What we think know Buick for, and what we should know Buick for, are two completely different things. I've driven just about every new Buick and somehow, when I think of the word "Buick," I still imagine a 1995 Roadmaster going 10 mph under the speed limit in the left lane of the highway, blinker flashing, the elderly driver barely able to peer over the steering wheel.
Yet, I know that's not what Buick is anymore, and that it's been a long time since Buick drivers met that stereotype Everything Buick makes these days ranges from at least pretty darn good to fantastic. Buick is positioning itself to be a premium automaker along the same lines as Acura and Lexus in some segments, leaving plenty of room for Cadillac to grow even further up top. The biggest hurdle it has to overcome is perception.
To do that, Buick introduced the Regal in 2011 as its biggest paradigm shift since the Grand National of the 1980s, a car that itself was quicker than a Corvette of the day. The new Regal is more or less a repackaged Opel Insignia from Europe that, we thought it was missing just enough spice that we couldn't help but whisper words of dismay about it when we drove it in 2011.
Now, Buick has thoroughly refreshed its midsizer in an attempt to reinvigorate sales and shift perception to draw Audi and Volvo into the conversation. We drove an pair of Regal Turbo and GS models to see whether it could hit the mark this time around.
Buick has pulled the lights outward in both the front and rear to accentuate the Regal's width, but it's also lowered the body and widen the stance of Regal GS models to give the car a mean appearance to match its macho appeal. We think it looks the European sports sedan part, probably because it was designed by GM Europe for a world audience. No heckles from our peanut gallery.
Now, Buick has given its entrant quite the refresh, which has gone great lengths to further marginalize any criticisms. Rather than being awash in buttons on the dashboard, Buick has cut the number down from 17 to seven, making all of them much easier to figure out while on the go. Our cars were preproduction prototypes, but given that consideration, they all felt quiet, solid, and sophisticated. All of the Turbo and GS cars we drove came equipped with an eight-inch IntelliLink infotainment screen, equipped with navigation, natural voice recognition that's markedly better than the old system, and satellite radio. In Turbo cars, a new 4.2-inch TFT diagnostic screen welcomes the driver, residing in the instrument cluster; GS models come with the same eight-inch unit from the bigger 2014 Lacrosse, allowing the speedometer to change in Sport and Touring modes.
The rest of the interior remains much as it did from last year, which is to say pretty good. Stitched soft-touch materials adorn door panels, and seats range from firm and supportive to aggressive and deeply bolstered in GS models. Rear leg room isn't too shabby, but like the Chevrolet Malibu upon which it is based, this isn't the sedan for those looking to maximize rear-seat legroom.
It's the exact same engine as you'll find in the Cadillac ATS and CTS, but it's a little less powerful due to exhaust ducting and computer programming. On the other hand, it has more torque, the stuff you'll notice when you're trying to haul ass down a long stretch of road.
The net effect is that the Regal Turbo is marginally quicker than the model it replaces, and the GS is net zero. That said, thanks to tires and programming that allows for the GS to hit its peak torque numbers 500 rpm sooner--295 pound-feet at 2,500 rpm with negligible turbo lag when equipped with the auto transmission--it's still quicker than the Turbo.
For 2014, both are now available with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system that channels most power up front until it senses slip. When gunning it from standstill, the cars quickly access peak power, chirping their tires at 20 to 30 mph through second and third gear until power reaches the rear. We noticed no torque steer in either front- or all-wheel-drive cars--the pulling left or right sensation caused by more power going to the front wheels than the car can handle--vindicating GM's hard work with making this chassis dance in all the right ways.
Where the two cars separate themselves is in suspension tuning. The Turbo rides firmly, but it's comfortable, compliant, and quickly soaks up bumps. It doesn't pillow you on top of tufts of clouds like Buicks of yore, however. Road feel through the suspension and steering wheel are good and are in many ways better than our $45,000 Volvo S60 long-termer.
The GS amplified those senses with an adjustable HiPer strut front suspension, adjustable steering rates, much grippier tires, and a tenacity that makes the car surprisingly fun to drive. Buick has gone to great lengths to hush the Ecotec engine under the Regal's hood, and while some of its drone is still noticeable, it's now on par with other four-cylinder premium cars when it comes to sound quality--not quite the uncorked evil diabolical note a GM V-8 makes, but definitely tolerable. Much improved from last year are the Regal GS's Sport and GS suspension modes, which don't feel considerably different from one another. Compared to the spine-crushing GS mode in the 2013 model, both handle as well as, if not better, than the old car, but they don't have any of the drawbacks associated with a sportier ride that plagued the 2012 model.
If we were to pit our long-term Volvo against the GS, dollar-for-dollar, we'd have to say that the Buick has a bit more hustle and enthusiasm in motion, proving a worthy backroad companion in both front- and all-wheel-drive forms and with the six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission available. Unfortunately, the stick and the all-wheel drive aren't available together, but with somewhat long, notchy throws, some might prefer the auto anyway. We felt both had their place.
Where we pull back with some hesitation is when Buick starts loading up some models. At just over $31,000 with standard leather seats, the Regal Turbo is a screaming deal. Don't confuse this for just a tarted-up Chevy Malibu.
And even completely loaded up, a GS all-wheel-drive, including active cruise control in what Buick calls its Driver Confidence I and II packages can ring in at more than $45,000. That's technically quite a bargain against the less powerful, softer Audi, but this Buick doesn't yet carry the panache of the German brand, and we're not sure if pricing it against one makes sense yet. The 2014 Buick Regal is a darn fine sports sedan, but when we still have trouble shaking the 1990s brand perception despite all of the Regal's strengths, all we can hope is that more people in the buying spirit aren't like us. And that Buick's marketers can pull some miracles, because despite the optimistic pricing, this car is genuinely one of the more pleasant and enjoyable entry lux sedans we've driven in a while. We hope the shoppers discover that for themselves.
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