As soon as Joachim Winkelhock burst out of the pits and toward Hatzenbach, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those tame exercises where a racing driver leads a procession of journalists at a funereal pace around the track, trying to familiarize them with every corner and desired racing line in a boring game of follow-the-leader. There was no time for such formalities, since the Nordschleife was booked and we were squeezing our drives into someone’s lunch hour. Not to mention the fact that the ‘Ring has some seventy-three turns and is thirteen miles around. Winkelhock’s voice came crackling over the two-way radio with these simple instructions: “Try to stay close to me and follow my line as best you can.” And with that, I followed Winkelhock’s Opel Insignia OPC performance sedan out onto the track in a four-cylinder Buick.
A Buick? On the Nordschleife? As comical as that notion might be, the new Buick Regal was surprisingly good in this unlikeliest of environments, and I wasn’t even driving the sportiest version. Body control, directional stability, brake pedal feedback, and steering feel were, if not to the level of the BMW 3-Series, fully up to the job of very spirited laps, and the eighteen-inch Michelin Pilot MXM4 tires weren’t overly tasked. Sure, I had to flog the modest, 182-hp, 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine and furiously bang the six-speed automatic gearbox’s lever up and down its manual shift gate between second and fourth gears, and the fastest speed I could summon on the long straight heading into Tiergarten, where serious racing cars approach 200 mph, was only 120 mph. But I had my best laps ever at the Nordschleife in this, my fourth visit. For that, I equally credit Winkelhock’s intimate knowledge of the track – he is a two-time winner of the Nürburgring’s twenty-four-hour race – and the Regal’s impressive chassis composure.
That chassis is a familiar one, as the Regal is based on GM’s global Epsilon II architecture, and the first year’s production for the States is being built at GM’s Rüsselsheim, Germany, plant alongside the highly regarded, Epsilon-based Opel Insignia. We’ll have to wait until mid-2011 – when Regal production moves to Oshawa, Ontario – for a production version of the high-performance Regal GS that debuted at this year’s Detroit auto show and that promises to be as fun to drive as the Insignia OPC. Unlike that car, which has a 321-hp, turbocharged V-6, our GS will get a version of GM’s Ecotec turbo four making at least 255 hp. “I intend to wring every bit of power out of it that I can,” claims Regal chief engineer Jim Federico. For now, a tamer version of the Ecotec making 220 hp arrives in August mated to an Aisin six-speed automatic (the 2.4-liter’s gearbox is a GM-built Hydra-Matic). An optional six-speed manual follows this fall. The last time Buick offered a manual transmission was so long ago that no one at the company seems to remember when it was.
Interestingly, Buick benefited from GM’s bankruptcy and Saturn’s demise, as the next-generation Saturn Aura instead became this Buick Regal. The Aura was slated to get the 2.4-liter four as its base engine along with an optional V-6, and at the same time, Federico was tweaking the 2.0-liter Ecotec turbo for the Saab 9-5. A newly lean GM certainly wasn’t going to let all that good engineering go to waste.
“For people who ask, ‘where’s my V-6?’ ” advises Federico in regard to the turbo four, “It’s here.” After two hours driving a Regal CXL 2.0T on the autobahn, we’d say that’s not much of a stretch. The direct-injected engine mates brilliantly to the six-speed automatic and eagerly raced toward the 6350-rpm redline as we mixed it up with BMWs and Audis at up to 130 mph, yet it was spinning at a relatively calm 3500 rpm at 112 mph. Not for one moment did we wish for six cylinders under the hood.
There’s not a lot to wish for here, actually. The Regal’s interior is quite nicely designed and finished but still falls slightly short of Volkswagen standards. And you might have a hard time getting past the Buick badge, although the sculpted sheetmetal – also done in Germany, but by a British designer – ought to ameliorate that concern. Buick sales chief Craig Bierley has his work cut out for him, though, because “sporty Buick” has heretofore been an oxymoron.
You might wish for the Regal GS to arrive sooner, but the CXL 2.0T, which starts at $29,495, equipped with the $1250 IDCS (Interactive Drive Control System) gets you close. IDCS provides “sport” and “tour” buttons on the center console; allows you to custom-program steering feel, throttle and gearshift patterns, and other dynamic settings; and includes continuous damping control (CDC), which tightens damper rebound for a tauter ride.
That said, I’d like to be first behind the wheel of a Regal GS – which in addition to the power bump will get all-wheel drive and further brake and suspension upgrades – on the Nordschleife. After riding in the back seat of an OPC sedan that was being pushed to its limits around the ‘Ring by Winkelhock, I know that there’s an even better Buick on the way.
On sale: Now
Price: $26,995/$29,495 (CXL 2.4L/CXL 2.0T)
EngineS: 2.4L I-4, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft; 2.0L turbo I-4, 220 hp, 258 lb-ft
Fine in China
Buick is booming in the People’s Republic.
Over the past decade, as GM’s fortunes in North America declined, its sales in China grew from 31,794 cars in 2000 to 1,826,424 in 2009. Buick has been instrumental in that success and now sells four times as many cars in China-447,011 in 2009-than in the States. In fact, the Regal was introduced in China first, in late 2008, and GM has already sold more than 100,000 of them there. Whereas we have four Buick models, China has seven, ranging in price from $14,000 to $87,000 (for a loaded Enclave) and including a version of GM’s old “dust-buster” minivan called the GL8 that has been successfully marketed as a chauffeur vehicle. The average age of Buick customers is about thirty-two years, half what it is here, and the brand enjoys residual prestige from the pre-Revolution days, when it was a favorite of emperors and other political leaders.
At a spacious and modern Buick dealership in the Beijing suburbs, Gao Yu, 25, explained that she bought her bright red Regal, which matched her bright red coat, because it was “safe and fashionable.” She paid 230,000 RMB ($33,700) in cash; financing is rare. Xu Zhijun, a 41-year-old finance analyst for a construction company, got his first driver’s license only a year ago and was bringing in his LaCrosse, for which he paid $41,000, also in cash, for service. David Shi, Buick’s marketing chief for China, was on hand to give us his own personal perspective: “When I started working in 1982,” he recalled, “my fondest hope was that my wife and I might someday have nicer bicycles-ones with 28-inch wheels. I never dreamed I would have a car.” Now he has three: an Enclave for himself, a LaCrosse for his wife, and a Chevy Cruze for his son.