EXECUTIVE EDITOR–AUTOWEEK.COM BOB GRITZINGER: Forget everything you ever thought you knew about Buicks, about Regals and about soft American near-luxury sedans. This 2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo does not fit the mold.
Instead, this Regal Turbo is a sporty hoot to drive, with a turbo-boosted, peppy four-cylinder under the hood, suspension settings that defy Buick-ocrity, a well-appointed interior that leans to driver support versus driver naptime, and–what the hell is this? A six-speed manual shifter poking up out of the center console? It’s enough to send you reaching for your heart medicine.
Buick has run a few superchargers out there in the past decade, but the last time the division offered a turbo engine was in the 1987 Regal and Regal Grand National, back when performance and Buick went together like Indy and 500. The last manual, Buick reminds us, was in the utterly forgettable 1990 Skylark. And never has Buick offered a turbo-engine-and-manual-trans combination. What in the name of David Dunbar Buick is going on?
Here’s what: General Motors has been cloning Buicks from Opels for a few years now, with the LaCrosse and the Regal as the primary beneficiaries. Now GM is daring to take it one step further, to push Buick outside the comfort zone and into a new world where Buick stands for something more than rolling lounge chair. With the Turbo manual, the company nails it.
The car is nothing short of astounding to drive, an unanticipated treat not unlike the feeling we get when we drive yet another really good Hyundai. Can it really be this good? Nah.
But yes, I’d argue, it is. Aside from the half-acre of black plastic and leather trim inside this test car (which isn’t bad, it’s just a dark place), there is nothing of note worth changing in the interior. I suspect some older drivers might be put off by the reflections of the dashboard trim in the windshield, but it’s only a problem under high-noon sunshine. But the twin-cockpit layout is handsome and functional, and the seats are well-trimmed and highly supportive. The steering wheel, pedals and shifter fall right where you want them.
Punching up sport mode gets you a noticeably dialed-up suspension and steering response, where actual road feel is transmitted into the cabin and up through the steering wheel. Stability controls and throttle response also are modified. The effect is evident, with road imperfections telegraphed into the cabin, along with how the suspension is responding under hard cornering and aggressive driving. Did I say that about a Buick? Yes, I did. Touring goes the other way, softening the blows, but not so much as to lull one into passivity. It is still far more reactive and responsive than any Buick that’s been on the road in the past 20 years.
Though it’d be nice to have a few more horses in the corral, the six-speed manual whips the most out of what’s there. There’s a touch of torque steer if you over-hammer it on uneven surfaces, but otherwise it’s a well-mannered, rev-happy four cylinder. The shifter is very direct with no real slop and the clutch is smooth with proper takeup.
This car is a capable competitor to the Acura TSX, but with a more handsome wrapper.
This might not be the limit of Buick’s insanity. Keep in mind there’s still the possibility of bringing to our shores a Buick version of the Opel Insignia OPC–the same car fitted with the same 325-hp turbo 2.8-liter V6, manual six-speed and all-wheel-drive system that Saab introduced in the Turbo X. We say, when? Waiting since 1987 for the next Grand National seems utterly unfair to a generation of enthusiasts.
ROAD TEST EDITOR NATALIE NEFF: Despite my insistence on calling this turbo Buick a GNX, I have different feelings about the car than Bob. First off, I cannot call it a “sporty hoot to drive,” for it’s neither sporty nor a hoot. It’s inoffensive, from a power standpoint, and somewhat appealing from a comfort-and-convenience perspective. Overall, it’s a perfectly respectable ride in a turbo-as-fuel-economy-rather-than-performance-booster sort of way.
But, that torque steer annoyed me! Very Saab-circa-1999-like. Not quite as bad as my 1990 Ford Probe, but then again, not much is. Just the fact that it made me reflect on the Probe is not a good thing. In fact, I didn’t much like the steering at all. I can’t remember being so put off by the steering in the last Regal that I drove, but it might just be that the torque peaks from the turbo exacerbated the effect.
MOTORSPORTS EDITOR MAC MORRISON: Compared with snoozer Buicks of recent years, the new Regal in any guise is as stylish and exciting as I would have ever dreamed, but I agree more with Natalie on this one. I haven’t driven a TSX recently enough to recall in detail all of its feel and response, but I believe the Regal CXL is a notch below it in terms of response and sportiness.
This turbo Regal indeed struck me as a competent, efficient and nice-looking cruiser more than a serious sports sedan. Of course, it is a serious sports sedan compared with other Buicks for years and years, but in the open marketplace, it’s a little too soft, at least in my opinion.
That “softness” applies to just about everything an enthusiastic driver takes note of: The steering feels a bit artificial, and the car does torque-steer, though I think it’s going too far to compare it with any old Saab. It’s not that bad. The shifter and clutch are soft and a bit on the rubbery side, though they are very easy to use smoothly. I am not a fan–not at all–of the button on the front of the shift knob that you must pull to slot the shifter into the reverse gate. That’s a silly, unnecessarily new solution that just adds a protrusion to the shift handle that I feel almost every time I shift. Why? What’s wrong with pushing down on the shifter to disengage the interlock, or using one of the other solutions employed across the industry, Buick? This one is a goofy idea. I don’t need to feel like I’m pulling a trigger while engaging reverse.
Power delivery is smooth, though obviously the engine doesn’t run hard to very high revs. The car stops well, and I was comfortable behind the wheel and able to find a good driving position easily. I do wonder about the flat-bottomed seats that, again, lean toward the soft side. I’m curious how comfortable I would be after two or so hours on a road trip.
Overall, Buick has a winner here, and I suspect most potential buyers will enjoy a test drive in it more than enough to sell them on taking it home, especially if they fall for the nice design. It’s certainly not a hard-core driver’s car, though it’s easily the most athletic Buick in ages.
2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo
Base Price: $29,495
As-Tested Price: $34,435
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4; FWD, six-speed manual
Output: 220 hp @ 5,300 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,768 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA/AW): 26/20.9 mpg