Review: 2011 Buick Regal Turbo

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
review 2011 buick regal turbo

Taut. Trim. Modern. Sporty. Developed in Germany. Aimed at youthful enthusiasts. Stop me when it starts sounding like I’m describing a Buick.

Since the launch of the Enclave in 2007, Buick has repeatedly touted a decline in average buyer age that still has yet to push the brand’s demographics into the fat sections of America’s population pyramid. Though the year-old LaCrosse appears to be helping Buick’s central PR narrative, even it is, at best, not your grandfather’s Buick. Despite a brand heritage based on a traditional, suburban American image whose fading appeal is evidenced in Buick’s pre-Enclave demographics, the long-term health of GM’s entry-luxury (or “premium,” to use GM-speak) marque depends on continued progress away from the “blue hair” image it has so richly earned over the past several decades.

It should come as no surprise then, that the 2011 Regal is the most substantive break from Buick’s past to date. And no wonder: born in Germany as the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia, the Regal is as traditionally American as a Kraftwerk album. In Europe, the Insignia is sold as fashion-forward competitor in the mass-market, midsized segment. In the context of a Buick that still offers a taste of the geriatric image it’s desperate to escape in the G-Body Lucerne, the Regal is unapologetically marketed as a sports sedan. And until a recently-approved high-performance GS version arrives, the 220 horsepower Turbo version is the bellwether for both the Regal’s sporting pretensions and Buick’s desire to attract a new kind of buyer.The decision to launch the Regal on 200 miles of twisting road east of San Diego, California is testament to just how much Buick believes in the Regal’s sporting credentials. And this was no mirror-smooth, touring course either. Tight hairpins, deep compressions, nasty potholes and impossibly narrow, rough roads left the Regal no opportunity to fake the funk. Nausea-control armbands left in each Regal’s center console weren’t just for show either: several of Buick’s reps were looking decidedly green around the gills at the stops

between driving stages.

And no wonder. The Regal Turbo we tested proved not only to be the best-handling Buick ever (damning with faint praise, to be sure), but also an accomplished athlete by any reasonable comparison. The Regal Turbo is by far the most enthusiast-oriented application of GM’s Epsilon II platform to date, and was, throughout the test, a poised and willing dance partner. The front-drive chassis provided considerable grip through fast sweepers, performed sharp direction changes with aplomb and carried its 3,600 pound claimed curb weight with unexpected grace. And though a far cry from the squishy, all-day touring comfort that previously defined Buick chassis and suspension setups, it never felt overly harsh or hard-core. Even fitted with optional 19 inch wheels (reminiscent of the Jaguar XF’s), the ride remained impressively smooth.Of course, on the kind of roads that one finds in the hill country east of San Diego, a well-settled chassis alone isn’t enough to deliver true enthusiast performance. The loaded Turbo model we drove was equipped with an active damping system that will be optional on Turbo models when they arrive at dealer lots later this year. With this option comes the choice of three modes, Normal, Touring and Sport, selectable with buttons on the instrument panel. According to the engineers responsible for developing the Regal Turbo, the car itself will even choose between the different modes based on its analysis of real-time telemetric data.

With Sport mode engaged, the

difference in suspension, steering and drivetrain settings were immediately noticeable, and is clearly responsible for many of the superlatives in this review. Because Sport mode is self-activating, however, it’s hard to say how a Turbo model without active damping would perform, and its advantages are based on an imperfect comparison to the 2.4 liter, normally-aspirated base Regal with 18 inch rims.

But even with the performance-enhancing wheel and active suspension upgrades, the Regal Turbo we drove was not a perfect athlete. The impressively-fettled chassis, and firm, flattering suspension were consistently let down by a hydraulic-assist steering setup that failed to live up to the Regal’s promise of sports sedan performance. From the moment I slid behind the wheel, it felt almost comically disconnected from the wheels, and driving through downtown San Diego in Touring mode, my concern with the super-light, feedback-free, and vague on-center feel through the Regal’s helm only grew. Based on the number of fellow testers who waggled their wheels in curiosity on the way out of town, like Formula 1 drivers breaking in their tires on a warm-up lap, I wasn’t the only one who took notice.And sure enough, as soon as the drive’s first leg got into the curvy stuff, the steering came into focus as the weakest link in the enthusiastic driving equation. The vagueness on-center, which was mitigated (but not removed) by pressing the Sport button, robbed the Regal’s driver of confidence when diving into an apex, while the overboosted lightness prevented a steady flow of communication between the road and the driver. As a result, it was extremely difficult to feel out the limits of the Regal’s capability, and one couldn’t help but get the impression that an otherwise capable chassis was going underexploited. Moreover, it limited the Regal’s ability to flatter the driver, an key consideration for an entry sports sedan.
These steering feel complaints are popular whipping boys for road testers, but I wasn’t the only one left cold by the Turbo’s aloof tiller. Halfway through the test, Vehicle Line Engineer Jim Federico admitted that our Turbos fell short on steering weight and feel. He insisted that he understood the need to improve the steering heft on Turbo models, and promised that this would be “dialed in” by the time Turbos hit dealerships later this year. Federico is clearly an engineer who takes his job seriously, but we’re bound by the Great Communicator’s principle of trust but verify on this count.In contrast to its steering, the Regal’s two-liter, twin-scroll turbocharged Ecotec engine is extremely well-suited to this application. Making 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the direct-injection engine provides plenty of usable power. Buick’s reps were quick to point out that the Regal Turbo offered comparable torque to the Acura TSX V6 (which makes 254 lb-ft), despite coming up a good 60 horsepower short of its arch-rival. And despite the many on-paper similarities between these two cars, this comparison offers a keen insight into the Regal’s soul.The turbocharged Ecotec is not a rev-happy screamer, preferring to focus on mid-range power, and offering surprisingly refined performance. A subtle but unmistakable turbo whistle greets the driver under acceleration, before being drowned out by a restrained, though less-than-

entirely-musical note as the engine charges up the rev counter. The results are certainly effective, feeling at least the claimed second faster to 60 MPH than its normally-aspirated cousin, and in non-enthusiast driving it’s smooth, refined and quiet.

As an enthusiast-oriented engine, however, it could stand to offer more in the way of soul. In fact, the lack of rev-rewards almost make the wait for manual transmission versions (coming in Q4 of this year) a non-event. Almost. Unfortunately, the six-speed automatic also takes away slightly from the Regal’s dancing abilities. Letting off the throttle and brushing the brakes on the entrance to a corner almost always leaves the slushbox in a higher gear than the exit requires. Truly spirited driving requires almost constant contact with the gas pedal, and early, subtle throttle inputs to keep the transmission from confusing itself coming out of a tight bend (the transmission offers a “manual” mode which helps in this regard, but not paddle shifters which are even available on the Malibu). Luckily, the chassis can take corners at a high enough speed to allow earlier gassing than you might expect, but tight hairpins can take some wind out of the Turbo’s progress and stringing fast corners together takes some planning. Again, it wouldn’t be at all fair to call the Regal “unsporty” on this count, but it also doesn’t flatter the driver the way a true enthusiast’s sedan can.But there I go again, criticizing a Buick for failing to live up to “true enthusiast” standards. In the real world the Regal Turbo is not only more than capable of entertaining anyone currently considering a front-drive, four-door sedan, it also offers an experience that jives surprisingly well with my concept of what a Buick should be. The smooth, quiet powerplant is complimented by a an impressively quiet cabin, which in turn compliments the chassis’s well-moderated balance between ride and handling. The exterior styling, though an undeniable break from Buick’s heritage of ventiports and sweep-spear lines, is handsome and well-detailed but subtle nearly (although not quite) to the point of anonymity. How Buick is that?
Similarly, the interior is well-appointed with surprisingly high-quality materials, and more importantly, surprisingly few low-quality materials. The interior’s Teutonic simplicity is a refreshing (if somber) break from the often overwrought interior designs that have emerged from GM in recent years. Unfortunately, it does suffer similarly from GM’s propensity for IP button overpopulation. The only real letdowns: an all-too familiar steering wheel from GM’s corporate parts bin, and seats that, though comfortable, offer little meaningful side-bolstering for the sub-200 pound driver. This last point is yet another quibble with the Regal’s sporting pretensions, and a possible clue to the nausea that afflicted several Buick reps on the test drive, as the chassis also outclasses the seat’s ability to hold the driver in place during spirited driving.Is the Regal Turbo a “real” Buick? That’s a debate that will likely rage on until the folks who can still remember a glory year for the brand have died off. It’s certainly different, but with a crossover already in its lineup and compact sedans and MPVs on the way, Buick’s managers aren’t letting fear of the unknown stop them now. And with this less-visceral, more refined alternative to front-drive sports sedans (notably the TSX), they certainly could have taken a less-Buick-like step into the unknown. But whether it will continue the sales momentum that the LaCrosse has undeniably built up over the last year still remains very much to be seen.On paper, the Regal Turbo’s just-under $30k price point puts it in competition with the base, four-cylinder TSX while offering power closer to the $35k TSX V6. But what exactly the loaded Turbo I drove, with navigation, active suspension damping, 19 inch wheels and more will end up costing is an open question as GM has not yet released full Turbo pricing. And with Federico’s last-minute steering tweaks and a manual transmission as yet untested, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Regal’s sporting capabilities… let alone any sporty Buick’s youthful-customer-attracting capabilities.General Motors offered to fly me to San Diego and put me up in some swanky digs for this launch event. I turned down this kind offer, but over the course of the event I did receive three delicious meals, a 2 GB Buick-branded USB drive (which I instantly lost), and two small pies (one stop on the test drive was a pie shop) which I was afraid to take on the airplane, and gave to a friend.

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2 of 61 comments
  • Geo. Levecque Geo. Levecque on Jul 11, 2010

    Just listened to a Radio Interview with Tony LaRoque from GM Canada about the Buick Regal, saying that GM is going after the Acura product with this new Buick! He also said that this Car would be soon be built in Oshawa, Ontario, I guess we all will have to wait to see what develops on this idea.

  • Almost Jake Almost Jake on Oct 22, 2010

    The question I keep asking myself is how much does it cost to repair since its made in Germany? I heard that is a major issue with the Holden built GMs. Almost Jake

  • Sgeffe I’ve got no problems with the HondaSensing kit in my one-generation-wonder 2019 Accord Touring 2.0T. (Although, ironically, the telematics unit won’t receive incoming commands from stuff like the mobile app allowing for remote start and the like. First world problems; working with Honda on a resolution.)Unlike most people who probably aren’t aware of their vehicle’s owner’s manual, however, I don’t expect the technology to be anything more than an ASSIST! The car will watch the distance to the car in front, but if needed, I’m still hovering my foot over the brake if necessary. Even if the BSM light in the mirror isn’t on, I still glance over my shoulder. Et cetera.
  • THX1136 Thanks for the explanation, Jeff! Appreciate you taking the time.
  • ScarecrowRepair Stick-what? Maybe it needs a laxative.
  • FreedMike ...but is the monthly turn signal subscription also going up?
  • FreedMike GM looked at all those Cayennes, Macans and Panameras Porsche is moving, and climbed aboard the same train. Probably inevitable.