Being among the oldest U.S. auto brands, Buick has a certain geriatric chic that could make it ripe for renewal. If Betty White can stage a late-career comeback, why can't this stalwart of automotive cushiness? They're practically the same age, and the last time either was in vogue was the 1980s.
The upside to being so out of fashion is that Buick could now be "in," if only the Regal lived up to the promise the manufacturer showed last year with its luxury sedan, the LaCrosse CXS. With its successor, the Regal, Buick is simply trying to do too much. In its efforts to be simultaneously elegant, sporty, fuel efficient, technologically tricked out and affordable it doesn't fully succeed.
What I liked most about this mid-size sport sedan was its exterior. There's a wind-swept stylishness to its profile that elevates it to the level of its competitors: the Acura TSX, Volvo S60, Volkswagen Passat and Mazda 6, each of which shares a kind of athletic voluptuousness. The Bentley-esque grille, even the Buick insignia itself, lends the car an upscale appearance that helps the Regal live up to its moniker. And the palette of sumptuous exterior colors, including the shade of deep, seafaring blue in the model I was testing, made me curious to open the doors and see what was inside this Autobahn-inspired beauty.
The experience was a little like biting into a See's chocolate and tasting a nougat you weren't expecting — and hadn't wanted. It was, in a word, disappointing.
Although the center stack was nicely arranged, it was trimmed in cheap-looking brown plastic and anchored with an equally chintzy chrome finish around the six-speed gear shift. The "pleather" dash was inlaid with a faux-wood grain. In fact, the whole cockpit was more pastiche than crafted.
If this is regal, then I'm Prince Harry.
Of course there's only so much bling Buick can pack into a car that starts at $26,995, especially a car that has as many performance and technology objectives as the Regal. I just wish the bling had been a bit more premium because there's a lot of competition at that price point. Buick would have been better off focusing on fewer features and ensuring that each was the highest quality.
Specifically, I would remove the Interactive Drive Control System that comes standard on the version I was testing. The system enables drivers to choose between normal, tour and sport modes and adjusts the car's acceleration, steering dynamics and suspension accordingly. The Regal I was driving was a turbocharged, 2-liter inline four-cylinder with an impressive 258 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm that was more than satisfying off the line for a car in this class.
But I found its sport mode more frustrating than sporty. Under hard acceleration, the steering on this front-wheel-drive sedan gets a bit squirrelly. The automatic overdrive transmission was also slow to respond. And there was quite a bit of body roll in the canyons south of San Diego, where the roads were clear of traffic and the twists and curves beckoned. If only the Regal could truly heed the call.
Buick is attempting to shed its long-standing reputation for making boat-like granny-mobiles by highlighting performance to lure Gen Xers like me. But when it comes to sportiness, it's much better to under-sell and over-deliver than to claim to be something you're not — and the Regal is not a sports car. Rather, it's a comfortable mid-size sedan with some good grunt for green-light skirmishing to keep things interesting during an otherwise mundane commute. But the twisties push its limits.
I found the Regal's tour mode was most satisfying because the gear shifts were smoother and the overall ride was more comfortable. In fact, I thought comfort was the one quality that should be emphasized with the Regal. Instead it's underplayed, which is a shame because this Buick has a lot going for it.
It has 4 inches more leg room for passengers in the rear seat than its Acura and Volvo competition. Heated leather front seats, satellite radio, a seven-speaker stereo system, dual climate controls, Bluetooth, OnStar and steering-wheel controls for the phone and stereo are all standard, which is exceptional for its class. Cockpit amenities include a 40-gigabyte hard drive that enables drivers to pause and replay live radio. The turbo version I drove was a so-called flex-fuel vehicle, capable of being powered with gasoline or a gasoline-ethanol blend.
There's a lot to like about the 2011 Regal. I just wish Buick hadn't tried to do so many things. This car is the automotive equivalent of trying to cook dinner while talking on the phone and helping your kid with his homework. It's all worth doing, but not at the same time, because some things inevitably suffer.