Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Buick Regal.
The new Buick Regal is, simply put, a good automobile. General Motors's not-quite-luxury-non-truck nameplate has spent the better part of the last 10 years trying to erase the grandparental associations it accumulated over the preceding few decades, and the company has done a damn fine job of it. Cars like the Enclave, the Cascada, and the last-gen Regal may not be the sorts of vehicles enthusiasts found compelling (apart from the nimble, stick-shift-packing Regal GS, which your humble author still checks out on eBay every so often), but they offered newfound style and well-mannered handling without sacrificing the comfort that the septua-, octo-, and nonagenarians that sustained the brand through the Nineties valued so highly.
Problem is, the brand now reached a level of competence that leaves it rather...well, indistinguishable from the dozens of other equally-solid cars on the road today. The new Regal is elegant, comfortable, and accommodating, but so are dozens of other new cars on the market today—many of which offer comparable features for less cash. To a degree, it brings to mind the old saying that bad press is better than no press. Buicks used to be lame, but at least people knew what they were. Buicks aren't lame anymore...but they don't stand out in any other way, either.
As the latest addition to the company's lineup, the new Regal typifies this particular...well, calling it a problem seems too harsh, so let's just refer to it as a dilemma. The car excels at all the duties one would expect of it, but it lacks any outstanding characteristics that would push it above and beyond its competitors in any category. It's a good car, but worthy of royalty? Not quite.
- God bless General Motors for having the balls to only sell the Regal in hatchback and wagon forms. Granted, you wouldn't likely realize the "sportback," as Buick calls the three-box version, isn't a conventional sedan until you saw the rear glass rise along with the trunk lid; that said, it does
- The turbocharged engine is solid and adequate for the sorts of driving this Regal is likely to perform—that is to say, brisk commuting and long highway trips. Likewise, the nine-speed automatic is commendably capable of shuffling through its gears; not once did the car feel flat-footed when I pounced on the gas to pass. Considering all those cogs, that's fairly impressive.
- It looks plenty nice—very European, which makes sense, considering it's basically an Opel-slash-Vauxhall. (Hell, it's made in Germany.) It seems likely to court the sort of "That's a Buick?" comment the company's ads suggest the public regularly espouses.
- Handles quite well, for a family sedan. It's a far cry from the Regals of old, which exhibited the sort of body roll commonly seen on fishing boats caught in nor'easters.
- There's no spare tire. The Regal comes with a patch kit below the trunk, which might be fine for lesser blowouts...but wasn't worth a damn after an epic pothole on New York's Belt Parkway blew out the sidewall in half a dozen places. Note to GM and every other automaker out there who thinks it can get by with anything less than a donut in the trunk: You're wrong.
- There's no apparent way to kill the stop-start system. This is becoming something of a trend across GM's lineup—presumably, a way to curry favor with the various environmental protectors of the planet—but until the General implements the sort of seamless system found on Mercedes-Benz's models with 48-volt electrical setups, it'll be aggravating.
- In spite of its lofty price tag, the interior doesn't feel quite as nice as the top-tier trims of other midsize sedans from non-"premium" brands. The new Honda Accord, the Kia Optima, the Mazda6—all of them offer trim and materials more pleasing to the glance or touch than the Regal's guts.
- The price is a bit high, especially if you want the assorted luxurious accoutrements. admittedly, Buick is one of GM's premium brands, but you have to spend about $33K to get leather trim and heated seats. That sort of thing should come standard on a near-luxury car, especially in an era when you can get those on a $20,000 Hyundai.
The 2018 Buick Regal, Ranked:
Hauling people: 3/5
Hauling stuff: 3/5
Curb appeal: 3/5
“Wow” factor: 3/5
The Bottom Line:
Here's the thing: General Motors doesn't give a damn what I say—or what any other American auto journalist says, for that matter—about the Regal, because we're not the target audience. Or even the target nation. The only reason Buick wasn't wiped out alongside Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer back in The Great Detroit Culling of 2010 was because the brand is huge in China, a trend that's only continued over the following eight years. In 2017, Buick sold 205,000 cars in the U.S.; in China, the company moved 1.18 million. Six times as many. Granted, China's new car market is significantly larger—roughly 29 million new vehicles a year, versus 17 million here—but that still makes Buick a far bigger percentage of the Chinese market than it is in the U.S. of A.
And if current trends continue, this all-new Regal may well be the last car to bear that name. Crossovers now make up more than 80 percent of Buick's sales, as sedan sales continue to lag. Indeed, GM moved just 11,559 Regals in 2017—less than a thousand a month. Or, to put it another way...the General moved 2.17 Corvettes last year for every Regal it sold.
The Regal, then, likely exists for the sole purpose of keeping around legacy Buick buyers who have been driving the premium brand's sedans for years, and would likely desert the brand were it discontinued. With most of the development costs deferred by virtue of the car's global reach—it's sold not only in Europe, but in Australia, as the new Commodore—bringing the car Stateside to keep that handful of people who love their Regals in the GM family is presumably cost-effective enough to make it worth the while.
And as for the rest of us, whose interactions with the Regal will most likely be limited to seeing it as an option at the Hertz counter: Go ahead and pick it. Sooner or later, you may not be able to buy four-door Buicks at all anymore in this country, so might as well drive 'em while we got 'em.
Or, y'know, just go for the new Regal GS instead.
The 2018 Buick Regal, by the numbers:
Price (as tested): $26,840 ($34,035)
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, 250 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque; nine-speed automatic; front-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 21 mpg city / 29 mpg highway
0-60 MPH: Call it six seconds and you're probably close
Total cargo volume with the rear seat raised: 31.5 ft³, but good luck seeing out the back at that point