Over the last two months, speculation has swirled in the automotive press that General Motors is about to sell German affiliate Opel. Fueling the rumors are comments from Volkswagen's Martin Winterkorn, as well as continued losses at Opel. The possibility of a sale was so widely reported, in fact, it forced GM to make an official denunciation on 14 July, an almost unprecedented action.
Were it true, the move would be bad news for the Buick brand, whose 2011 Regal is based on the Opel Insignia. The Buick Regal series is positioned as a premium mid-sized sedan, something a cut above the default choices in the mid-sized category, the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Ford Fusion.
GM identifies the Acura TSX and Volkswagen's CC as the Regal's most logical competitors--which is rather a strange assessment at first glance. While both are highly regarded, neither sells in significant numbers--and certainly not with the kind of sales Buick is most likely hoping for.
Although the Regal is not likely to be cross shopped much with the BMW 3-Series, with the 2011 lineup's German-inspired design and engineering, it's almost implied that German sports sedans are really its most logical competitors. The turbocharged CXL I drove was imported from Rüsselheim, Germany, with lower-spec Regals built at the GM plant in Oshawa, Ontario.
I'm not here to say a Buick directly competes with a BMW 328, or even an Audi A4. Objectively, it does not. Both cost far more than a comparably equipped Regal. What I am saying is that the 2011 Regal gives you a taste of an Autobahn-bred German sports sedan at a much more affordable price. This, in a Buick?
It starts the minute you open the door and sit down. Surrounding you is not the velour interior of a Regal of yore, with its tufted and pillowed seats. This is a proper driver's environment. The overall quality of the interior is at class-leading levels. The fit and finish is exceptional, clearly better than the more upscale (and higher-priced) Buick LaCrosse I drove previously.
I did have two immediate quibbles. First, the center stack's numerous flat, similar-looking buttons (and a redundant iDrive-like controller that takes up space in the center console) is initially confusing. Second, the trim in my vehicle was all black. A two-tone interior would have been more inviting.
Still, the controls all have the high-quality feel expected in a European sports sedan--and, in my opinion, are better than almost any car designed by GM on this side of the Atlantic.
All Regals ride on a 107.8-inch wheelbase, about four inches shorter than the LaCrosse (which competes against cars such as the Chrysler 300). This results in a cockpit with sporty feel and a back seat that seems a bit tighter than many of its mid-sized competitors.
When introduced last year, the Regal was lauded for its overall levels of refinement and German-inspired design, and roundly criticized for being undermotivated. The direct-injection 2.4-liter 182-horsepower inline-four was not up to the task of motivating a 3,600-pound car with athletic aspirations in what is loosely defined as the "near-luxury class."
The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine addresses these deficiencies. With 220 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, acceleration is more in keeping with class expectation and feels faster that it actually is, with zero to 60 coming up in under eight seconds. The torque comes on strong at the low end, peaking at 2,200 r.p.m., which isn't typical of small-displacement turbocharged fours in a vehicle with this much bulk. Kudos to GM on both sides of the Atlantic.
I scored a six-speed manual transmission in my test vehicle (thanks, Buick). As soon as I was on the freeway and in sixth gear, I noticed the car was almost completely silent--so much so that, during a hands-free phone conversation, my speed crept over 90 miles per hour before I realized I was going so fast. I see no reason to believe my Regal would not top out at Buick's claim of 140 miles per hour, as it did it a German-produced video.
My turbocharged Regal CXL was well equipped in other ways, too: The T07 option group ($5,690) includes a power sunroof, stylish 19-inch alloy wheels (which were scratched after hitting one of California's infamous potholes on a drive back from San Diego--sorry Buick), powerful high-intensity headlights, a Harmon Kardon nine-speaker single CD system with integrated navigation, and the interactive drive control with sport and tour modes. This is on top of the generous equipment levels of the non-sticker price of $35,185, including a $750 destination charge.
On my day-long test drive to San Diego and back, I took some of my favorite two-lane roads northeast of the city up through Julian (yes, a slice of apple pie at the Julian Pie Company was called for en route). I switched the two-mode interactive drive control to the sport setting while I drove.
This stiffens up the suspension settings, imparting the Regal with some very un-Buick-like driving characteristics where road feel isn't completely dialed out. At the same time, changes are made to the stability control and throttle settings. I wouldn't go so far as to say the Regal was sporty in the way you'd describe a BMW as sporty, but it is a huge step in the right direction for Buick.
(I suspect that in Europe, the touring settings for the Opel Insignia, on which the Regal is based, are the same as the Buick's sport settings. And the Insignia's sport settings are likely calibrated even more on the stiff and sporty side.)
The Buick CXL Turbo was a surprise on many levels. Automotive journalists inevitably go into such test drives with many preconceived notions, thanks to the AARP jokes and the like. But the bottom line is how reluctant we are to hand back the keys at the end of a one-week loan. In this case, very much so. The week went by all too quickly.
Bottom line, Buick's turbcharged CXL was sporty yet balanced. Overall fuel economy was decidedly mid-pack at about 25 miles per gallon over 400 miles of very spirited driving, but with good reason. In its turbocharged guise, the Regal is so damn entertaining to drive you constantly want to wind it out, especially rowing the very competent six-speed manual gearbox through the middle gears. Every on-ramp is an excuse to nail it, which plays havoc with the mileage numbers.
The Buick Regal walks a tightrope. As a volume seller, it must be inoffensive to traditional Buick buyers while appealing to a younger demographic to expand the brand. This is not an easy task, but the Regal succeeds.
The base four-cylinder CXL probably goes as far as Buick traditionalists will tolerate, while the turbo version should snag import buyers who get sticker shock when they step inside a German car showroom. The CXL Turbo is a viable alternative. Set aside any preconceived ideas you may have about the brand long enough to take a test drive, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. I was.
Length: 183.1 inches
Width: 71.7 inches
Height: 57.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,360 pounds
Engine: I4, 2.4-liter DOHC, normally aspirated
Horsepower: 185 @ 6,500 r.p.m.
Torque: 170 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 20/29
Base price: $29,495
As-tested price: $35,185, including $750 destination
Also consider: Audi A4, Acura TSX, BMW 328i, Volkswagen CC