AUSTIN, TX – Buick has built a reputation in recent years for successfully playing in white space, or where the premium General Motors brand sees an underserved or nascent segment of the U.S. market where it can parachute a product in quickly and at relatively low cost.
The ’18 Regal Sportback, which is arriving on dealer lots from GM’s former Opel operations in Germany, lands in one of the loneliest outposts of the market where only pricier entries from Audi and BMW, or utilitarian hybrids, match its unique body style.
But in a market snapping up CUVs and SUVs with seemingly unquenchable demand while turning their noses up at old-fashion sedans such as the previous-generation Regal, GM thinks shoppers may embrace an alternative to those increasingly cookie-cutter products. With a midsize-car footprint, a sleek coupe-like profile and a rear hatch unlocking up to 60.7 cu.-ft. (1,718 L) of cargo space it is as alternative as the Talking Heads.
At the same time, the risk of tossing it up to Americans is relatively low. Plans to import the car in incremental volume began long before GM off-loaded its struggling Opel and Vauxhall brands to France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen, and the two automakers struck a deal to keep an adequate supply of the car, as well as the upcoming Regal TourX sport wagon and performance-oriented Regal GS Sportback, for at least one product cycle.
GM also has played this card before, importing the Buick Encore to the U.S. from South Korea just before the compact CUV segment started going great guns. It was easily the brand’s best-selling vehicle last year and far outpaced even the popular Enclave, a homegrown crossover that started the premium large CUV segment just over a decade ago.
Whether the Regal Sportback will work the same magic remains to be seen, but for value-oriented buyers looking to retain the driving dynamics of a sports sedan with space to store gear or baggage rivaling a small crossover this Buick deserves consideration.
For starters, it is among very few 4-door cars to offer the all-important all-wheel-drive under $30,000, and the system is as technically advanced as those on luxury vehicles costing thousands of dollars more. It employs a pair of clutches at the rear to distribute torque to the wheel with the most traction. In other words, if three wheels are slipping the Regal Sportback can direct nearly all available torque to the one with bite.
The Regal Sportback AWD system is designed to enhance handling during spirited driving on dry roads, too, although impressions from extended seat time here suggest it probably raises driver confidence more than actual performance.
Under the hood lies a 2.0L turbocharged gasoline direct-injected 4-cyl. with 250 hp and 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) of torque as installed in front-wheel-drive models, which start at less than $26,000 including delivery charges. The 2.0L 4-cyl. is the sole engine available and it mates to a 9-speed automatic transmission. When outfitted with AWD, an 8-speed automatic is used and torque rises to a peak 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) while pricing can soar past $38,000 on well-equipped models.
A 2012 Wards 10 Best Engines winner in the previous-generation Regal GS, the 2.0L is getting long in the tooth but still packs punch when it is tuned to its full torque output. The torque could come more quickly, however. Steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, or at least a manual option for the shift lever, would help on that front but GM understandably is saving the performance goodies for the coming Regal GS.
An early-morning run in a FWD Regal Sportback returned 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km), while a more spirited turn in an AWD version that afternoon brought back 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km).
AWD models employ a 5-link rear suspension, while FWD versions receive a 4-link setup. Both deliver the crisp handling and firm ride familiar to most German sedans, and the 200 lbs. (91 kg) it shed between generations is noticeable. Continental ProContact tx tires provide excellent grip; the electric power steering is direct but it feels a bit light.
The Regal Sportback interior has some great tidbits, such as comfortable, supportive seats, an uncluttered center stack, active noise-cancellation on AWD units for a quiet ride and colorful, tech-rich 7-in. (18-cm) and 8-in. (20-cm) infotainment screens. There’s also all that cargo room.
But it lacks the wow-factor (Opel is a mainstream brand in Europe, remember). The analogue gauge package looks dated, plastic wood inserts feel cheap and the faux-chrome trim would be overdone if it did not provide a modicum of relief from a churning sea of dark shale in one test car. Ebony, a second interior color, seems more Buick-like with its richness and is broken up nicely with a darker dashboard and floor mats.
The liftgate is not terribly easy to open, either, but the second-row seats fold almost completely flat to make sliding cargo inside easier.
One more thing: It’s time to update the Buick tri-shield badge as Cadillac recently did with the wreath and crest. The Buick badge (faux chrome, of course) mounted in the center of the steering recalls the brand’s elderly image and not the youthful, contemporary one it has been cultivating in recent years.
The exterior design is a hands-down winner. The car is 3 ins. (76 mm) longer than its predecessor, which gives it greater presence and combined with the gently sloping, coupe-like roof it has the elegance of a much pricier Audi or Mercedes.
The 17-in. and optional 18-in. wheels fill their wells nicely and feature a sporty, modern spoke design. A body-side character line running from below the A-pillar through the door handles and into the taillamps is a perfect yin to the yang of the car’s bold sill treatment.
Automakers sold 741,961 hatchbacks last year, according to WardsAuto data, so U.S. car buyers are not entirely averse to a fifth door. But the shift from cars to crossovers is only intensifying, which likely will be a headwind for the Regal Sportback.
However, a winning exterior design and tremendous functionality give it a fighting chance.
'18 Buick Regal Sportback Specifications
|Vehicle type||5-passenger, FWD/AWD sportback|
|Engine||2.0L DOHC turbocharged 4-cyl. with gasoline direct injection, aluminum block, head|
|Power (SAE net)||250 hp @ 5,500 rpm (AWD)|
|Torque||295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 3,000-4,000 rpm (AWD)|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||86 x 86|
|Transmission||8-speed automatic (AWD)|
|Wheelbase||111.4 ins. (2,829 mm)|
|Overall length||192.9 ins. (4,899 mm)|
|Overall width||73.3 ins. (1,863 mm)|
|Overall height||57.3 ins. (1,455 mm)|
|Curb weight||3,417 lbs. (1,550 kg)|
|Price as tested||$38,715 (AWD)|
|Fuel economy||21-29 mpg city/hwy (11.2-8.1 L/100 km)|
|Competition||Acura TLX, Audi A5 Sportback, Volkswagen CC, BMW 4-Series Grand Coupe|
|Alternative to cookie-cutter CUVs||Rare species for U.S. market|
|Proven turbocharged 4-cyl.||Could use manual shift mode|
|Winning exterior design||Interior lacks wow-factor|