An attractive sportback with impressive all-wheel drive
With the 2018 Buick Regal, maybe the Americans have figured out how to make a sexy hatchback after all
Sometimes, with a new car, it just takes one small thing to ruin the whole package. You have to feel sorry for the engineers who sweat the details of the transmission to make it great, or write the millions of lines of computer code to tweak its responses just so.
All that hard work, just to be ruined by a sun visor.
It's a little thing to be sure, but when you're on a test drive and the sun is beside you, beating through the window into your peripheral vision, and the visor doesn't include an extender, or pull out on its swivel bar (like in the Buick Enclave and practically every other vehicle on the market) – when it can't block the window to the B-pillar, well, that's a deal-breaker.
I mentioned this to Buick's national product manager down here in Texas and he looked glum. "It was a decision made by my predecessor," Mike Danowski said, "and it was too late for me to change it." Couldn't he just sign a work order and change the visor on tomorrow's production run? He looked even more glum. "Nothing ever happens quickly in the automotive business," he explained, "but I'd like to see it changed as soon as possible."
It took around four years to bring the new Buick Regal from concept to production, and it broke through plenty of barriers to make it onto these twisty roads in Texas hill country. Its shape, for a start. Buick calls it a " sportback" because the entire cargo door lifts from the back of the roof, including the rear window, to create considerably more luggage space. I folded down the 60/40-split rear seats and put a bicycle in the back with ease.
Just, whatever you do, don't call it a hatchback. "Consumer research says that's very negative. A hatchback technically is more vertical. It's an image of a box," Danowski said. "Yes, it's a hatch, but it looks like a sedan, so it's more sporty. It's a coupe-like sedan, so that's where we came up with 'sportback'."
In China, the new Regal will still be sold as a sedan with a traditional enclosed trunk, but not in North America. Americans like the practicality of a hatch but hate the term. In Europe, where the new Regal is assembled in Germany and sold with different powertrains and interiors as an Opel Insignia, they love hatchbacks. Vive la différence.
The sportback is an attractive shape, whatever you want to call it. It's coming available at Buick dealers now, starting at $31,845 for the Preferred II trim with front-wheel drive. I drove the better-equipped Essence here, which starts at $37,345 and is only available in Canada with all-wheel drive.
It's a very good AWD system, too. Buick put an AWD Regal on a set of rollers here, leaving only the left rear wheel on the ground, and it found traction and drove away; an Audi A5 was parked on the same setup and the car was stuck spinning its wheels. In fairness, you can pay extra for the Audi's sport differential that will do the trick to free it up, but the price difference will be huge.
"We didn't have to reinvent the wheel, but we did have to correctly identify what our customers want, and put together the system that would react as we want it to," said the Regal's lead engineer, Mike Mueller.
"The system is pretty cool in that you've got that twin clutch, and you can push power or torque to any of the four wheels you need to get it to."
Buick's presenters here were fond of terms like "game-changer" and "Buick finds the white space that nobody else is offering yet." In practice, though, the new Regal Essence is not an exciting car. It handles very well indeed, staying flat around corners and responsive at the wheel, but its 2.0-litre, 250 hp turbocharged engine is no more or less than what's needed for the job.
In AWD, the calibration is tweaked to provide extra torque, jumping to 295 lbs.-ft. from 260 in FWD, but there's no Sport setting for the drive mode. For that, you have to buy the GS version, which will arrive in a few months time and start at $43,845. The GS promises a much more stimulating drive, with digital instrumentation and the more powerful V6 engine from the Lacrosse.
Sadly, we won't be getting the Buick Regal TourX, which is a good-looking wagon version of the sportback that will be sold in the U.S. General Motors Canada thought the appeal would be just too small north of the border, though privately, some of the American staffers here thought that was another mistake. If there's enough demand, it could come to Canada next year.
- Base price/as tested: $31,845 / $37,345
- Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
- Transmission/Drive: 9-speed automatic with front-wheel drive/8-speed automatic with all-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): FWD: 10.7 City, 7.4 Hwy; AWD: 11.0 City, 8.0 Hwy
- Alternatives: Acura TLX, Audi A5, BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe, VW CC
Call it what you like, but the sportback style is both attractive and practical. Maybe the Americans have figured out how to make a sexy hatchback after all.
The analogue gauges, shiny chrome brightwork and relatively small display screens were lost on me. The car felt like the entry-level trim, though it was the higher-end Regal Essence model. The seats are comfortable, though, and there's space in the back for two six-foot adults to sit without bumping their heads or locking up their knees – impressive for a car with a sloped rear profile.
The chassis delivers very good handling, but the engine doesn't match up. Paddle shifters would be welcome for some quick downshifting, instead of jogging up and down with the standard lever, but they won't even be available with the sporty GS version. It was a trade-off for the heated steering wheel, apparently.
The all-wheel drive is impressive, and the car is fully connected, as you'd expect. In the U.S., GM offers "Marketplace", which lets you order at Starbucks from the screen and constantly delivers special offers from nearby merchants ("a free doughnut this morning with your coffee at Dunkin' Donuts!") but this isn't available in Canada yet. Thank God.
Definitely a practical advantage over any sedan and much of the competition. There's 892 litres of space with the rear seats in place, and 1,719 litres when they're folded flat.
A good car, not a great car.