CARS.COM — Buick’s rising sales in the United States are no accident — GM’s “premium” brand has benefited from updating its SUVs right when the market is super-hot for them. But the brand isn’t letting its more traditional sedan offerings get stale: The Lacrosse full-size sedan was redesigned last year, and this year the Regal is all-new, as well.
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The 2018 Regal is bigger, smoother, dramatically better looking and meant to go toe-to-toe with premium mid-size sedans from brands like Acura, Audi and Lincoln. While their market may not be as hot as crossovers, these are still important cars for their brands, which makes the mediocrity of the new Regal Sportback all the more confusing.
The new model made a splash when it arrived at the 2017 New York International Auto Show earlier this year, with its dramatically low, swoopy styling that impressed everyone who laid eyes on it. And it does indeed look fantastic — there isn’t a bad angle viewed from the outside. The hatchback design allows for an interesting combination of utility and style, preserving the backseat airspace for passenger headroom while allowing owners to drop the rear seats and open up a cavernous floorspace that can swallow an entire bicycle with the front wheel still attached. It’s a sharp design, modern and sophisticated, and it’s sure to turn more than a few heads.
Buyers have a choice of two Sportback models initially, either with front- or all-wheel drive (the TourX wagon-style crossover is arriving now but won’t be reviewed until January 2018). Both front- and all-wheel-drive models are powered by GM’s snappy turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, pumping out 250 horsepower. But that’s where the similarities end between the two body styles. In the FWD model, the engine pumps out 260 pounds-feet of torque while mated to a standard nine-speed automatic transmission. The AWD version puts out 295 pounds-feet of torque and gets an eight-speed automatic.
Interestingly, the FWD version is the better car to drive. The difference in character between these two powertrains is surprising — the FWD car feels light and direct, and is almost always in the right gear when engaging in spirited driving over twisty roads and tight switchbacks. The AWD model feels heavier, more ponderous, and its eight-speed automatic is always in a gear or two too high to be entertaining. Put your foot down in the AWD model, and the delay between pedal action and downshift is palpable, putting a damper on entertaining sportiness. You can shift it yourself, which helps, but there are no shift paddles on the steering wheel. The FWD model has no such deficiency; despite a little extra torque steer, the nine-speed’s gearing and eagerness to shift makes it feel quicker than the higher-torque AWD model.
The FWD model also feels like it has more responsive steering, with better feedback and control than with AWD, but I’m told the steering ratio is the same on both. That ratio feels slower than it could be, with turn-in that’s more sedate than sporty. It’s on par with the level of engagement and entertainment one would find in an Acura TLX, but dynamically, a new Honda Accord turbo or a Toyota Camry V-6 is a more enjoyable vehicle to drive quickly. The FWD model is roughly 175 pounds lighter than the AWD model and has slightly different shock absorber tuning, according to Buick engineers, but it’s unlikely this is enough to make the difference in feel.
Buick did do some things right on the Regal. The brakes are firm and easy to modulate, and the body control is impressive. Ride quality is good even over broken pavement, and engine noise is impressively damped thanks in part to active noise control in the cabin. Very little engine noise gets through to the cabin, which is otherwise well-insulated from sound. The package shelf over the cargo area is a thickly padded molded piece that rises with the liftgate and does a good job of keeping cargo compartment road noise out of the cabin. The overall driving experience in the Regal Sportback honestly doesn’t feel that much different from a high-spec Chevrolet Malibu, with which it shares a platform and powertrain, but the Regal doesn’t advance the sport or luxury quotient appreciably.
That “premium Malibu” aesthetic continues in the interior. The shapes and designs are appealing, but the execution is disappointing. Evidence of cost-cutting is starting to appear, and it’s a troubling GM trend. While the interior looks attractive from outside the vehicle, material quality is decidedly mixed, with hard surfaces on areas where there should be padding (like where the driver’s knee may contact the center console) and padding where hard surfaces would suffice (on the passenger side of the same console). Several interior pieces exhibited sharp molding seams, the turn signal and wiper stalks felt flimsy and hollow, and the “stitching” on the top of the dash isn’t actually stitching anything together. GM is removing height-adjustable shoulder belts on all of its new models, and it’s now the Regal’s turn for this cost-cutting measure. It all leads up to an interior that promises a lot in terms of style but doesn’t deliver a premium tactile experience commensurate with the brand’s desired image. In short: It doesn’t feel any more special than a high-end Chevy Malibu, and it’s not on par with a top-end Accord or Mazda6.
To the Regal’s credit, it’s much less expensive than many of the cars it’s trying to play against, like the Audi A5 or the Acura TLX. It’s also considerably roomier front and back, with a far larger and more useful cargo area than any of its competitors. Headroom is plentiful in any seat in the cabin, and rear legroom is a dramatic improvement over the cramped conditions in the old Regal. The new car has decent outward visibility and a long list of electronic safety and technology features that still bring it in far less than its competitive set. But it feels like a less expensive car than those competitors, so there’s no element of feeling like you got a bargain for your Regal versus an Audi A5 or loaded Accord — it just feels cheap in ways that it shouldn’t.
When it arrives, the Regal will undercut a lot of its competition significantly on the bottom line. The starting trim is the front-wheel-drive Sportback model for $25,915 including destination fee. That rises to the Preferred at $28,590 and the Preferred II for $30,655, and tops out with the Essence model at $32,655. All-wheel drive can be added to the Preferred II for $1,950 more, or the Essence for $2,050 more. The vehicles I sampled were two well-equipped Essence models, both outfitted with driver confidence packages that included blind spot warning, forward collision alert, LED headlamps, adaptive cruise control and a whole lot more, with the AWD model topping out at just more than $38,000.
From a value standpoint, that’s an excellent price for a car that includes so much equipment, all-wheel drive, a powerful turbocharged engine and the unique hatchback configuration that makes it a highly useful vehicle. For fans of the now-defunct Saab brand, this might be the closest thing you can get to a modern Saab 9-3 — turbo engine, front-wheel drive, hatchback body style. To anyone looking for an American alternative to a Japanese or European premium sedan, the Regal Sportback isn’t going to be all that enticing.
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