Review and photos by
Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com
The term “sport sedan” isn’t one to be taken lightly. The archetypal sport sedan, after all, is the BMW 3 Series; it, and many cars like it, combines a practical four-door body with a choice of terrific powertrains and performance, albeit at a price that might be out of range for many family sedan buyers.
In that sense, a sport sedan is something of an aspirational purchase. It’s a car you might have to wait for while you toil away behind the wheel of cars you tolerate rather than treasure.
Among the automakers trying to edge into the sport sedan segment is Buick. While you wouldn’t expect it, the full-size LaCrosse is a very respectable attempt to do so by a company better known for catering to the motoring needs of elders, not enthusiasts.
Round Two in Buick’s attempt to burn away that stodgy image is the mid-sized Regal, a resurrection of a name last seen in 2004, before it and its Century twin were displaced by the Allure (the first-generation LaCrosse in the United States). The Regal is ground-up new, based heavily on (and in terms of styling, differing little from) the Opel Insignia, built in Germany by GM’s European division. (Future Regals will be built in Oshawa, Ontario starting in early 2011.)
It seems like an easy win, right? Europe practically invented the sport sedan as we know it, so why shouldn’t a German-built car be one right out of the box? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
While the Opel Insignia is available with a range of engines, there are just two offered in the Regal. The highlight is a 2.0-litre Ecotec turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque in the CXL Turbo model, set to join the line-up this fall. The base engine, and the one in my CXL tester, is GM’s “other” Ecotec motor, a 2.4-litre four-cylinder making a more modest 182 hp and 172 lb-ft. The 2.4-litre motor comes standard with GM’s Hydra-Matic 6T45 six-speed automatic, while the turbo mill is paired with a six-speed manual and gets the Hydra-Matic as the upgrade.
The chassis is the most impressive aspect of the Regal’s on-road character. Here, its European roots show through with a firm-but-comfortable ride and handling that surprises given the Buick nameplate. Even in the relatively basic trim of my tester, the Regal corners eagerly, responding to the steering wheel with the kind of enthusiasm you’d never expect in any GM sedan short of a Cadillac CTS.
The Regal’s overall feel falls short of its European-branded competitors though; a Mercedes C-Class feels more solid over rough pavement, and the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 will out-handle it at the limit. For the casual driver who enjoys a spirited spin down a favourite two-lane highway or carrying a little more speed than usual through a freeway ramp, the Regal is a satisfying drive. Despite its comfortable ride, the Regal feels very well-planted at high speeds and is a terrific highway car. There are aspects that could be better, such as the overboosted steering, which will be a letdown for anyone who’s driven a decent European car, but brake feel is more impressive, with a firm pedal and confident stopping power. All of this is without the Turbo car’s available Interactive Drive Control system, which allows a choice of three modes that alter things like suspension and stability control settings, throttle response, steering sensitivity and transmission shift patterns.
Unfortunately, the base Regal is let down by its pedestrian powertrain. The engine’s power is only adequate, and while there’s nothing wrong with a car not having the most powerful motor in its class, you’d at least hope for one willing to go all out when pressed. Instead, the 2.4-litre four-cylinder never sounds happy about being run out to its 6,500 rpm redline. Compounding that is the slow-witted nature of this automatic transmission, which also feels completely uninterested in making the Regal go fast. It’s hesitant to downshift when acceleration is called for, and in my car, felt indecisive about the right time to upshift in many situations (which is not something I’ve noticed in other GM cars with this transmission). To be clear, it’s not that the powertrain is poor; it’s simply underwhelming and has no business in a car being marketed as a sport sedan.
Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption estimates for the non-turbo Regal are 10.8/6.5 L/100 km (city/highway); I averaged 10.4 L/100 km in a week that was split roughly 50/50 between city slogging and highway cruising.
The Regal’s interior is snug, but no more than expected, and even taller drivers should have no trouble getting comfortable. Shoppers looking at the Regal for a possible upscale family sedan might be turned off by the tight back seat; in Europe, the Opel Insignia is considered a mid-sized car, but here it’s much smaller than mainstreamers like the Accord, Camry, Sonata and Malibu, and noticeably tighter inside than its LaCrosse line-mate.
The sleek rearward roofline has the double-barrelled effect of cutting into rear-seat headroom and making it easy to whack your head on the doorframe while getting in and out. More impressive is the large, nicely-finished trunk, along with a 60/40 folding rear seat that opens up to a sizable pass-through for oversized cargo.
The Regal’s dash is lifted more or less intact from the Insignia, and while the layout is simple and easy to figure out, the flat black plastic of the centre stack looks low-rent, with just some piano black trim to break up the all-black dash. The are a few other curiosities, such as the ill-fitting blank panel in the headliner that looks like it should be a sunglass holder, but isn’t, and the cover for the console storage bin that’s cut away to make room for cupholders, making it marginal as an elbow rest for the driver and useless as such for a front passenger.
Regal pricing starts at $31,990; my tester included a Preferred Equipment Group that added a 12-way power passenger seat with four-way power lumbar adjustment, rear park assist, rear-seat power outlet and a power sunroof for an extra $2,525; add the $1,450 destination charge and the total comes to $36,065.
The Regal’s price isn’t unreasonable. What is unreasonable is Buick’s expectation that the base model will be taken seriously by anyone in the market for a sporty car. The chassis is very good, but GM let its marketers get ahead of the engineers here; the team behind this car should have given more thought to what powertrain it would use in this base model before it started throwing the term “sport sedan” around.
Pricing: 2011 Buick Regal CXL
Base price: $31,990
Options: $2,525 (1SD Preferred Equipment Group of 12-way power front passenger seat, power sunroof, rear park assist and rear-seat power outlet.)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $36,065
Crash test results