turbo is not only more refined than the 2.4 liter Regal, but far quieter and placid than GM’s former applications of the related 2.0 liter turbo direct injection fours found in the likes of the Cobalt SS Turbo.

The Regal Turbo’s exhaust is muted (perhaps too much, given its intended buyer) and the only hint that it is  turbocharged is a faint turbine-like whistle from under the hood under harder acceleration.  The Regal Turbo’s mill is toned down to 220 horsepower from 260 in previous applications, and torque is basically the same, dropping slightly from 260 to 258 lb-ft.  The Regal GS should cure that deficit when it hits the market – but if Buick sticks with 255 horsepower, its sportiest car will be outgunned by the 278-horsepower Hyundai Sonata turbo right out of the gate.

Passing power was fine with the Regal Turbo – the six-speed automatic kicks down quickly enough, and if the kickdowns aren’t fast enough, the car has an active damping system that has buttons on the dash to choose among Normal, Touring, and Sport modes.  The switch to operate the active damping system (optional on the Regal CXL Turbo) can also be configured to modify steering effort and – Sport mode noticeably cuts down on suspension travel to the point that the Regal holds the road much better than probably any car that has ever worn the Buick tri-shield.  Engineers riding shotgun pointed out that the Sport mode – which is configurable via the navigation display to also control steering effort and throttle response – can dynamically adjust these systems without the driver explicitly selecting a mode if it detects more aggressive, playful inputs from the driver.

The ride/handling balance is nicely tuned in the Regal.  It feels nothing like the Buick stereotypes would lead you to believe, with a firm structure and controlled, yet compliant body motions.  Brake pedal feel was firm enough to breed confidence, although we hardly had a chance to really put them to the test on public roads.  The Regal Turbo has slightly larger brakes front and rear than does the non-turbo car, but without a racetrack, it was nearly impossible to feel the difference, even driving back-to-back.

Both the Turbo and naturally-aspirated Regals feature hydraulic power steering rather than electrically assisted.  In the base car, which has had the benefit of more development time since it’s already on the market, it had good feel and good accuracy.  In the Turbo, the steering was still accurate, but felt slower and lighter than expected.  Jim Federico told the assembled group of journalists that he, too, was not satisfied with the Regal Turbo’s, and better calibrating it was on his to-do list.  Fortunately for him and his minions, it’s just a software fix.  Of note:  the 2012 Regal and Regal Turbo will feature electric power steering, so right after they fix the 2011’s calibration, we may need to have this conversation again.  But maybe not, as EPAS technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the stone-age systems found in the likes of the Cobalt and G6 over the past few years.

Engineering made to the Opel Insignia to turn it into a Buick Regal are actually fairly minor.  Lighting requirements are different front and rear, so the Insignia and Regal wear different headlights and different taillights.  The Turbos that we drove all had Saab-like “eyebrows” to accentuate their shape, while the base cars had standard yellow-hued daytime running lights only.  Because only the top-performance GS model will be equipped with summer tires, yet many Insignia models have summer tires rather than all-seasons, the Regal’s suspension was tuned for all-seasons.  Based on past experience with cars equipped with summer tires, the car is probably sacrificing some ultimate grip, but the suspension engineers have done a good job of dialing the car in to work well with the shoes it’s wearing.

Though most of the competitive talk was about the LaCrosse and TSX, I’d throw a few other cars into the ring.  Volkswagen’s CC shares the Regal’s German heritage, arguably tops the Regal in terms of style (though not by much), and costs about $3,500 more according to TrueDelta when accounting for equipment differences.  The on-road driving experience is similar, but I’d give the nod to the CC because of its better base engine (VW’s excellent 2.0T mill).

In terms of interior materials and fit and finish, the Regal reminded me a lot of Suzuki’s very good, but under-appreciated, Kizashi.  I’d give the nod to the Regal in terms of exterior and interior design, but interior materials and switchgear were excellent in both cars (slight nod to the Regal for the soft-touch plastic on the dash).  The Regal vs. Kizashi comparison is interesting, because while the Regal is much smaller than the LaCrosse, it’s much larger than the Kizashi, with more than seven inches of additional length.  Proving perhaps that the Kizashi is more space-efficient, most dimensions are within an inch or two of the Regal’s, yet with almost 300 pounds less curb weight.  The Kizashi also rings in with a substantial $4,500 price advantage when accounting for equipment differences according to TrueDelta.

Fuel economy for the Regal CXL with the 2.4 liter engine is listed at 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.  Though formal EPA estimates are not yet available for the Regal Turbo, the company expects that it will sacrifice about one mile per gallon for the additional 38 horsepower – that’s a trade I’d take, particularly for the improved refinement in the Turbo car.  Pricing for the Turbo was not nailed down as of press time, but we were told to expect about a $3,000 premium.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell what will be included with the Turbo to know how much of that premium is just the engine upgrade and how much might be other hardware, like the larger wheels and brakes.

The 2011 Regal has everything that it needs to succeed in the market:  a modern, attractive design, a buttoned-down driving experience, a comfortable, well-appointed interior, and nearly all of the technology expected in its class.  Factor in competitive pricing, decent performance, and a fairly large dealer body, and the only obstacle to the car’s success might be getting buyers to look at the car for what it is – a German-engineered sport sedan – rather than as an old person’s car.  Success on that last point will determine whether the Regal can move Buick’s sales toward a younger demographic.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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