2011 Buick Regal – Built for Autobahn, Tested on QE2 [REVIEW]


Take away the tri-shield badge on the grille and trunk, and we’re left with a German car by any other name.

It’s German car to rival the perennial near-lux champ, the Volkswagen Passat. A German car built for the limitless speeds of the Autobahn. A German car… from GM.

Really. Virtually unscathed in the trans-Atlantic crossing, the award-winning Opel Insignia has become the Buick Regal. In its home country, it is an middle manager’s family sedan. Here, it is burdened with one of General Motors’ 4 remaining North American badges and undeniably the one badge with the most baggage: Buick’s. It’s your father’s car, it’s your grandfather’s car, it’s just not your car. Or so the story used to go.

With the new Regal, rather than develop an all-new, all-expensive vehicle to compete here at a time when bankruptcy was the word, GM took this opportunity to do what it has often done: rebadge. Even with the shorter development times that rebadging entails, we still have to remember that this vehicle was conceived in the darkest days the company has ever seen. Right when the escalators at Detroit’s RenCen were being shut off to save on electricity costs, this very car was being tossed around the boardroom like a kid in a bouncy castle.

The result is a vehicle that is being marketed to the Acura TSX crowd, a bunch of young professionals looking to display their rising wealth and emergence from university debt. But what does a Buick badge say to people who’ve probably never owned an American car, and frankly wouldn’t consider it?

For me, this was my first opportunity to spend any significant amount of time behind the wheel of a Buick, so I decided to give the company a clean slate to work with. I mean, why not? They were generous enough to give me the keys for a week; it was the least I could do. So I forgot whatever little I knew about the brand and I focused my sights firmly on the black ‘bahn-stormer before me.

I also decided to take the Regal on a trip down Her Majesty’s Highway: the Queen Elizabeth II Highway that runs from Edmonton to Calgary, formerly known as Highway 2. If this was just a lightly re-skinned Opel built for Germany’s harrowing high-speed highways, surely the QE2 would be nothing but a chuckle.

I would also use this opportunity to visit my old roommate, Geoff, who moved back to Calgary after 2 years in Edmonton. Having owned a 1991 Buick Regal, lovingly named The Purple P*ssy Pounder, Geoff would also provide a perspective within the context of the Regal nameplate that Buick chose to revive for this car. For my trip, the Regal would need to be soothing and worry-free because I would arrive at Geoff’s house and be instantly launched into a brutally-contested battle of NHL11.

I left my downtown digs at 2:30pm on Friday and weaved my way through the surfeit of work-skippers and lolly-gaggers. Making my way through dense city traffic wasn’t facilitated by the bulbous A-pillars and laughably small side mirrors. In fact, the side mirrors were so contrarily petite that I was tempted to name them after Snow White characters. And I don’t mean the evil Queen.

Despite the mirrors, I eventually made my way onto Calgary Trail, which bleeds south into QE2: Her Majesty’s Highway. I could go off on a complete tangent at this point about the recent name-change of the highway that panders only to a 80-some year-old woman who could care less about a strip of tarmac in the desolate Colonies, but I’ll restrain myself.

The first feature that I really appreciated out on the open road was the seamless iPhone/iPod integration. Never before had I used a non-Apple multimedia system that worked exactly as I would have hoped. For all the rhetoric that GM is a dinosaur of a company, they flat-out nailed this bit of technology integration. In no time I was thumping the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy through the surprisingly competent sound system. The Regal might not be quite as futuristic as a light cycle or The Grid, but it certainly allows the driver to indulge in a bit of escapism.

Next to be noticed was the seats, despite the adjustable lumbar support, the seats absolutely killed by back. I just couldn’t find a comfortable seating position, so I found myself constantly shifting my weight to relieve the nagging pain. My back often tightens up on road trips, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. That is until I drove the GMC Sierra Denali from Edmonton to Winnipeg (review coming soon) and never experienced a moment of discomfort the whole way. Clearly, GM’s North American division understands the demands of our endless highway network better than their German counterparts.

Although the QE2 is far from the smoothest road, and this past summer saw large portions of it resurfaced, the Regal had its work cut out for it to isolate the driver from wind, tire, and road noise. Wind noise, despite the Bridgestone Blizzaks fitted, was dulled, leaving a highway ride that facilitated conversation, even if it was only with my voice recorder. Despite the quiet ride, the suspension was more inclined to hop over cracks in the pavement, rather than glaze over them. The lumpy QE2 surface resulted in sharp rebounding of the suspension, but no more than a similarly priced and sized Passat CC.

Speaking of the Passat CC, during my time with the Regal, I started to wonder if the Americanized Opel could be seen as a dark-horse competitor to the svelte VeeDub. The Regal possessed many of the same qualities that people flock to VW for, yet the Regal should prove more reliable and it has a vastly more comprehensive dealer network and warranty. The Regal is also less expensive up front, buoyed further by constantly attractive lease and finance options, but resale value of the German GM product won’t be as favourable. Still, the Regal presents an intriguing alternative to VW, probably a first for GM.

By methods that still aren’t entirely clear to me, I eventually navigated my way through Red Deer and through Airdrie when the sunlight finally faded at the exact same time as I entered the province’s blanket of southern snow. The Regal’s headlights pierced the horizontal tornadoes of snow trailing the QE2 semis and I squeezed through a few blind gaps until the street lights at the sprawling edges of Calgary made up for the lost sun. Edging my way through late rush hour traffic, the 2.4L quieted down, cooled off, and slid into the residential neighbourhood where Geoff and his lovely girlfriend reside.

After some small talk and some further catching up, Geoff and I dove for the couches, cracked open NHL11, and proceeded to engage in the kind of verbal abuse that would get you sued for defamation in the lower 48. Some of the contests were close, even going as far as a shoot-out, and others were blow-outs, but all were heated. After crushing Geoff with an 8-0 win, the conversation naturally leaned towards the newest member of the Buick range. As I mentioned earlier, Geoff was once a Regal owner himself, so I was eager to hear his thoughts.

We both agreed that the interior was nicely laid out and solid feeling, but wasn’t quite up to VW levels. Although with VW’s recent de-contenting and cheapening of its products for the North American market, first with the 2011 Jetta and now with the 2012 Passat, the Regal might jump to the front while standing still.

We also agreed that the armrests and window switches were built for T-Rex people with little stubs for arms, not lanky young professionals with 6’3” wingspans. When I asked Geoff to compare the new Regal with the Purple P*ssy Pounder that his mom sold from under his nose for $150, he found the new Regal to be “boring”. And this isn’t coming from some Eurosnob or Ricerboy, Geoff is a GM loyalist who currently drives a Chevy Avalanche. Oh, and like myself, Geoff is a young professional – the target demographic.

With the Regal, GM’s idea was to take a family-oriented European sedan, fiddle with about 5% of it, and market it to yuppies. That GM expects there to be a 10-20 year difference between the target demographics of what is essentially the same vehicle is very revealing. The message reads loud and clear: Europeans are exciting, Canadians are boring. Well that’s the one way to read into it. Another message could be: Young, affluent Canadians like vehicles that are so unnecessarily large that the same vehicle can be used in other markets for entire families. But that’s just marketing rhetoric, what really matters is the car.

The car is subjectively handsome, well screwed together, economical, quiet, refined, technologically competent, plagued by terrible seats, and as Geoff so deftly put it, boring. A bit of a mixed bag, then.

In the end, I didn’t see this vehicle lowering the average age of the Buick buyer. The same people who have always bought Buicks will continue to buy them, and the Regal offers them a more compact footprint and better fuel economy that anything to wear the tri-shield in recent memory.

The Regal is a well-built German sedan that we’re fortunate to have for sale in Canada. More choice is always a good thing, especially in the near-lux class where the VW Passat CC enjoys so little competition. But between the German Regal and the Korean Cruze, it appears that General Motor is no longer a “domestic” manufacturer. Instead, it has lofted itself up onto the global stage and is finally taking its cars, not just its trucks, more seriously. For that, at least, we can say Danke.