Amongst entry-level premium midsize sedans, there remains a hardcore group of dedicated buyers who are looking for a comfortable, spacious ride with plenty of standard features and without too much flashiness. Cars like the Lexus ES 350, Acura TLX, and Lincoln MKZ come to mind, and for this year, the 2018 Buick Regal Sportback Essence AWD is marking the debut of a new generation. Slotted above regular midsize cars such as the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, the Regal is a product of General Motors’ European arm, and is sold in Europe/the United Kingdom as the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia. It’s also known in Australia as the Holden Commodore, taking over for their locally developed, big power rear-drive chassis.
In the mid-level Essence trim, the Regal comes standard with all-wheel drive and starts at a base price of $37,345. For that, it comes equipped with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, dual-zone climate, pushbutton start, and 8-inch touch screen infotainment. Options on the test vehicle included the Experience Buick Package for $2,695, which added a power moon roof, navigation, and Bose 8-speaker audio. The $2,195 Driver Confidence Package #1 brought on power seats with driver’s memory, LED headlamps, rear park assist, cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, heated mirrors, and wireless charging. With the classy Dark Moon Blue Metallic paint adding another $495, total as-tested pricing came to $42,730.
For those who insist on front-wheel drive, the base Preferred II trim starts at $31,845, but comes at the expense of many options such as heated leather seats. In all fairness, the Essence’s pricing is fairly close to that of a Toyota Camry XLE V6 or Honda Accord Touring 2.0 Touring, but the Buick does so with added all-wheel drive. The Buick gets points for its four-year, 80,000KM bumper to bumper and six-year, 110,000KM powertrain warranties, which beat out most other manufacturers, which typically provide 3/60 and 5/100 respectively. In terms of misses, it does lack adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning/braking systems, which are $1,295 extra.
One major difference with this new Regal is that while it looks like it, it isn’t actually a sedan. The Sportback is a lift-up tailgate that’s not unlike the format of the Kia Stinger, Audi A7, or Tesla Model S. The benefit to this is the superior cargo privacy and isolation of a sedan, combined with the versatility of a hatchback. Buick says one can fit 892 litres (31.5 cubic feet) in the trunk with the rear seats folded up, and 1,719 litres (60.7 cubic feet) with them folded down. Believe it or not, this capability actually approaches that of a compact crossover SUV, and even trumps the smallest Mazda CX-5!
Inside, the Regal Essence test car sported a rather monotone Ebony interior that was only a handful of shades of grey. The tan look of the Shale interior is a much better choice here. Front seat comfort is average, and thigh support could be improved, which is seemingly a common trend on GM products lately. Rear seat passengers have good legroom, although the centre-rear passenger may object to the shaping of the seat cushion. Taller-torsoed second row passengers in general may notice a small deficit in headroom.
Heated front mirrors don’t come as standard, which is an odd product planning configuration likely due to the Regal’s more temperate German manufacturing roots – you’ll need the Driver Confidence Package 1 in order to toast your buns. Being that the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia across the pond and the Holden Commodore down under serve more of the bread-and-butter midsize sedan market, the interior materials and design end up being a little cheaper than where the Regal needs to be. Fit and finish is good enough, but the switchgear and touch points feel a little bit too much like a low-grade rental car.
Technologically, the infotainment of the 2018 Regal houses GM’s corporate system that includes a 4GLTE Wi-Fi hotspot (data purchased through an OnStar subscription). It’s one of the better systems in the industry, with intuitive menu interfaces and snappy response. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity comes as standard equipment, and allows occupants to stay connected while minimizing distraction.
Probably one of the biggest surprises of Regal – and possibly of any press car tested in the DoubleClutch.ca Magazine office this year – is the handling and chassis response of the new 2018 model. Turn-in is extremely sharp, and the Buick wastes no time in responding to your steering input. Grip levels are unexpectedly high, and the excellent chassis and suspension tuning give drivers the utmost in confidence when tossing it around highway ramps. The 235/50R18 all-season tires do give up the ghost with understeer a little bit early, but hustling this car hard is still a rewarding and smile-inducing experience.
Ride quality is on the Euro-firm side on the Regal Sportback, which means that it’s tuned a bit stiffer, but does so in a very high-quality fashion where the body control remains in check. That’s not to say that it’s uncomfortable however, and whether on an open road or in a pothole-ridden city, the Regal does a good job here, too. Steering feel and feedback is average, and like other General Motors products like the Cadillac ATS or Chevrolet Camaro, brake pedal feel is the best in the business, with perfect weighting and linear response.
Powering the Regal Essence is a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four cylinder engine. Also known as GM’s workhorse Ecotec engine series, it puts out 250 horsepower at 5,400RPM, and provides 295 lb-ft of torque between 3,000 to 4,000RPM. Front-drive models get a torque cut to 260 lb-ft, but between 2,000 to 5,200RPM. Throttle response is well-executed, and there is no turbo lag to be seen. Despite the 3,000RPM torque peak, boost comes on early, there’s plenty of twist in the low-to-mid rev range. Noise, could be a bit better controlled, but there will always be limitations to the sound of the 2.0-litre turbo four relative to a silky-smooth V6 (available on the top-trim GS). Vibration and harshness are minimized well however, and other than that slightly gruff engine note, it’s a good powerplant to have.
Paired to the turbo four is an eight-speed automatic transmission. This is a bit of a curiosity considering that a nine-speed automatic is available coupled to the same engine in vehicles like the Chevrolet Equinox. Thankfully, it’s still a good gearbox, delivering quick shifts and minimizing gear hunting. The lack of the ninth cog isn’t really a huge deal, other than chalking another one up to being built by European GM and drawing from a different parts bin.
Fuel economy ratings for the 2018 Regal with the 2.0-litre engine come in at 11.0L/100KM in the city, and 8.0L/100KM on the highway. Observed economy with a slight bias towards highway driving came in at 9.0L/100KM, which is plenty fine for a vehicle of this type. Expect a couple better tenths per hundred kilometres if going with a front-wheel drive model. Tank capacity is 61.7 litres, and premium fuel is recommended for the forced induction. It is worth noting that the naturally aspirated 310 horsepower 3.6-litre V6 in the top trim GS runs fine on regular only.
As the sum of its parts, the 2018 Buick Regal Sportback Essence AWD is a great choice from General Motors. Pricing is aggressive enough to attract top-end Camry and Accord buyers who are looking for all-wheel drive without stepping into a sport utility vehicle, and the handling dynamics are just about second to none for a vehicle of its type. The powertrain gets the job done confidently and efficiently, and the overall styling does its best to inject some pizazz while remaining fairly conservative. The interior touch points could stand to be better, but the connectivity and ergonomics are good and simple otherwise. Price wise, it undercuts the Lexus, Acura, and Lincoln by a good amount, and should be considered as a winner worth checking out.