Editor's note: This review was written in February 2012 about the 2012 Buick Regal. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
A year into its rebirth, the Buick Regal adds two versions for 2012. The mild-hybrid Regal eAssist is EPA-rated at 36 mpg on the highway, while the Regal GS reincarnates Buick's Gran Sport performance label in a car with 270 horsepower and a manual transmission. I evaluated both, and I've also driven the mainstream, four-cylinder Regal. Compare all these versions and the 220-hp Regal turbo here.
Both new trims should expand the car's draw, but neither one is a slam dunk.
The 2012 Buick Regal GS could be more fun, while the eAssist has drivetrain gremlins that need ironing out. And below-average reliability hurts its case.
GM's mild-hybrid eAssist system supplants the conventional alternator to add 15 hp under hard acceleration, but it doesn't feel much different from the base four-cylinder Regal. Both cars are sluggish in the passing lane, and the eAssist's tepid initial accelerator response vexed me. More concerning was the drivetrain's tendency to lurch or clunk at low speeds, whether starting off or slowing down.
If anything, eAssist should provide smoother acceleration than most hybrids, as the gasoline engine stays on full-time, eliminating the electric-to-gas transition that gives many hybrids their characteristic stair-stepped starts. Instead, the Regal eAssist replaces the stair-step routine with shudders and clunks. On your test drive, note how the drivetrain behaves at low speeds, then click the email link at the end of this review to send me your assessment.
The eAssist system allows the engine to shut off during certain coasting or braking situations, and, like all hybrids and some conventional cars, it employs regenerative braking and automatic shutoffs at idle. Regenerative brakes that feel natural are a rare find, but the Regal eAssist does well for what it is. The pedal's a bit mushy at first, but it gets linear farther down.
The eAssist's taut ride quality shows the nameplate's Opel roots — Opel is a GM division in Europe, Buick is a GM division in the U.S. — but its mushy handling falls short. The steering is sharp, but other aspects disappoint. Put the Regal eAssist hard into a corner, and it pitches off-balance as the nose pushes free. Hit a midcorner bump, and the wheels dance outward. A driver's car, this is not.
Put it all together, and the Regal eAssist delivers an EPA-rated 25/36 mpg city/highway. That's far better than other trims, which range from 18/29 mpg to 20/32 mpg, so the eAssist's $2,000 extra cost versus a normally aspirated Regal will recoup itself in reasonable time. All the Regal's engines run fine on regular gas, but Buick recommends premium to get maximum performance out of the Regal Turbo and GS.
Buick's devotion to eAssist is clear: The company has announced it will become the standard drivetrain for 2013, eliminating the 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Pricing isn't yet available.
Courtesy of a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, the Regal GS packs some heat, but it's more chipotle than habanero. Endemic of yesteryear's pint-sized turbo engines, the GS pulls hard only as the tach needle swings past 3,000 rpm. Some of today's best engines, like the Audi A4 and BMW's 2012 328i, have plenty of gusto right off the line. Buick claims a hardy 295 pounds-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm, the sort of low-end push that ought to pin you back in your seat. I felt no such excitement, but I do give kudos to the six-speed manual transmission, whose medium throws, precise gates and light clutch are worth spreading to other GM cars. A six-speed automatic will be a no-cost option.
Buick claims the Regal GS makes it to 60 mph in a modest 6.7 seconds. That puts the GS, which has front-wheel drive like other Regals, well short of the all-wheel-drive Regal GS concept car that was shown at the 2010 Detroit auto show. That one was claimed to hit 60 in less than six seconds. As power builds, it comes on in spurts, leaving the tires spinning for traction at higher speeds. Hit the engine's stride midcorner, and the nose readily pushes wide. Sweeping curves have the Regal GS' tail sliding out eventually, and the car's lifelike steering feedback aids the process. The car handles well, but I wish the drivetrain were up to similar snuff.
Buick's Interactive Drive Control, optional on the Regal Turbo and standard on the GS, adds an adaptive suspension. In the GS, it has regular, Sport and GS settings. The Regal Turbo gets regular, Touring and Sport settings. In the Regal GS, GS mode reduces power-steering assist and stiffens the suspension, but the differences in ride comfort are slim. GS mode improves steering feedback at higher speeds, but no matter the setting the wheel still turns with light effort around town. That's something I prefer, though driving enthusiasts may want higher-effort steering.
Typical of Buick, road and wind noise are low, but the GS' sport-tuned suspension gives it a firmer ride than is justified by its modest performance. The suspension isolates well enough on the highway, but potholes and other ruts toss you around, even using Drive Control's softest settings. Our tester had optional 20-inch wheels and high-performance (summer) P255/35ZR20 tires. The GS' standard 19-inchers and cushier P245/40R19 tires may improve ride comfort.
Last year's review gives a full overview of the interior. Buick's IntelliLink system, which will roll out in late-issue 2012s, incorporates smartphone applications like Pandora and Stitcher internet radio into a 7-inch dashboard screen. Bluetooth audio connectivity, iPod compatibility and steering-wheel audio controls are also standard.
The Regal's center controls take some getting used to. Three knobs — one near the center armrest — control various functions on the dashboard display, which is also a touch-screen. Two of the knobs are redundant, but there are enough nearby functions that you don't have to reach somewhere else to get something done. Sort through it all, and there's plenty of functionality. Every navigation system should employ a directional joystick to scroll the map, for example, and Buick's is in the minority that does.
The cabin has handsome materials but shoddy fittings. I let panel gaps slide unless they're really unsightly — and from the glove compartment to the steering wheel hub, our Regal GS had more misfits than a season of "Jersey Shore." Check out the photos. Buick has work to do.
Trunk volume in most Regals measures 14.2 cubic feet, which is competitive with other entry-luxury sedans. It drops to 11.1 cubic feet in the Regal eAssist, whose lithium-ion battery sits behind the backseat, cutting space and reducing the standard folding backseat to a glorified pass-through. Still, that's better than some hybrid sedans, whose backseats don't fold at all.
Safety, Features & Pricing
With top scores in front, side and rear crash tests, the Regal is a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, plus front and head-protecting side airbags. Side-impact torso airbags for the rear seats are standard on the Regal GS and optional on other trim levels. Click here for a full list of safety features.
In the Regal's first year back, reliability was disappointing. It was below average in a league of reliable competitors: The Audi A4, Acura TSX and Infiniti G25 all have average or above-average reliability records. The Volkswagen CC is the sole competitor in Buick's below-average camp.
For around $27,000, the Regal starts with dual-zone automatic climate control, heated leather upholstery and a power driver's seat. Buick's IntelliLink system, with its 7-inch touch-screen, will be standard beginning later in 2012. Options include a power passenger seat, a moonroof, Harman Kardon stereo, a navigation system, xenon headlights and upgraded engines — the eAssist, Turbo and GS turbo. Load up the Regal GS, and the price tops $38,000.
Regal in the Market
The fastest-growing brand in 2010, Buick is still on a roll. In its first full year of sales, the Regal outsold the TSX, CC and A4. The GS and eAssist expand the car's potential, but their execution falls short of a slam dunk. Both cars have strong foundations, and their issues could be remedied with an extensive refresh rather than a full redesign. I hope GM can right the ship and improve reliability, because the Regal has a lot going for it otherwise.
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