2011 Buick Regal: First Drive Takes Us Around the World
Buick chose a grand way to celebrate the arrival of their newest model, giving a few the chance to drive the car through its German birthplace. After spending a couple of days in Beijing, visiting the auto show and taking in some time at a local Buick dealer, we flew to Frankfurt to experience the car at GM’s Dudenhof test facility, along the autobahn and German country roads on the way to the Nurburgring, and for one lap each of the famed Nordschweife itself.
You may ask why all this globetrotting for such an American brand. While Buick’s roots are firmly planted in Detroit, China is a far larger market for Buick right now than the United States. In China, Buick outsells Chevrolet, though the gap is small. Buick is on track to sell more than 500,000 vehicles in China this year; in the States, Buick closed out 2009 selling only 102,000 cars. The last time the U.S. market bought up more than 500,000 Buicks in one year was in 1994.
We have the Chinese market to thank for Buick surviving bankruptcy. And for what you will find at Buick dealers today and tomorrow, including Regal, there is reason to be grateful. Today’s Buicks are again graceful, quiet, and responsive and good to drive in a whole new way–they take the brand’s traditional values and express them in modern context.
As GM’s design leader Ed Wellburn has been discussing, the Enclave was just the beginning of the Buick design renaissance. Buick is transitioning to becoming an interesting international brand, as design input comes from all over the GM design world. LaCrosse and now Regal are compelling examples of evolving design. Still, the Regal’s looks are heavily dependent on the Opel Insignia base–no bad thing for the resulting car, but the cues that make it a Buick rather than an Opel are mostly fascias, front grille, lights, wheels (including the decision for standard eighteens), and trim.
The chance to talk to Chinese Buick LaCrosse and Regal owners (through a translator) was compelling. Both saw Buick as a premium, depending on recommendations of friends and relatives in their car selection, and included words like stylish and fashionable in their descriptions of their own cars. The LaCrosse owner is 41, Regal 26. Though in the States getting over the old-man-car image will take time as well as worthy product, it is clear the product itself is no longer an obstacle in attracting younger buyers.
As GM can now allocate resources among four brands instead of eight, Buick will increase their product range beyond Regal, LaCrosse, and Enclave. According to Buick, the three-car lineup of today covers only 14% of the U.S. market; within a few years, they will have product to cover 46% of the market. Offering products in more segments, assuming as compelling as these three, can go a long way to improving the brand’s sales and image.
Germany: Russelsheim, Nuburgring, Autobahn, GM Proving Grounds
Once we got to Germany, we got the chance to put the Regal through its paces. Experiencing Regal in Germany is appropriate because of its ties to the Opel Insignia. The first Regals are imported from Germany, built at Opel’s Russelsheim facility. Production will move to GM’s Oshawa facility by the end of 2010.
These German bones are a good thing, as the Insignia is gorgeous. For the States, the wagon and five-door hatchback are under evaluation, though Regal launches as a sedan. The five-door has the sleekest, sexiest look, being a fastback five-door along the vein of the prior-generation Mazda6 and not of the taller Chevrolet Aveo type. The Buick takes a slightly more American personality in the use of chrome and the Buick waterfall grille. Even better, for anyone who likes to drive, the Regal benefits from its German on-road and Nurburgring development. The American Regal holds the road and works with you, taking its basic suspension tuning from the European rather than the Chinese setup.
As part of Buick’s reinvention, the team is looking to reinterpret its historic values for modern audiences. Today’s Buick understands the driver wants to feel in control and confident as well as comfortable, and that comfort is no longer defined as isolating rides in large land yachts. The new Buick will remain quiet, but expectations for driving dynamics have changed, even as described in a similar fashion. Of particular note is the first U.S. application of the Interactive Drive Control System suspension provides responsive handling with good driver feedback, roadholding, and a smooth ride for passengers through four electronically controlled dampers and Normal, Tour, and Sport settings.
No surprise, my favorite setup was the 220HP 2.0L twin-scroll supercharged direct-injection I4 mated to a six-speed manual in Sport setting. The 182HP 2.4L is responsive, with a confident chassis setup providing a crisp driving experience from autobahn to Nurburgring. With either engine underhood, the cars was responsive and capable on the autobahn and proving grounds at speeds north of 135MPH. Though U.S. drivers are not likely to see triple-digit speeds during their ownership experience, with the proper tires and brakes the vehicle is capable of inspiring smooth, confident driving at those speeds.
Like the Hyundai Sonata and Suzuki Kizashi, Regal will offer an I4-only lineup. Supporting the 2.4L is a 225HP 2.0L Turbo this fall, and eventually a 255HP version. The car launches with a single trim level, the well-equipped CXL, until production is fully established in the States. As a premium brand with premium interior materials, the Regal carries a higher price tag, starting at $27,000. A lesser-equipped model will be added as production moves to North America.
Nicely contented, the CXL gets a standard leather interior and a slightly different color palette than will be offered for 2012MY. As the first model year is being imported, complexity has been kept to a minimum.
Regal delivers on and improves the interior craftsmanship of its larger siblings as well. Available interior accents include satin metallic, piano black, and Kibo-patterned wood treatment; there is a multi-function controller for the telematics systems (audio, Bluetooth, and navigation) and 10GB for music storage. The navigation system uses a 1GB internal flash drive, for faster processing.
To keep Regal’s price point sufficiently below LaCrosse, the smaller sedan took a bit less of the Quiet Tuning materials than had gone into LaCrosse and Enclave, though the Regal’s NVH attributes make for a quiet interior all the same. Buick successfully maintained the quiet atmosphere and premium materials the brand strives to be associated with at a lower price point.
Regal Hits the Mark
All in all, the Regal is a worthy entry in a competitive market. With Buick’s aim of taking on Lexus and Acura (leaving Cadillac to go for the German luxury brands), Regal should be on your shopping list. Dynamically more entertaining than Lexus or Acura, Regal interior also delivers on its premium promise.