Sometimes love strikes at first sight. Other times it emerges more gradually over months or even years. When I first drove the new Buick Regal nearly a year ago, I found a fair amount to like, but love didn’t instantly happen. The Regal just isn’t that kind of car. Its strengths are subtle. Perhaps if we spent a week together, and a turbo was added to the mix?
Ours being an open relationship, I also played the field, driving an Acura TSX V6, Chrysler 200 Limited, and Volvo S60 T5 to better evaluate how the Buick measured up. Those reviews will follow. First, the Regal CXL Turbo.
The Regal isn’t as flashy a dresser as the half-size-larger Buick LaCrosse, but it will likely wear better over time. Over the course of the week the car looked better and better to me. The proportions are outstanding for a front-driver, with the ends of the car pulled tight to minimize their perceived mass. In a clear sign of Lutz’s involvement, the fenders swell out deliciously to barely contain the optional 19-inch wheels. Inspired by the 1998-2004 Audi A6, but further refined. Current Audis, with more kinks in their curves, appear stodgy in comparison. I took many photos in an attempt to do the Regal justice, but failed. Its complex surfacing simply cannot be captured in two dimensions. One exterior flaw that can be remedied easily: there’s far too much badging on the trunk. Does any owner really want to broadcast that their car can burn E85?
The Regal’s interior similarly grew more attractive over the course of the week. Though less overtly styled than the interiors in the Acura and Volvo, there’s beauty in the details. Look closely and, like its exterior, the Buick’s interior is filled with curves. These flow together so harmoniously and are so tastefully highlighted with piano black and lustrous metallic trim that no element draws attention to itself. (Okay, the chrome trim plate surrounding the shifter does, but without a few pieces of jewelry the interior would be too dark.) At night, ice blue lighting proves both attractive and easy on the eyes.
When I first drove the Regal I reported that its interior materials didn’t quite measure up to those in an Audi or Acura. Perhaps I was thinking of past Audis and Acuras. The interiors of the current A4 and TSX—and of the new Volvo S60, for that matter—seem plasticky compared to that in the Regal. Within the Buick most surfaces are soft to the touch and even those that aren’t have a reassuringly solid feel. The door pulls—historically a GM weakness—deserve special note. Tug on them and they don’t budge a bit. Yet they also have a soft-touch inner surface. Regal production is shifting from Germany to Canada. Hopefully these materials survived the move.
Ergonomics are much better than in the LaCrosse, with the shifter properly located and the many knobs and buttons all within reach. But there are so many knobs and buttons, unconventionally arranged (for North America, at least), that even basic operations require considerable hunting at first. By the end of the week I’d figured out how to perform most functions. Perhaps after a year the location of audio controls on the steering wheel, the center stack, AND the center console would start to become intuitive? Even the tach is a bit of a bother; since like that in some VWs it’s numbered in hundreds rather than thousands, making it easy to confuse at a glance with the speedometer. As is often the case, the gear indicator is mounted low in the instruments, where it’s not possible to read at a glance. (I was spoiled the previous week by the head-up display in a GMC Acadia.) Thankfully the driving position requires no such acclimation. Compared to the styling-uber-alles LaCrosse, the Regal has a lower, shallower instrument panel and thinner, more upright pillars.
Then there are the seats. Because the headrests jut far forward, it took me a few days to find a position that wasn’t downright uncomfortable (for me; your neck might be less vertical). Supposedly this torture is required for safety, but both Acura and Volvo earn equally good rear crash protection scores with much less intrusive headrests. The problem: GM isn’t willing to fit its cars with active head restraints that move forward in the event of a rear impact. Even excluding this factor, the Regal’s seatbacks lack contour and their bolsters are too widely spaced. They have four-way power lumbar, vs. the two-way manual lumbar in the Acura and Volvo, but the seats in these competitors are nevertheless both more cosseting when cruising and more supportive when the road turns twisty. Of the Regal’s shortcomings, these seats would be the largest impediment to a satisfying long-term relationship. I might eventually learn to live with them, but it would be a struggle.
The Regal is, in the GM fashion, a few inches longer than its closest competitors, and this pays some dividends in rear seat legroom. Even so, the rear seat isn’t a comfortable place for adults. Knee room, though relatively plentiful, is still limited and the cushion is too low to the floor—the price of the arching roofline. Adding insult to injury, rear seat passengers don’t get lustrous metallic trim on their door pulls—to save a few dollars? But they do get rear air vents and an AC outlet (which will only work with a three-prong plug.) The trunk is a little larger than most, and the rear seatbacks fold to expand it.
I first drove the Regal with a 182-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, and found this engine adequate. Over the course of a week with the optional 220-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four I found it…also adequate, only more so. Tipping a friendly scale at 3,671 pounds, the Regal Turbo weighs hundreds of pounds more than most competitors. Consequently, the turbocharged engine merely achieves parity with the base engines in the Acura TSX, Audi A4, and Volvo S60. (And the much less expensive Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, for that matter.)
Why did GM opt to offer the 220-horsepower four as an option? Virtually everyone else offers base engines that are a little less powerful along with optional engines that are much more powerful. To more effectively compete with the latter the 2012 Regal will also be available with a 255-horsepower version of the 2.0-liter turbo. But this will still be 20-40 horsepower short of parity when the Regal needs a stronger engine to compensate for its additional poundage.
In terms of refinement, the Regal Turbo’s engine is better behaved than previous GM fours, but idles less smoothly and quietly than the best and makes pedestrian four-cylinder noises when revved. Casual drivers will notice little amiss—aside from a very faint occasional whistle the boosted nature of the engine isn’t evident—but there’s also nothing here to thrill. The soulful sixes offered in the Acura and Volvo are in entirely different league. These sixes also feel much stronger when starting off from a dead stop, where the normally lag-free Buick engine sometimes hesitates for a moment.
Fuel economy is rated 18 city / 28 highway by the EPA. Competitors usually do a few MPG better, especially in the city. An Audi A4 2.0T, which weighs about 270 pounds less: 22/ 30. Even in turbocharged six-cylinder all-wheel-drive form the Volvo S60 manages 18 / 26. The even heftier Cadillac CTS with the 3.6-liter V6: 18/ 27. So the fuel economy benefits of the four-cylinder turbo are not evident. In casual suburban driving I observed about 22.5 in the Regal.
The chassis is easier to admire, even if love still proves elusive. Going down the road the Regal feels unusually solid and well-mannered for a non-German car. Except it is a German car. Or was until it moved to Canada. The ride-handling balance is about the best you’ll find in a nose-heavy front-driver. The ultra-low-profile 245/40WR19 tires audibly clomp over road imperfections, but despite the absence of any sidewalls to speak of the ride remains smooth and steady on all but the worst roads. The Acura and Volvo aren’t as composed. There’s some lean in turns, but no more than in other sedans without hardcore performance ambitions.
Understeer? With nearly sixty-percent of the Regal’s many pounds on its front tires, of course it understeers. But the situation is more complicated than it initially appears. The Regal’s overly light steering has a relaxed feel to it, and when the wheel is first turned the car’s nose seems somewhat reluctant to follow. But override this feedback and tweak the wheel another twenty-or-so degrees, and the front tires mysteriously hook up and carve a tight line. Once you know this hidden capability is there, it’s easy to exploit. But it might never become intuitive. If and when the stability control intervenes it does so very effectively and relatively transparently. The systems in the Acura and especially in the Volvo are much more intrusive.
The Regal’s top option packages pair the 19-inch-wheels (a big aesthetic improvement) with adjustable shocks. Prominent “Sport” and “Tour” buttons respectively firm up or relax these shocks along with the steering and the throttle. At least they’re supposed to. Even after a week to familiarize myself with the car I could not tell the difference between the default setting and “Sport.” The latter might make the ride a little more abrupt, but handling is not perceptibly affected. Supposedly the system adapts to your driving style, so it might simply have defaulted to something near “Sport” for me. In “Tour” the steering felt a little more vague and the suspension felt a little less tied down, but the differences are again so small that I doubt I could reliably distinguish them in a blind test. So, are the trick shocks a waste? Not for anyone who cares about driving. They simply do such a good job left to themselves, that they should simply be left to themselves.
The steering is another matter. A much more significant difference between modes, as in Audi’s latest “Drive Select” packages, would be better than the current system. But an excellently tuned, single-mode system would be best of all.
The price: $35,185 with all the toys. Adjust for feature differences (like the trick shocks) using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and a similarly-equipped four-cylinder Acura TSX is a few hundred less. The two cars are very similarly priced. This puts the Regal about $5,000 over the much more powerful Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T (about $2,800 after the feature adjustment) but about $7,000 under an Audi A4 2.0T.
Buick would of course prefer that you focus on the latter comparison, and they’d have justification for this. As suggested by its highly refined styling and hefty curb weight, the Regal was designed and engineered well beyond normal $25,000 car standards—which might explain why it starts at $27,000 and ends up at $35,000 when fully loaded. Want the basic car and the performance bits, but need a lower price? Cutting the nav would save $2,000 and cutting the sunroof would shave another grand.
Ultimately, even when turbocharged and fitted with the industry’s quickest-reacting shocks the Buick Regal simply isn’t a driver’s car. Instead, it’s a solid, exceedingly well-behaved machine that, if it proves reliable, I’d readily recommend to casual drivers without overly vertical necks. Driving it for a week, I came to admire the Regal’s subtle strengths. Perhaps given a year or two of commutes this admiration might turn to love. Prefer to fall in love more quickly? Perhaps the upcoming Regal GS with its more aggressively boosted engine will do the trick.
Press Car, insurance and one tank of gas provided by GM.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.