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First Drive: 2011 Buick Regal

Barreling down a Michigan back road on Thursday afternoon, we happened upon an older Buick Lesabre trundling along at well below the speed limit. "Ugh, Buick driver," my navigator huffed as we pulled over to let the lane clear.

This wouldn't have been an unusual occurrence - Michigan boasts a large fleet of rusting domestic sedans. Funny thing, though: my passenger was a General Motors engineer, and I was behind the wheel of the new 2011 Buick Regal.

The Regal is, without a doubt, a very different kind of Buick. Developed on the same basic platform and by the same Opel engineers as the capable LaCrosse, this new, smaller sedan has its own distinct mission. Whereas the LaCrosse was always intended for American and Chinese markets, the Regal is primarily sold on the Continent as the Opel Insignia (and in England under the Vauxhall brand). In other words, the Regal was engineered by Europeans, for Europeans. The Regal is four inches shorter than the LaCrosse and has a lower roofline, but it measures the same in width. Most important, its strut front, multilink rear suspension is tuned less for Lexus-like comfort and more for Volkswagen Passat-beating handling.

To give us an idea of how the Regal drives and hint at what we can expect from the product line in the future, Buick let us sample a whole range of U.S. and European-spec cars. And just to get our mouths watering a bit, it had on hand a 325-hp, all-wheel-drive Opel Insignia OPC.

Stepping into any Regal or Insignia, one quickly gains an appreciation for how far GM has come in globalizing and generally improving its parts bin. Whereas past Opel-based products, such as the Saturn Astra, have been hampered by confounding, decidedly foreign interiors, the Regal's dual-cove dash, leather-trimmed steering wheel, and somewhat busy but well laid-out center stack will be instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time with a LaCrosse or even a Chevrolet Equinox. Thankfully, there are also touches of European flair. The stylish, nicely bolstered seats and steeply raked roofline in particular seem to borrow heavily from Opel's German competitors. Initially, all Regals will come with well-equipped leather interiors. Sorry, no bench seats.

The Regal distinguishes itself from its GM stablemates -- and many other mainstream mid-size sedans -- as soon as the roads turn curvy and speeds increase. The steering on the OPC in particular firms up considerably and, on every model, transmits actual road information. Even cars with base suspensions felt buttoned-down and quick to respond to lane-changing maneuvers. The turbocharged 2.8-liter V-6 in the OPC was no doubt the straightaway king, but we actually preferred the lighter and freer-revving 2.0-liter turbo four that will be available on the Regal soon after launch (a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder will be standard). Acceleration from the 220-hp turbo isn't explosive, but like four-cylinder Volkswagen sedans such as the Jetta and the CC, the Regal feels quite a bit quicker than its specifications would suggest. That's especially true when the engine is paired with the optional six-speed manual gearbox. Yes, you read that right. Although it won't be available at launch, buyers will almost certainly be able to order their Buick Regal with a manual transmission - and a pretty good one at that.

Our only disappointment lies with the slight but noticeable difference in the way the U.S.-spec car rides. The issue isn't so much with the ride itself, as the Regal does an excellent job absorbing Michigan's potholes and frost heaves without the slightest hint of wallowing. But in order to achieve that balance, GM engineers retuned the dampers and installed a different rear anti-roll bar. When we climbed into an untouched Opel Insignia, it became all too apparent what the Regal gives up. Yes, the Insignia lets in more road harshness, but it also provides an even larger dose of steering feel and exhibits more composure at high speeds and under hard acceleration. We should note that there was also a noticeable disparity in the condition of the test cars - the Opels were new 2010 production models, while the "Buicks" were well-loved development mules. That said, we feel Buick should trust that American luxury buyers - who have had no problem snapping up Audis and BMWs with stiffer suspensions - can handle the Insignia's extra bit of firmness.

Quibbles aside, the Regal is an impressive vehicle and an unprecedented effort for GM. And it should only get better. More powerful engines, hybrids, and hotter suspension setups are all on the table, thanks in no small part to GM's reaffirmed access to Opel. Of course, none of this will happen unless Buick, whose average customer is fifty-seven years old, proves able to market a European sport sedan unlike anything it's sold before. Still, we have hope that some younger driving enthusiasts will be able to warm to the idea of owning a Buick. If they do, we might soon have a completely new definition for "Buick driver."