A welcome return of the sporty midsize Buick
Automotive writers are tripping over themselves to proclaim that the turbocharged version of the midsize 2011 Buick Regal is a fast, fun to drive car. Many of the reviews express surprise that it handles well, without any of the float that used to characterize American cars.
Although our one-week test drive confirms all of that, the reviewers are actually dating themselves. Buick frequently offered a performance version of the Regal in the past that defied the company's aspiring upper class image - included some of the first turbocharged American cars.
The Regal was first introduced as an intermediate from 1973 to 1977. Most commonly offered with a punchy 350 cubic inch V8, it could be ordered with a much more powerful 455 cubic inch V8 engine during the first two years. But when the Arab Oil Embargo happened, Buick was quick to offer the Regal with a more fuel-efficient 231 cubic inch V6 engine - a sign that that company was willing to innovate.
The second generation Regal was a downsized version produced from 1978 to 1987. From the start, it was available with a turbocharged 231 cubic inch V6, now designated as a 3.8-liter. In 1982, Buick debuted the even sportier Grand National version to cash in on the Regal's success on the NASCAR circuit. A similar T-Type was introduced the next year, with a much more powerful GNX version produced in 1987.
The third generation, which ran from 1988 to 1996, was the first front-wheel-drive Regal. It included a Grand Sport version that featured a unique 3.8-liter V6, full instrumentation and other diver-oriented touches.
The fourth generation Regal, produced from 1997 to 2004, offered a GS version that came with a supercharged 3.8-liter V6 that produced 240 horsepower and a stiffer suspension. The onboard computer was program to reduce wheel spin during hard acceleration. A dealer-installed optional GSX SLP Performance Package included a dual-exhaust, an upgraded cold-air intake, a smaller supercharger pulley, a more performance-oriented computer wider wheels and tires. The engine and exhaust upgrades added a significant 30 more horsepower.
The Regal nameplate disappeared after that until it was revived this year on an all-new model, at least in America. The 2011 Regal is actually based the Opel Insignia, which is produced in Germany by General Motors. The exterior styling is crisp and modern, with a low air dam, swoopy side lines and a slightly upturned trunk lid that serves as a modest spoiler. The optional 19-inch alloy wheels and dual chrome exhausts on out test car suggested Buick's understated but genuine performance heritage.
The base engine in the Regal is a 2.4-liter inline four that produces 182 horsepower. Our test car was the turbocharged version that features a boosted 2.0-liter engine that pumps out 220 horsepower. It also came with an option package that includes two additional driving modes, Touring and Sport.
Even in the normal mode, the Regal Turbo was impressive. The turbocharged engine is smooth and powerful. Although not a screamer like the Subaru Impeza STI or Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, it still moves the Regal quickly off the line and makes freeway passing a breeze. There is virtually no turbo lag, making the relatively small power plant feel more like a much larger V6.
The difference between Normal and Touring was subtle at best. The transmission seemed to shift a little quicker, resulting in slightly better acceleration. The changes were much more notable in the Sport mode, where we could feel the upshifts and downshifts much more. But truth be told, when we wanted more acceleration, we simply put the transmission in the manual shift mode, which gave us complete control over when it shifted up and down through the gears.
On the road, the Regal feels remarkably light. Steering effort is minimal and the suspension floats over most imperfections. At first we thought this meant the car didn't liked to be pushed, but a few fast corners convinced us that is a serious road car after all - just one that doesn't punish the driver and passengers under normal driving conditions. The four-wheel-disc brakes that come standard with the turbo version worked well and were easy to modulate, allow us to just tease them slightly in tight turns to keep the speed up.
The interior was well laid out and appointed. The dash was a stylish mix of soft and shiny plastics, accented with chrome trim. Although the front leather seats could provide better lateral support, the driver's seat was fully adjustable, including the back support. Three can fit comfortably in the back seat, even though headroom was a little cramped for taller passengers. The gauges were large and easy to read, and we were pleased to see they included one for water temperature, something we consider essential on any turbocharged car. The entertainment and climate controls were primarily buttons, but they were at least a reasonable size and laid out logically.
Some reviewers have noted the Regal was originally intended to replace the Aura in the Saturn line, only becoming a Buick when General Motors dropped that division. If that's true, it's a sign of how far GM had let Saturn wander away from its roots. Saturn was originally created to offer simple, modestly-priced alternatives to foreign economy cars.
Although the Aura was also based on a European Opel, it was still relatively modest. In comparison, the Regal borders on being a luxury car. But with a starting price of under $27,000 for the non-turbo model, it compares well to other entry-level midsize cars with premium features. And beginning at under $29,000, the turbo version undercuts such performance-oriented competitors as the Acura TSX and Audi A4.
Buick has made no secret about wanting to attract a younger demographic in recent years. With its contemporary styling and high-tech features, the full-size LaCrosse was a big step in that direction. The 2011 Regal is an even more successful effort to reach driving enthusiasts, especially the turbo model that can honestly run with the pack.
Facts and figures
• Model: 2011 Regal CXL Turbo
• Manufacturer: Buick.
• Class: Midsize sedan.
• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.
• Style: Four-door car.
• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (182 hp.); turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 (220 hp., as tested).
• Transmission: 6-speed automatic.
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 19/30; 18/29 (as tested).
• Price: Beginning at approximately $26,245 ($32,000 as tested).