BY MARK MAYNARD
A four-cylinder Buick may not sound like sizzling news for this remaining brand of General Motors, but it is catching a wave. The Opel-sourced, midsize Buick Regal on its way across the ocean for a May debut in the United States will turn heads, drop jaws and cause comments, such as “That’s a Buick?”
The 2011 Regal is that good. But it is more than a shapely body. It has a smartly styled interior, all the electronic connectivity for the contemporary user and an overall impression of sound drivability and quality. It is also part of a trend-setting departure to offer powertrains of highly engineered, four-cylinder engines and shiftable six-speed automatic transmissions — but no V-6 option.
Regal is a Buick-tinged Opel Insignia. That car — in sedan, hatchback and wagon body styles — has been on sale in Europe for a year, where it was named Car of the Year. It also has been on sale in China as the Regal for almost a year, where it has earned eight awards and has accumulated sales of about 80,000 so far, with 17,000 in January.
“So if it screws up here (the United States), we’ve really done something wrong,” said Global Vehicle Line Executive and chief engineer Jim Federico, 52. He and Buick’s product manager, Craig Bierley, 48, are on the road to place the car in the hands of select auto publications and writers for some ink before the cars are delivered.
The Regal goes on sale in May after a 25-day transit from the factory in Russelsheim, Germany. Next year, production for North America moves to Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
The car is tony, taut and fresh — all of which are aspirational qualities for drivers in their 30s through 50s, whom Buick hopes to reach with this car.
When it comes to size, it has about the same footprint as the popular midsize sedans — Camry, Accord, Altima. Regal has a shorter wheelbase than the Chevrolet Malibu and a higher level of luxury content. Federico and Bierley say Regal is a closer comparison to the Acura TSX and Volvo S60.
The car will be sold in three (probably four) trim levels — CX, CXL and CXL Turbo — but the CXL will be first off the boat, followed by the Turbo this fall. By the time the CX goes on sale as a 2012 model, Bierley said its standard equipment will have been evolved to represent a new perception of entry-level luxury.
CXL pricing starts $26,995, which will include a leather-trimmed interior with 12-way, power-adjustable driver seat, 18-inch alloy wheels with Michelin Pilot MXM4 touring tires, and all the expected passive and active safety features to meet the standards of several continents.
The standard, 182-horsepower, 2.4-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder (also used in the heavier LaCrosse sedan) will accelerate to 60 mph in the mid-8 seconds. Fuel economy is good but not great: 18 mpg around town and 30 on the highway using 87 octane.
The CXL Turbo starts at $29,495 and is highlighted by 220-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter with dual exhaust and 19-inch wheels with performance tires. It also is available with a short-throw, six-speed manual with a hill-holder function.
With 258 foot-pounds of torque at 2,000 rpm, this engine has as much pulling power as many V-6 sedans, Federico said. “So why do we need a V-6?” The turbo model will do 0-60 mph in the mid-7 seconds and has an estimated fuel economy of 18/29 mpg on premium fuel.
Unique to this model will be the Interactive Drive Control System, which is a three-mode calibration to adjust suspension and performance. Normal mode is firm and compliant. Touring is “comfort” mode. And Sport is driver programmable to tighten the suspension and sharpen the response times of steering, shift points and throttle. Stability controls are relaxed to allow a little wheel slip when driving enthusiastically.
A brief drive in the manual Regal Turbo proved it can handle vigorous driving. A more intense GS model has been shown in concept form and is expected to go into production, though it hasn’t been “officially” announced. Longer range, there are plans to add another sedan smaller than Regal and a “baby” Enclave.
The current lineup — LaCrosse, Enclave crossover and large Lucerne sedan — represent the upward evolving direction of Buick. They couldn’t all have been lucky shots in the dark as the Old GM became the New GM. But it isn’t enough to offer a good car; it takes good marketing and advertising — and that takes money.
Now that the old-school branding of GM divisions has been dismantled and the playing field scorched clean by economic catastrophe, Buick could again be considered a desirable brand in the U.S. and not the beginning of boring-car jokes.
Trunk space: 14.2 cubic feet
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.8/42.1/56.7 inches
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 36.8/37.3/54.4 inches
Length/wheelbase: 190.2/107.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,600 pounds
Base: $26,995, including $750 freight charge
Where assembled: Russelsheim, Germany
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
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