AUSTIN, Texas — Buick is proud that it “goes looking for the white space” – that feature or vehicle that doesn’t exist yet, but which people will soon demand.
Its marketers claim to have been first to develop the “attainable luxury” compact SUV with the Buick Encore, and it was indeed one of the first of its type. Now they claim to have taken the struggling sedan and given it both practicality and curb appeal – they’ve hinged its rear trunk lid at the roof and called it a “Sportback.” It adds a sleek shape while significantly increasing the cargo capacity.
Never mind that Audi’s A7 and A5 Sportbacks have been out for a few years now, or that Porsche’s Sport Turismos and BMW’s Gran Coupés have similar designs to make loading luggage much easier. Those are relatively new styles. Just, whatever you do, don’t call the new Regal a hatchback.
“It’s not a hatchback – that’s more of a vertical slope at the back,” says Mike Mueller, the Regal’s lead engineer. “That’s the way we think of it internally, anyway.”
Whatever you think of the shape of the new Regal Sportback, it’s a new take on the old sedan and it just might give Regal sales a major boost.
Breaking down the trims
The 2018 Buick Regal now has twice the cargo capacity of before, with 892 litres of cargo room when the 60/40 rear seats are in place and 1,713 litres when they’re folded flat. That’s plenty of space for a full-sized bicycle. The rear seats are also available with a 40/20/40 split (for more money), which is useful for skis and similar long items.
Those rear seats are comfortable for adults, but there’s not a lot of extra room back there. Leg room and headroom will fit a couple of 6-footers as long as they’re not wearing hats, and hip room will be a squeeze if there’s a third person. This is fairly standard for such mid-sized cars, though.
There are three distinct trim levels: the Preferred II (where do they come up with these names?) is front-wheel drive and starts at $31,845; the Essence is all-wheel drive in Canada and starts at $37,345, which includes additional comfort and convenience features. Those two are available at dealers any day now, while the top-of-the-line GS has a larger, more powerful engine, AWD, and will be available by the spring.
The standard engine is a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 250 hp and 260 lb-ft. of torque in the FWD model. That sounds like plenty, and it’s enough to let the car cruise comfortably and overtake with little fuss, but it’s not an exciting engine. It doesn’t make you want to attack corners and release your inner Villeneuve. The AWD Essence is recalibrated to create 295 lb-ft. of torque and that helps, but it’s a little thirstier on fuel for it and still not something you’ll ever think about in any satisfying way.
The FWD comes with a 9-speed automatic transmission and the AWD comes with an 8-speed. Neither have paddle shifters, which would have been helpful for dropping down a couple of gears before overtaking or approaching a corner – apparently, it was a choice between having an optional heated steering wheel or the paddles, and the heated wheel won out. Probably a smart decision, but both would be nice.
There are no selectable drive modes for “Sport” or whatever, but these will be available on the higher-performance GS when it comes to market. It will have the larger V-6 engine from the LaCrosse, as well as digital instrumentation and a price tag starting at $43,845.
Capable for Canada
In its two lower trims, the Regal Sportback is not really a performance-oriented car, though it handles exceptionally well. The tight corners down here in Texas hill country were taken flat and true with barely any wallow at all, helping the Regal to stand out from the taller SUVs that will typically pitch and yaw through the curves. Buick’s spent a great deal of time developing the chassis, which has a wheelbase now that’s 6.6 cm longer than before.
All-wheel-drive Regals have a new 5-link rear suspension that helps absorb both bumps and noise, and all models are noticeably quiet on the road. The technology behind noise muffling and isolation has come a very long way in recent years with new materials and quieter shapes, but the Regal takes it a step farther by using Continental tires that have a layer of foam inside, reducing the chatter of the rubber on asphalt. This is all very nice, but it’s surely a greater expense when it comes time to replace those tires, and get ready for a jolt when you fit winter rubber.
The all-wheel-drive system will be very welcome in winter, however. It’s designed for getting you unstuck in snow rather than pouring on the power on a racetrack – another smart decision, I’m sure – and it does seem to work well. Buick parked an AWD Regal next to an Audi A5 Quattro, both of them with three wheels on rollers, and only the Regal found enough grip with its free rear wheel to drive away. It does this by using a twin-clutch system that pushes power to any of the four wheels that can use it. Audi offers the same thing with its “sport differential” system, but it’s an option that costs a lot more money.
So, this means the Regal has torque vectoring, right? It’s not so simple. “The industry doesn’t have a single definition for torque vectoring,” says Mueller, the lead engineer. “Most people say torque vectoring is when you over-drive a wheel, so you’ve got a planetary gearset in there that is shoving more power than it started with. We do not have that. But we can manoeuvre torque around the car, and in some people’s language, that is torque vectoring. If the engine’s putting out 100 units of torque, we can move that 100 units around, but we don’t amplify it. So it totally depends on how you want to use the term torque vectoring.”
Whatever. It’ll help get you out of a snowdrift, that’s for sure.
Smart, and not so smart
There’s some very smart thinking behind the new Regal, such as the crash protection that pops the hood up a few centimetres under the windshield, so the hood will be at a greater slope in a collision to lessen injuries to a pedestrian. Of course, there are also the now-expected driver’s assistance features of forward collision alert and blind spot monitoring and active cruise control and lane departure monitoring, some of it standard and most of it optional. The cabin is fully connected too, with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and an optional Wi-Fi hotspot plan.
But there’s some not-so-smart thinking, too. The sun visor – just a little thing – doesn’t extend to block the sun for the length of the side window. Buick admits this was an oversight and will be fixed down the road, but for now, it could be a deal-breaker.
The interior is pleasant and comfortable, but the analogue gauges and chrome brightwork feel dated, like a fascia from five years ago.
Perhaps the most questionable thinking, though, is GM’s decision to not sell the TourX wagon version of the Regal in Canada. It will be sold in the United States, where marketers expect it will be chosen by about one in every five Regal buyers, but not north of the border. Buick Canada thinks it will just be a bit too niche for any substantial sales – they’re already persuading us to accept a hatchback under a different name, after all, so they presumably think a wagon is just a step too far.
My prediction? Buick will change its mind, bring in the TourX with AWD next year and call it a crossover, and sell billions of them.
Value for money
Whichever way you look at it, the new Regal is good value for money. It’s attractive (on the outside at least) and it’s practical, and its prices stack very well indeed against its premium competition.
Fuel consumption is good, too. The turbocharged engine is frugal, with a claimed 9.2 L/100 km combined for the FWD and 9.6 for the AWD. (These break down to 10.7 City, 7.4 Hwy for FWD, and 11.0 City, 8.0 Hwy for AWD.) Barreling around the curves down here, the AWD Regal averaged 11.6 L/100 km, but we were trying to get the chassis to flex, without success.
Is the new Regal pushing itself into the white space that the marketers believe defines a whole new segment? Not really, because there are already other Sportbacks on the market, but they’re all German and much more expensive. In marketing terms, they’re considered more “aspirational” than “attainable.”
Instead, it’s offering a spacious, comfortable and capable vehicle that’s a significant improvement over the previous Regal sedan, and is so far unchallenged by its competition at Lincoln or Acura or Infiniti. If that’s white space for the attainable luxury segment, then the Buick just drove right into the middle of it and honked its horn, loudly.
Model: 2018 Buick Regal Sportback
Price: $31,845 (Essence: $37,345)
Engine: 2.0L turbo 4-cylinder
Peak output: 250 hp
Peak torque: 260 lb-ft (AWD: 295 lb-ft)
Transmission: 9-speed automatic (AWD: 8-speed automatic)
Length: 4,899 mm
Width: 1,863 mm
Height: 1,455 mm
Wheelbase: 2,829 mm
Curb weight: 1,858 kg
Fuel Consumption (city/highway/combined): 10.7/7.4/9.2 L/100 km (AWD: 11.0/8.0/9.6 L/100 km)