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.