Buick has been trying to shake their image as an old-people's car for years, but with the introduction of the all-new 2011 Regal, they've declared out-and-out war on the elderly. Buick says the European-designed Regal is the car that is going to rid them of the senior scourge once and for all -- and having tested the Regal thoroughly, I believe them. Old people are going to hate this car. Why? Read on.
First Glance: Out with the old
I'm not sure why Buick has such a problem with old people. Sure, they have a tendency to die, thereby limiting their ability to make future purchases. But as a group, old people are fantastic. They're wise, they're generous with their time, and they always seem to have a secret stash of candy. And yet Buick seems determined to get rid of them.
I asked a Buick staffer why, and he started going on and on about generation growth rates, buying patterns by age, and a bunch of other boring stuff that I tuned out. See, that's another great thing about old people -- they have much longer attention spans.
Misguided as they may be, I think the Regal is the car that will rid Buick of its elderly buyer base once and for all. You can tell just by looking at the damn thing: There's very little chrome. No portholes. Not one single 1950s styling cue that only old people will remember. What sensible person under the age of 70 is going to find this car even the least bit attractive? It's not even big enough to require its own zip code! It's small and trim, like an Acura TSX - you know, one of them foreign jobs.
Speaking of foreign jobs, the Regal was designed in Germany. Young people think of Germany as the country that designs the world's best-driving cars, but old people know it as a place that has to have its butt kicked back into line every few decades. The Regal is basically a rebadged version of General Motors' European-market Opel Insignia, although GM insists it was designed from the outset to be a Buick as well as an Opel. Press further, and they'll tell you that means it was designed not only for Americans, but for Buick's biggest fans -- the Chinese. And if that's not bad enough, the Regal will be built in Canada. So we have a (supposedly) American car designed by former fascists, for communists, and bolted together by socialists. What's next, Buick? Why not just pack up the Statue of Liberty and mail it to Kim-Jong Il?
In the Driver's Seat: Neither here nor there
Inside, the Regal's interior is a bit of a mish-mash. Buick offers a choice of elder-friendly wood-trimmed brown-and-tan (link goes to photo) or an all-black scheme as favored by young pinko import-buying whippersnappers. Frankly, I wasn't wild about either; the black is a little too drab while the lighter colors only serve to highlight the lack of style and panache evidenced in the cabin of Buick's bigger LaCrosse. Compare this photo of the Regal's interior to this shot of the LaCrosse's and I think you'll see what I mean. The Regal's cabin isn't ugly; it's just a bit generic.
The older I get, the more I like simplicity, so the plethora of buttons on the Regal's center stack isn't much to my liking; nor is the redundant control set up. To appease European buyers, the Buick has an iDrive-like dial controller for the stereo and the navigation. There's a second dial that does the exact same thing on the stereo itself. Whichever dial you use, the nav system is painfully slow to program. That's fine for young folks who have time on their hands but it's not so great for the elderly, for whom the clock is ticking, if you catch my drift. I was told that a much more user-friendly touch-screen system, similar to the one in the LaCrosse, is coming for 2012.
Front seats are comfortable enough and visibility is good, but the small, oddly-shaped side mirrors hamper rear visibility. Doesn't Buick know that your eyesight gets poorer as you age? And the Regal's roofline follows the new-fangled trend towards swoopy profiles at the expense of headroom -- another subtle strike against old people. Sure, people tend to shrink in as they get older, but ducking to avoid hitting one's head while getting into the back seat isn't very easy for a septuagenarian. How are you supposed to take your friends to their weekly Mah Jongg tournament?
On the Road: A taste of Europe
We all know that old people like to drive slowly, and the base model's 182 horsepower 2.4 liter engine is certainly up to that task. It's actually wastefully quick around town, but on the highway it picks up speed at a nice, leisurely, retirement-friendly rate. Not so the optional 220 horsepower 2-liter turbo engine, which zips ahead with a sports car's disregard for law and order. This engine probably goes home and plays its rock-and-roll records too loud. Damn kids.
Regardless of which engine is under the hood, the Regal's handling is appalling, at least by "seasoned citizen" standards. A proper old person's car should ride like a waterbed, so that the driver can scare the wits out of his passengers simply by taking an offramp at 5 MPH higher than the recommended speed. The Regal isn't like that -- it's disturbingly sure-footed, more like a European sports sedan than a proper land barge. Even the base model can be hustled through the curves at frighteningly inappropriate speeds. Buick had me test the car on some exceptionally curvy roads, the kind that should be driven at 20 MPH with the left blinker permanently on. But the Regal tore through the turns at speeds more appropriate to a BMW. I spent a great deal of time pushing and probing the Regal's high limits of grip -- not because I was enjoying myself, mind you, but because I wanted to make sure my perceptions were correct, and that the car really was as inappropriately designed as I suspected. Rest assured, the grin on my face was one of alarm and disgust.
Journey's End: Was this the right move?
So how do I feel about the Regal? In all seriousness, I'm not quite sure what to think. Dynamically, the Regal is spot on. With its firm ride, excellent handling, and good power -- at least in the case of the turbo engine -- Buick seems to have found the sweet spot that leads so many buyers to BMW and Audi showrooms. I also think the Regal will be a great find for would-be Acura buyers dismayed by the dull character of the TSX.
But I'm not sure that basing the Regal so closely on the Opel Insignia was a great idea. Buick's two most recent designs, the Enclave CUV and the LaCrosse sedan, made bold styling statements that really helped to define the brand. The Regal doesn't do that. It looks like what it is: An Opel Insignia with a Buick grille. In fact, had Saturn not folded, this same car would have been the next-generation Saturn Aura. So it's not totally off the mark to call the Regal a Saturn with a Buick grille.
Will it sell? Oh, I'm sure it will. The Regal is brilliant to drive, plus it's sensibly sized and attractively priced. But I think that by cutting costs on design, Buick has missed an opportunity to really establish what a Buick should be. This is a very, very good car -- but had GM spent more money and effort on the sheetmetal and the interior, it could have been a truly great car.
And what about all those old folks Buick has abandoned? I wouldn't worry too much about them. They still have the Cadillac DTS. -- Aaron Gold