Driven: 2011 Buick Regal

June 30, 2010

Look, you're just going to have to get used to the fact that Buick's given up some stuff to survive. It's making the grade as an authentic near-luxury brand with cars like the swanky Enclave crossover and the plush, kicky LaCrosse--and there's not a lazy undersquare V-8 lumbering under their hoods, no vinyl roofs to be found.

And now it's doing it all again with a new Regal--where there's not even a V-6 engine to be had.

A four-cylinder Buick might seem like a sign of the Apocalypse, or worse, the return of the Skylark. Rest assured it's not, and the Regal's quite a capable four-door even with the base 182-horsepower Ecotec four-cylinder. It's not terribly exciting; that's why Buick's 220-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four factors into our must-haves in any new Regal.

With the turbocharged four, you'll want to dig into the Regal's real heritage. It's a first-generation American, designed as an Opel Insignia and at one point destined to become the second Saturn Aura. The European roots show up all over the place--across the swarthy black interior and its clear gauges, to the well-padded seats and the optional rear side airbags, and into the stubby, sort of undersized trunk. The road manners? Another dead giveaway, with communicative hydraulic-assisted steering and ride motions that rival those of the athletic competition. (Skip the electronic suspension; it fusses with a good thing, just like the electronics in Audis and other premium brands.)

Then there's the look, all suave sheetmetal curves and a kicky Nike logo stamped down the sides. Really, does it get any more finely drawn than the Regal's rear quarters? The Acura TSX is a klutzy anime warship in comparison; only the Hyundai Sonata, which clearly outpaces the Regal on front-seat room and fuel economy, comes close to making such an emphatic,  tradition-breaking statement.

It's all so contemporary, we have to ask: why Regal? GM's had a rough year. If it had skirted bankruptcy, this car might well be a Saturn Aura. It's not, and developing a new nameplate is an expensive, multi-year effort. I have to think "Century" might have been a better choice, but maybe it's on reserve for the Chevy Cruze-based Buick yet to come to showrooms.

So we'll take this Regal at more than face value, despite the fusty old name. It's hard to reconcile to the Buicks of the past--but makes perfect sense in the portfolio that will make or break their future.

We've given the 2011 Regal an overall rating of 8.4 out of 10, pending some safety test scores and a drive in the upcoming base Regal CX. Given its first name, it's going to be a tough sell to the loyalists, even those who hang with the hipsters every now and then. But its sport-flavored credentials are just as strong as anything in its niche.

We know you want more. It's a click away--get our complete review, a survey of other opinions, specs and prices and photos over at our 2011 Buick Regal page.

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