Buick kicks off its midsize offensive with an oddball entrant.
It seems like every time we drive a new Buick, we're compelled to open our coverage with a discussion of the brand's direction and/or evolution. Often it feels appropriate; sometimes it simply feels necessary in order to provide context for the model we're evaluating.
With the 2018 Buick Regal Sportback, things are a little weirder than normal. This isn't a story about how Buick is trying to put a premium spin on a youthful segment (or a youthful spin on a premium segment). Nope. This time, Buick is genuinely doing something a little bit different, and not just in terms of marketing spin or product position.
The 2018 Buick Regal lineup consists of three distinct models. What we're evaluating today is the base offering, simply dubbed the Sportback. This five-door midsizer is also offered in hotted-up "GS" guise, which is the second of the three variants. Rounding out the group is the TourX, which is a full-blown station wagon.
Sadly, a nameplate spread like this is an oddity these days. Who even does this anymore? "The Germans," you might answer, with perhaps some degree of dismissal or contempt, and you'd be mostly right. But if we're brutally honest, even they don't do their midsize variants particularly well with the singular exception of Audi. No, don't say BMW. Seriously. Just look at this thing.
In the non-luxury segment, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of this century (yep, a whole 15 years) to find an analog to Buick's Regal lineup. Remember the first-generation Mazda6? Sure you do.
Back then, Mazda had the interesting mainstream mid-size car thing down pat. Then 2009 came, and it all went away. Fear not, though. Buick's come to save the day.
That's a Buick?
The Sportback is built around a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine producing 250 horsepower and either 260 or 295lb-ft of torque, depending on whether you opt for all-wheel drive. And while all-wheel drive models may get more torque, they're limited to fewer forward gears (eight vs. nine).
The all-wheel drive system offered on the Sportback is the same one found on the GS model (and the new Buick Envision CUV), meaning the rear differential is a twin-clutch, mechanical torque-vectoring unit that can do all sorts of fancy stuff with its (50 percent) share of the four-pot's available torque.
For a midsize five-door, the Sportback's curb weight is reasonable. It starts at 3,417 pounds for front-drive models and goes up from there (all-wheel-drive curb weights were not provided), which is about where the aforementioned Mazda6 started, albeit with much less power. The V6, of course, was an entirely different (and heavier) animal.
The new Regal has more than one pair of shoes to fill. While it very logically replaces the outgoing sedan of the same name, the 2018 model is also tasked with filling the role of a more entry-level four-door. That's because the Cruze-based Buick Verano is no longer. The Verano started in the low-$20,000 range and topped out just under $30k, leaving room for the Regal to comfortably start near the high end of that scale.
With the Verano gone, Buick chose to stretch the 2018 Regal Sportback downward into that empty space with a base price of $24,990 before destination. That's a roughly $2,000 discount compared to the outgoing car, but that's not even the whole story. Base 2017 Regals were equipped with GM's 2.4L four-banger--a 182-horsepower, naturally aspirated engine. Not only, then, is the 2018 model cheaper, but it offers a heck of a lot more performance for that entry-level price.
Fortunately, Buick managed to avoid cutting too many corners in the interior to make up for that price reduction. There are some spots that could us some attention, such as the center console knee-area trim (a disappointing hard plastic). We were also somewhat puzzled by Buick's choice to include faux leather outer seating surfaces on its otherwise-cloth base seats, but that's more of a head-scratcher than an actual quality complaint.
Buick made no effort to conceal the fact that the Sportback's five-door configuration is a move to appeal to CUV and SUV buyers, and we're fine with that. But can what is functionally a sedan really hang with modern compact crossovers? After all, they are essentially the most hatch-backy of midsize sedan hatchbacks.
By the numbers, the Regal actually has an advantage over its stable-mate, the Envision, with an EPA cargo volume of 31.5 cubic feet (seats up) to the latter's 25.9. There are a few reasons for this, but the most obvious is the sedan's additional length. It has three inches of wheelbase and nearly six inches in overall length on the Envision.
Numbers, however, don't tell the whole story. While the Regal may have the advantage when it comes to just moving around larger quantities of everyday detritus, the Envision would be far better equipped for hauling boxier loads thanks to its CUV proportions.
That said, Buick gave us a fixie to haul around for part of the day, giving us the opportunity to load it into the hatch area ourselves to see just how easily it fit (a test which it aced, of course, and without removing the rear cargo cover or having to adjust/remove any components of the bicycle).
We're not certain this would be enough to convince the "gotta have a crossover" buyer to switch to a sedan, but Buick is probably more concerned with preserving existing sedan buyers than gaining them, and this versatile design might be just enough to keep them in that corner.
We spoke earlier of the recurring themes in our Buick coverage, and we're running headlong into yet another trope: does the Regal impress us, and if so, is it just because being a Buick clouds it in lowered expectations? When we drove the new LaCrosse, the latter was the case. The same reared its head in the Enclave, which turned out to not only rise above its Buick-ness, but above the fact that it was a premium, three-row crossover regardless of its badge.
As our expectations for the brand continue to rise, it's going to become more difficult for Buick to surpass them. In approaching the Sportback, we had to occasionally remind ourselves that what we were driving was a bread-and-butter, mainstream-aligned product. This isn't intended to be a full-on sport sedan; in fact, it's intentionally positioned underneath such.
But even heavy-handed policing of our expectations didn't change the fact that we wanted a lot from the Sportback. We wanted it to be a fun car--an enthusiast's option with premium features and fun dynamics. But try as we might, we couldn't make the Sportback into something it simply is not.
It's not a bad car. Far from it, in fact. The Sportback is dynamically sound and sublimely drama-free even when pushed, but sometimes a lack of drama can detract from what we'd consider an enthusiast experience. The all-wheel-drive system is very good at managing torque and keeping launches in check, even when you try to make them messy. The suspension delivers a supple ride and excellent body control, but without any sort of edge. It goes where you point it and doesn't wander off-center on the highway.
In short, the Regal Sportback possesses the grace of an athlete, but not the muscle. That the GS exists makes this a somewhat poor choice of hill on which to die, but we feel it's important to stress that the Regal is very much an all-around car, not something that specifically targets the enthusiast.
There's a new elephant in the room, too. It's called the Kia Stinger. For just a shade over $30,000 (which is where the Regal starts to hit the lot with content you'd actually want), you can have what is essentially a rear-wheel-drive version of the Buick. Both are comfortable and practical, but the Stinger offers a drivetrain that the Sportback can only imitate.
We suspect that comparison will be more appropriately made when evaluating the GS, but if you find yourself spec'ing out a Sportback at anything above roughly $33,000, it's worth looking at the Kia, if only for the sake of knowing what your money can buy you.
Leftlane's bottom line
The 2018 Buick Regal Sportback is many things: a good value, a well-rounded product, a versatile utility vehicle and possibly a convincing alternative to an entry-level crossover. It's not quite the Mazda6 replacement we wish it could be, but the GS exists for a reason.
2018 Buick Regal Sportback base price, $24,990; destination, $925; total, $25,915