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2012 Buick Regal. (GM/General Motors)
2012 Buick Regal. (GM/General Motors)

Road Test

2012 Buick Regal: GM sweats the small stuff Add to ...

I am in the early stages of writing a new business book entitled Sweat the Details and the Big Stuff Will Take Care of Itself. And there, too, is a tag-line to describe the 2012 Buick Regal with the eAssist system. The details. It’s all about the details.

We tend to forget this notion, or overlook it entirely, in an age where “big thinkers” are lauded over the detail-oriented – the latter often maligned as nit-pickers. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that excellence is found in picking the nits and getting them right. Nailing the small stuff takes energy and commitment and focus and hard, hard work.

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And this is the story of the Regal with General Motors so-called “light electrified” technology. GM argues that all the finely tuned details here deliver great bang for the buck compared to full hybrids. In fact, eAssist may have a serious future at GM. Perhaps eAssist will become GM’s base power train in the near future. Certainly, GM has massaged the details in ways that deliver a 20 per cent fuel economy bump with a tidy performance benefit.

So to those details. The Regal eAssist starts with a 2.4-litre gas engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. We’re talking 182 horsepower, which is plenty for 1,641 kg near-premium sedan. In eAssist form, the four-banger has direct fuel injection, a 115-volt lithium-ion battery and a 15-kilowatt motor-generator in place of a conventional alternator. The latter is belt-driven from the engine’s crankshaft.

These elements allow for a stop-start function which saves plenty of fuel. Why? Various experts suggest that 15-20 per cent of a vehicle’s fuel is burned while idling in stalled traffic. Stop the engine, stop the wasted fuel burn. The direct fuel injection allows the 2.4-litre to restart in 200-300 milliseconds, which is just about the instant traffic starts to flow and you need go-power. Regenerative braking help charge the battery.

GM says your real-world fuel economy savings in an eAssist Regal amount to 20 per cent – 8.3 litres/100 km city fuel economy, 5.4 on the highway, versus 10.7 city/6.3 highway for a Regal with only the 2.4-litre engine. Regular fuel, of course.

The eAssist system accounts for about half of that fuel economy bump. Now to more details.

GM’s design staff made the Regal slipperier with a tidier underbody and a single-outlet, stainless steel exhaust with a hidden, turned-down tip. I know these are small aerodynamic things, but they adds to the car’s efficiency.

As for the human factor, the instrument cluster has an “ECO” gauge that monitors your driving manners and encourages you to be more efficient. It’s a bit of a finger-wagger, one designed as much to make you feel guilty about racing about. GM says it is there to “encourage greater driving efficiency.” If you want to know what the eAssist system is doing, a “Powerflow” readout tells you via the colour infotainment screen or the driver information centre.

This brings me to the power benefits of eAssist. You see, the juice stored in the lithium-ion battery also delivers an electrical boost when you need a little extra oomph – 15 horsepower’s worth, in fact. Thus, GM’s self-proclaimed “green” eAssist technology also acts like a little supercharger when you need to merge quickly into traffic and the like.

The flip side to having extra power on tap is this: a 2.64:1 final-drive gear ratio. It lowers engine speeds on the highway, again contributing to fuel efficiency. Details, details, details.

If that’s not enough about the little things, consider that when the driver selects ECO mode for the air conditioning, the engine can stop more frequently and for longer durations; you’re not burning power with the A/C blasting. If you don’t mind sweating a little, turn off the A/C entirely.

The Regal’s eAssist is an impressive piece of work. The car is quick and responsive and solid. The Regal, assembled in Oshawa, Ont., is a North Americanized version of the German-designed Opel Insignia and it shows. Germans consider themselves savvy drivers in the mould of Michael Schumacher – at least the ones I know – and that means their cars do not feel flabby and loose and imprecise, but rather tight and entertaining. That’s the Regal. Entertaining.

And safe. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates the Regal among its Top Safety Picks. Buicks across the line have also been delivering strong quality numbers for years now – amongst the very best of anything from Detroit and even from around the world. So this one is safe and should be reliable.

But it’s not cheap. At $34,335 to start, the Regal eAssist comes at a $3,600 price premium versus a comparably equipped base Regal. That is a stiff price premium for a 20 per cent fuel economy bump. Although, if fuel prices keep rising as predicted, the fuel savings payback will come at a faster clip.

Or GM could just lower the price premium to get more people buying in. Just a last detail to consider.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech Specs: 2012 Buick Regal eAssist

Type: Entry-luxury sedan

Base price: $34,335 ($1,495 freight)

Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 182 hp/172 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Electric drive: 120-amp electric motor (15 hp) and 115-volt lithium ion battery pack

Drive: Front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.3 city/5.4 highway using regular fuel

Alternatives: Volvo S60, Acura TSX, Lexus IS250

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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