More than a few surprises have accompanied the rebirth of General Motors. Chief among them is the resurgence of Buick, which was chosen as one of just four brands GM kept alive, even as it euthanized better-selling brands like Pontiac and Saturn, plus niche marquees like Hummer. After piloting the latest offering from the premium American brand, I can see why those in GM's ivory tower picked Buick to survive.
The Regal is a good-looking, excellent-handling midsize sedan that packs a lot of content for its price, with just a few drawbacks.
The biggest problem is the model's staggered introduction; just one trim level, the CXL, with one available engine is on sale now (that's the one reviewed here). The rest will hit the street over the next year. Even with just the moderately powered four-cylinder Regal you can buy today, Buick is clearly doing things right.
Enticing younger buyers into Buick showrooms is job No. 1. While the Enclave crossover and the recently redesigned LaCrosse have chipped away at the average age of Buick owners — it's down from 72 to 64 — the curvy Regal should lure in shoppers at least a decade or three younger than that.
The Regal we see in the U.S. is identical to a German GM design called the Opel Insignia. In fact, Buick proudly states that the two are virtually identical, save for the grilles and a few light treatments. That's likely because it would have been hard to complain about the original look. The front is modern and unoffensive, the profile and rear quarter bring BMW to mind, and the rear looks like it came from Acura — from before when that brand forgot what a curve was.
Taken in all at once, the Regal looks like a more expensive car than its $26,245 base price suggests. My hotel room was perched directly above the test fleet of Regals I piloted for this review, and while I worked from my hotel balcony I saw too many joggers and passers-by to count crane their necks to check out the row of sedans. Many even stopped to peek in the windows.
The Regal's look is an elegant one that's hard not to take note of in any of the six typical colors it's currently available in: white, silver, beige, dark gray, dark blue and black. Unfortunately, the dark red that's so attractive on the LaCrosse isn't yet available on the Regal.
The Regal I tested packs the base engine — a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that's good for 182 horsepower. There's no way around it: This is a sedate engine. You probably won't notice that it lacks power during typical around-town driving or during your commute, but once you hit even a moderate hill, the engine groans with disapproval.
Let's just say this isn't an engine for driving enthusiasts.
When passing on the highway, the six-speed automatic transmission kicks down somewhat aggressively, creating a lot of engine noise, but at least it gets to the right gear. Even in this base configuration, the steering and handling shine. The large, leather-wrapped steering wheel is tightly sprung, as if it were loaded with a few dozen large rubber bands. It offers a European feel without being heavy to turn. In sharp turns, the Regal snaps around bends like a true sport sedan, and it feels well-planted. Fans of BMW or other rear-drive cars might find the back end a bit light.
The terrific handling doesn't compromise ride quality. On various surfaces, the Regal exhibited little road noise, with none of the floaty ride I found in the redesigned LaCrosse. The Regal's short wheelbase is not a detriment here.
While the power is nothing to write home about, the mileage — at 20/30 mpg city/highway — is quite good, matching up well with the Acura TSX's 21/30 mpg. The TSX is the Regal's closest competitor in terms of price, power and size, and while that car's 201-hp four-cylinder is a brilliant Honda engine, the TSX has lackluster steering and a rather floaty ride. Maybe we could get the two together on Match.com?
I did get to drive an early version of the turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that will go on sale toward the end of 2010. You can read my thoughts in a drive report here. An even more powerful turbo model, called the GS, will go on sale sometime in 2011.
Car shoppers might be confused by automakers using the term "premium" to classify brands like Buick and Lincoln, rather than "luxury," but having two classes is smart. The term "luxury" denotes the BMWs of the world, and that brand hasn't seen a four-cylinder in ages and offers just one sub-$30,000 model — and that's a stripped one that you'll never find on a dealer lot.
"Premium" seems right for this Regal; it's certainly a step or two above the most recent Chevrolets we've tested. The leather seats — standard on the CXL — are high-quality, on par with Cadillac, I think. They're also extremely comfortable. After 200 miles and four hours behind the wheel, I was just as comfortable as I was for mile one — and if you've read my other reviews, you know I have a finicky back.
The LaCrosse has a scalloped dashboard that envelopes the driver and, for me, was a tad claustrophobic. The Regal's dash is more traditional and felt more spacious in spite of its slightly more restricted dimensions.
The backseat was surprisingly spacious in legroom. It has 3 more inches of it than the TSX, and it's noticeable. At 5-foot-10, though, headroom was tight back there; it has slightly less space in that category than the TSX. The sides of the roof curve down toward the windows, so it's easy to bump your head getting in or out. And even though the sunroof doesn't steal headroom in the backseat, my baseball cap was within an inch of the ceiling.
Overall, the materials are well-done, and the two interior color choices — black or two-tone beige and brown — are sporty and sophisticated, respectively. The gauges' numerals are typical, but they also feature an outer metal ring that's etched with interval numerals; the big, lit numbers mark every 20 mph, while the outer rings' smaller, etched, black numerals mark the odd intervals. The red needles reflect off the outer ring, so it looks like a red dot is moving around it. It's a neat effect.
The CXL comes standard with Bluetooth, a USB input for MP3 players, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated leather seats and 18-inch wheels. The vehicles I tested were also equipped with an optional navigation and entertainment system that's available in the most expensive option package, bringing the total price to $30,280, before destination. That beats the Acura, which starts at $29,310 with similar standard features and $32,410 with navigation.
The Regal's navigation system works pretty simply, with a beautiful display. Entertainment functions are equally well-displayed, and they operate via a control dial similar to BMW's iDrive. A nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system comes with the navigation package, but you can also get the stereo without nav. It produces fairly crisp sound, but is a bit heavy-handed. If you enjoy loud rock or bass-heavy R&B, this is the system for you.
At 14.2 cubic feet, the trunk is plenty large enough without having to fold the 60/40-split rear seats flat. I like how the trunk flings open at the touch of a button; no heavy lifting here. It could easily accommodate a few golf bags — even though the company has divested itself of all its golf marketing.
The Regal comes with a standard array of airbags, and rear seat-mounted side airbags are available in the two most expensive option packages. Because the car just went on sale, it hasn't been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Buick Regal in the Market
The base Regal will do a lot to bring new people into Buick showrooms, and it could even steal from Acura and Lexus folks who are turned off by those brands' styling (Acura) or aging models (Lexus IS).
The big question is whether the Regal that's in showrooms today will be impressive enough to turn those fence-sitters into Regal owners. Until the turbo engine comes along, the Regal will simply be a terrific-looking, well-equipped, comfortable midsize sedan with terrific handling. If you don't need the extra power, it's a convincing package.
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