Buick Regal — A growth hormone for an iconic brand on the rebound

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It’s an improbable story. Stuck in the mud, Buick looked like a sure candidate to be eliminated by a struggling General Motors a couple years back. Sales in 2009 had slumped to just over 100,000 units and the average age of Buick buyers had risen to nearly 70.

Those numbers should have spelled the end of the line for the venerable brand; but instead, Pontiac got the ax and Saturn was put on the trading block and eventually died when no suitable buyer stepped forward.

But the world doesn’t revolve around the U.S. market anymore; it’s just part of the global puzzle, and Buick got a death sentence reprieve because it is one of the strongest brand names in China, now the world’s largest auto market.

And instead of folding in North America, Buick has been revitalized with a new, strong lineup of vehicles, and the brand’s incredible 2010 success can be spelled — Enclave, LaCrosse and Regal. Sales for 2010 are projected to top 150,000, a year-to-year sales jump of around 50 percent. At the same time the average buyer is getting younger.

And there is no end in sight to the steady monthly increases thanks to the Regal, the newest addition to the lineup. The mid-sized sedan has been such a hit since its introduction this past summer that dealers are complaining about short supply. Buick Marketing Manager Christopher Ayotte told Ward’s Auto that “dealers are asking for double what we can provide.”

The entry-level luxury Regal, based on the award-winning European Opel Insignia, is built at a General Motors facility in Russelsheim, Germany. Production will move to GM’s plant in Oshawa, Canada, in March 2011. Our test Regal came with GM’s 2.4-liter Ecotec direct-injection 4-cylinder engine making 182 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
While there has been plenty of controversy surrounding the base Regal don’t dismiss the standard-engine edition without a test drive. We were surprised with its performance, 7.7 seconds from 0-to-60 (as measured by Buick). In fact the sprightly performance together with sharp handling puts the Regal into the sports sedan category.

The 4-cylinder is noisy but not overly noisy, more typical of GM four-bangers of the past when pressed hard to perform such chores as quick passing on a two-lane road. As in other recent GM offerings, we found the six-speed transmission to be relatively smooth with quick downshifts, but there were some missed shifts or unexpected shifts at times as well. (Buick says those slight idiosyncrasies have been corrected).

The six-speed does aid in gas mileage, which is measured at 19 mpg city and 30 mpg highway on regular gas. If you decide to move up to the 220-horsepower turbocharged version you obviously will get quicker acceleration, and by all accounts with very little fall-off in gas mileage. You’ll also find a quieter, smoother engine and transmission.
We were pleased with the base Regal on our usual twisty back road drive test. We don’t think that the suspension is too stiff for people who traditionally invest in Buicks. The old Buick ride is gone replaced by a solid, but comfortable suspension treatment.

From a styling standpoint the Regal brings a touch of class to a segment that features the Acura TSX, Lexus IS 250, Volvo S60, and Lincoln MKZ. A rising beltline and a swooping roofline, a popular styling theme these days, work well for the 190-inch long sedan. The Regal has a sleek, coupe-like appearance from the side, and you won’t mistake it in the rearview mirror with its Buick-style waterfall grille. The rear is distinctively European and a bit disconnected from the rest of the car.

The cabin carries a sporty theme rather than one of luxury; think perhaps Audi A4. The wide center stack includes a vast array of climate and audio buttons and more controllers than you can shake a stick at. When joined by the navigation system the buttons and the touch screen become somewhat quixotic.

The front seats are wide and comfortable — hey, that’s all it takes for us of advancing age to be won over; although others have complained about the lumbar support we found it supportive of our aching backs. The cockpit feel of the Regal suited us quite well, the gauges with cool blue lighting are easy to read, and the audio satellite readout is clear.

Rear seats are rather plain, generally comfortable and like many mid-size sedans leg room is good if some accommodation with the front-seat passenger is reached. And like most sedans, including such stalwarts as the BMW 3-series and the Lexus IS, three across is a tight fit and not recommended. Trunk space is more than adequate at 14.2 cubic feet.

Our CXL trim level test car carried a bottom line of $26,995. Standard equipment on the CXL includes 18-inch alloy wheels, leather interior, a seven-speaker audio system with satellite radio, wheel-mounted cruise control, and a full range of power accessories. Standard safety includes antilock brakes, traction and stability control, front-seat side-impact airbags, and head-curtain airbags.

Options on our test car totaling $2,790 included an upgraded nine-speaker audio system, ultrasonic rear parking, power sunroof, rear-seat-mounted airbags and eight-way power front seats.The bottom line on our test car was $29,785.

A package that includes a hard-drive navigation system and the upgraded Harman/Kardon audio system is available for $4,785.

The turbocharged CXL trim begins at $29,495 including destination charge. A six-speed manual transmission will be available with the turbo. A special GS version will come on line in 2011 cranking out 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Both the turbo and the GS can only make the Regal better and will please a wider audience.

Base price: $26,995; as driven, $29,785
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 182 @ 6,700 rpm
Torque: 172 pound-feet @ 4,900 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.8 inches
Length: 190.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,600 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 19 mpg city
0-60: 7.7 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Acura TSX, Volvo S60, Lincoln MKZ

The Good:
• Excellent fuel economy
• Sporty handling
• Excellent fit and finish

The Bad:
• 2.4-liter is suspect

The Ugly:
• Can a German built Opel really be successful in the U.S.?