Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

PLYMOUTH, MI – Skeptics will say, “Here we go, again,” as General Motors Co. taps its German subsidiary Adam Opel GmbH for product to rebuild one of its brand’s showrooms in the U.S.

Clearly, it didn’t work for Saturn or Cadillac a decade earlier. But with the new-for-’11 Buick Regal, GM finally may have found the right home and, more importantly, the right strategy for injecting some Germanic soul into its American cars.

The new sports sedan arrives stateside in second-quarter 2010 after highly successful launches late last year in China and in Germany as the Opel Insignia.

The Insignia is drawing rave reviews on its home turf, where it ranks as the best-selling sedan in its class and since last November has racked up more than 30 awards, including European Car of the Year.

In China, the locally built Regal launched in December and has sold some 64,000 units. Young Chinese particularly are captivated by the Regal, keeping the average age of its buyers around 35 years – astonishingly low for Buick.

GM shows the U.S.-bound Regal to the public at the Los Angeles auto show this week after unwrapping the car earlier to journalists in Detroit and to Buick enthusiasts in L.A.

But before the Regal hits the full show circuit and ahead of formal testing next year, GM offered a handful of media several hours behind the wheel and, for comparison, its sister the Insignia. The Regal’s principle target in the U.S. is the Acura TSX.

Driving pre-production Regals along rural roadways outside of Detroit here makes it easier to understand why GM backed out of a deal to sell a majority stake in Opel to Canadian parts maker and contract vehicle-assembler Magna International Inc. In short, Opel makes a fine car.

The U.S.-spec Regal leverages the same Epsilon II platform, which also underpins the new-for-’11 Buick LaCrosse that launched in North America in September, but with subtle mechanical and design differences between its Chinese and German iterations.

For example, the engine is federalized to meet U.S. regulations, as are items such as the mirror glass and the guts of the headlights. But little differs in styling between the Insignia and Regal. Aside from the Buick grille and 3-shield badges, sheet metal is exactly the same.

In fact, Buick’s signature port holes will not get stamped into the Regal’s hood until production begins in North America in 2011. GM also installs an insert to the front bumper to fill the elongated European license plate basin until U.S. production begins.

The Regal’s design proves more striking out on the roadway with some morning rain splattered along its haunches than in GM’s advanced design studio, where Ward’s first glimpsed the car a few weeks ago.

Standard motivation comes via GM’s new 2.4L 4 cyl. engine with gasoline direct-injection technology, making 182 hp and 172 lb.-ft. (233 Nm) of torque. GM pegs its fuel economy at 20-30 mpg (11.8-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway on regular gasoline.

’11 Buick Regal
Vehicle type front-engine, 2WD 5-passenger sedan
Engine 2.0L turbocharged 4 cyl. w/gasoline direct injection
Power (SAE net) (SAE net) 220 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Torque 258 lb. ft. (349 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/manual mode
Wheelbase 107.8 ins. (273.8 cm)
Overall length 190.2 ins. (483.1 cm)
Overall width 73.1 ins. (185.7 cm)
Overall height 54.4 ins. (138.2 cm)
Curb weight 3,314 lbs. (1,503 kg)
Base price N/A
Fuel economy 18-29 mpg (13-8 L/100 km)
Competition Acura TSX
Pros Cons
Lively 4-cyl. turbo Best motor a late arrival
European styling Short on Buick styling
Yes! A U.S.-spec Opel Uh-oh! A U.S.-spec Opel

However, we test drove models with the optional 2.0L turbocharged GDI 4-cyl., which does not arrive until the third quarter of next year.

Our verdict is overwhelmingly positive. Making 220 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (349 Nm) of torque, the 2.0L mill is the kind of engine that will turn Buick skeptics into believers faster than three shots of Jagermeister.

Responsive and well-behaved, the car slings its 3,600-lb. (1,633-kg) weight through the corners and over pitches in the roadway with enthusiasm.

Yes, the suspension in the Buick is dialed down from the drum-tight setup of the Insignia. But this is not your granddad’s floaty-boaty Buick; the well-sprung suspension works together with a quick, precise steering system like no other vehicle to wear the three shields.

And one test model even included a 6-speed manual transmission. GM declines to offer a timetable for the Regal’s manual transmission. But if the gearbox makes it to the U.S., it will be the first since a 5-speed manual on the ’89 Buick Skyhawk.

Another first: no volume V-6 engine for this Buick.

Both transmissions match up well. The 6-speed automatic seems content to sit in the logical gear and not hunt for something higher, while the manual shifts quickly with a hint of the “click-click” ease of its European competitors.

GM estimates fuel economy with the 2.0L at 18-29 mpg (13-8 L/100 km) city/highway. Premium fuel is recommended but not required.

Base pricing is expected to slot just below the new LaCrosse that starts at roughly $28,000, which makes the Regal slightly less expensive than its Acura TSX rival.

GM also provides drive time here in an Insignia OPC model to demonstrate the possibilities for the Regal. The vehicle is outfitted with a 325-hp 2.8L V-6 engine, high-performance tires blacked out in NASCAR fashion, racing seats and a super-tight suspension.

It’s hardly surprising the Regal is such an impressive car, given that it is an exact duplicate of the smash-hit Insignia. In fact, not watering down the Buick to fit U.S. tastes easily ranks as its greatest attribute.

But it will take more products of the Regal’s ilk to erase Buick’s longstanding reputation for pillowy-riding large sedans with sloppy steering.

So it should hardly be surprising GM will go back to Germany for another small Buick sedan, this one based on the redesigned Delta compact car architecture shouldering the recently launched Opel Astra.

Have we seen this approach before? Sure, but this time it’s hard to argue with the results.

jamend@wardsauto.com