Today was the fourth time I've driven on the Nurburgring Nordschleife, the famously challenging, 13-mile racetrack in the Eifel Mountains of Germany. I had only two laps, but they were among the best I've had there, and they were in the unlikeliest of cars: the new 2011 Buick Regal. Yep, a Buick at the 'Ring. Who woulda thunk?
This was Automobile Magazine's first time behind the wheel of a production-spec version of the new Regal, which is now rolling off the assembly line at GM's Opel plant in Russelsheim, Germany, and goes on sale in May. The Regal is the product of a global vehicle-development program headed up by GM veteran engineer Jim Federico that already has produced the Buick LaCrosse for both the United States and China and the Regal for China, where it went on sale more than a year ago. The Regal is built on the latest version of the Epsilon platform that also underpins the Chevy Malibu and the Opel Insignia and was largely designed and engineered by GM's Opel unit, but the Detroit-based Federico orchestrated the entire development process, so this is nothing like the Opel Astra that was handed over to the now-defunct Saturn division with a batch of replacement badges that were to magically transform it into a Saturn. Nope, the 2011 Buick Regal is much more than that.
What it is, it turns out, is a very well tuned, near-luxury sport sedan that, in terms of sheer driving pleasure, surpasses anything else in its class made in Detroit these days, not to mention imports like the Acura TSX and the Lexus ES350. Federico and his eager team in Russelsheim have done their homework. After all, this chassis was also until recently intended to serve as the basis for the next-generation Saab 9-5 and, in fact, the Regal was originally supposed to be the next-generation Saturn Aura in North America. Those plans were scuttled when GM put Saturn up for sale in the midst of its 2009 bankruptcy, but since Buick was given a new lease on life in the States, it needed new product and the Epsilon platform team was happy to oblige.
With many miles of development testing at both Opel's Dudenhofen proving ground and at the Nurburgring, the Regal emerged as a surprisingly fun sedan that has little in common with your grandmother's Buick. GM has gone in a new direction with the Regal's powertrains; there's no V-6, only two direct-injection, four-cylinder engines, but believe it or not there will be an optional manual transmission, the first shift-for-yourself gearbox in a Buick in decades, starting sometime this fall.
The base engine, a 2.4-liter four making 182 hp, is mated to a six-speed automatic. The gearbox gets a gold star, but the 2.4-liter gets only a passing grade. For your average driver making an average commute over average roads, it will be just fine, but it runs out of breath at higher speeds and doesn't sound great when you push it.
A much better choice is coming in August: a turbocharged version of GM's 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder making 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. This engine is not just better than the 2.4-liter; it's a LOT better. It's worth the wait and the $2500 premium, and it suffers only a one-mpg penalty compared with the base engine. Although the 2.0-liter turbo hasn't yet been rated by the EPA, Federico expects it to get 19 city, 29 highway, versus the 2.4-liter's 20/30 rating.
The 2.0-liter turbo four works exceptionally well across its rev range and mates brilliantly with the six-speed automatic. There is a manual shift gate for the gearbox, but no paddles. On the freeway, there's plenty of torque for most situations if you just leave it in Drive; I had no problem accelerating between 80 and 130 mph on the Autobahn, and the engine sounded like it would be happy to maintain triple-digit speeds all day. For those of us who kvetched for years that GM couldn't -- or simply wouldn't -- make a decent four-cylinder engine, the turbo Ecotec is especially satisfying. Dipping into the throttle over and over again as our entourage raced back toward Wiesbaden as the sun set over vast fields of blooming rapeseed, I couldn't quite get over the fact that I was driving a Buick that was running in the fast-moving flow of BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes-Benzes, and yet I didn't feel the least bit deprived. The engine gladly races toward its 6500-rpm redline whenever it's summoned, but it settles into a relatively modest 3500-rpm thrum at 110 mph. The brakes had good pedal feel and suffered no fade over repeated hard Autobahn use.
As for the Nurburgring drive, I drew the short straw and was delegated to a 2.4-liter car rather than a turbo model. That was the bad news. The good news was, I played follow-the-leader with Joachim Winkelhock, a former winner at Le Mans and a two-time winner of the Nurburgring 24-hour race. Following his racing line as closely as I could, I had a blast in the Buick and was amazed by the Regal's body control, brake pedal modulation, and overall composure, even if I had to cane the 2.4-liter without mercy to keep up with the pro leading the way. Meaty 18-inch tires provided good grip, and yet the Regal's on-road ride was supple, even with the optional 19-inch rubber.
I'd love to go back to the 'Ring in a Regal with the 2.0-liter turbo and the optional IDCS (Interactive Drive Control System), which costs $1250 and provides "sport" and "touring" buttons on the center console and also allows you to custom-program steering feel, throttle and gearshift patterns, and other dynamic settings. Continuous damper control (CDC) is part of this package and retards damper rebound for a tighter ride.
That 'Ring drive might have to wait for the even hotter version of the Regal that's on the drawing board. Likely to be labeled the Regal GS, this future variant (think mid-2011) will get a tuned version of the 2.0-liter four. How tuned? Federico only will say "I intend to wring every bit of power out of it that I can" without unduly compromising fuel economy or the "balance" that he thinks a Buick needs. With standard all-wheel drive, beefed-up brakes and suspension, sport seats, and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, the Regal GS might just give the Audi S4 something to worry about next year. If the GS is as good a car as the European-market Opel Insignia OPC that is the inspiration for its development team -- and which Winkelhock gave me a hot lap in at the 'Ring -- we really have something to look forward to.
Disappointments? The Regal's interior is handsome, well-designed, and a huge leap over Buicks of the recent past, but it lacks the pizzazz of the new LaCrosse interior, and its plastics fall a bit short of those in not only cars like the Volkswagen Passat but even the Hyundai Genesis. The seats are very comfortable and supportive, though, and the back seat is reasonably roomy. The center console lid can get in the way of your elbow and wrist if you're shifting the manual gate; flipping it open and back helps alleviate this but is hardly an ideal solution. And with an asking price of just under $30,000, the turbo four-cylinder model isn't cheap, although it does come quite well equipped. The 2.4-liter starts at about $27,000, and for the 2012 model year, once North American Regal production shifts to GM's Oshawa, Ontario, plant, a model undercutting the CXL will be introduced; one assumes it will come in at less than $25,000.
Those quibbles aside, the Regal, a nameplate that not long ago was synonymous with GM mediocrity, is now a symbol for what GM can do right, and do well.
2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo
Base price/as tested: $29,495/$30,745
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4
Horsepower: 220 hp
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA rating (city/highway, estimated): 19/29 mpg