With the demise of Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Saturn and the sale of Saab, there is now a considerable space within General Motors' brand portfolio between Chevrolet at the low end and Cadillac at the top.
Buick is working very hard to establish, or perhaps re-establish, a premium image that will fill that void.
The resurrection started with the Enclave SUV and continued with the Regal, Lacrosse and Verano sedans and, most recently, the small Encore CUV.
The Regal name had disappeared after the 2004 model year, but was resurrected for 2011 on an Americanized version of the Opel Insignia originally destined for the local Saturn store.
For 2012 the Regal becomes the showcase for a fuel-saving system GM calls "e-assist". The result is a Buick that gets even better fuel economy than (until recently) the smallest car in the GM lineup – the Chevrolet Sonic. (The new Chevrolet Spark now fills that "smallest" role.)
Natural Resources Canada rates the Sonic at 8.3 litres/100 city and 5.5 on the highway. It says the Regal with eAssist matches the Sonic’s city numbers but tops it on the highway, at 5.4 litres/100.
What is eAssist?
The eAssist label signifies a "light electrification system" that uses a small (15-kW) electric motor driven by energy stored in a 29-kilo lithium-ion battery for extra oomph during acceleration.
The 115-kW battery gets its juice from regenerative braking where the heat energy normally dissipated by the brakes is instead converted into electricity for the battery.
It's a more advanced and refined version of the package GM used to call a BAS (Belt Alternator Starter) "mild hybrid" in applications such as the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Vue Hybrids. They were widely criticized for being so "mild" as to be hardly worthy of the hybrid label.
Which may be why GM has stayed strictly away from any reference to eAssist being a hybrid, although it would technically qualify for micro-hybrid classification. Whatever you call it, it works.
The engine employed in this case is a unique version of GM's 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylinder that, in this iteration, produces 182-horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque. The electric motor contributes a further 15 horsepower and more importantly, 79 additional lb-ft of torque at only 1,000 rpm.
Impressive fuel economy
The result of this is clever combination is truly impressive real world fuel economy.
The e-assist system, with assistance from aerodynamic modifications and a number of small equipment changes, allows this Regal to go 21% further than one with the conventional Ecotec engine alone.
The driver gets an assist with a button to minimizing air conditioner use, an ECO gauge to monitor his or her behavior and a display that shows the flow of power through the eAssist system.
That system also incorporates a modified version of the excellent six-speed automatic transmission used in other GM models. This one allows for some electric assist at highway speeds in situations such as light throttle applications when climbing long hills.
Power and performance could best be described as adequate – more than that if your regular drive route is relatively flat and your passenger count low.
The eAssist system is perfect invisible. You are only aware of something being different when the engine shuts off when you stop at a light for more than a second and restarts instantly when you lift your foot off the brake pedal. A fuel-saving auto stop-start system is part of the package.
The only visible difference between this and other Regals is a smaller trunk due to the battery pack taking up about 25% of the space available back there. For the same reason the rear seat-backs don't fold down, but there is a pass- through for longer items.
The Regal has a naturally-balanced chassis thanks to its European roots. Its suspension is most unlike Buicks of the past in that it is taut, but not harsh.
There is still a comfortable ride to be enjoyed, but the Regal doesn’t immediately lean and surrender to understeer at the first sign of a corner.
The electric steering is quick but doesn't provide a great deal of feedback.;
On the inside
To my eyes the interior seems a bit garish, like Buicks of old. Black is the predominant colour, accented by shiny bits everywhere.
Large round displays for the speedometer and tachometer flank a two smaller gauges and a digital information center.
A full-colour screen and air vents top the centre stack, with a whopping 25 buttons and two knobs below for the info and navigation systems. The screen is bracketed by air vents and a comparatively simple two-knob/12-button control module is used for the HVAC system.
The big screen at the top groups most functions in a simple array that can be controlled through touching the appropriate spot on the screen or via a rotary knob on the console. Surprisingly, a back-up camera is not included, even at this $40,000 price point!
There is plenty of room up front for the occupants of the first-rate bucket seats but second row-seating is a tad tight with room for two adults of reasonable size. Rear-seat shoulder- and knee-room seem a little tighter than some others in this bracket.
Standard equipment includes: 17-in aluminum wheels, eight-way power, heated leather seats, tilt & telescope steering wheel, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control and dual-zone automatic climate control. The test vehicle had a $1,885 "preferred equipment group?", $1,395 power sunroof, $995 navigation system, $650 for HID headlights and $275 remote starter.
Summing up, the new Regal with eAssist is a thoroughly modern Buick with European road manners and an aversion to gas stations.