Buick’s near-luxury positioning has prompted it to experiment with some novel ideas, such as being one of the first brands to introduce an upscale subcompact crossover with the Encore as well as building its next-rung-up Envision SUV in China. More unusual is the wheeled platypus that is the new-for-2018 Regal Sportback, a Germany-built four-door with the sleek silhouette of a sedan and the capacious cargo area of a hatchback. Decently refined, undeniably practical, and with style to spare, the Sportback, at least in its more modest front-wheel-drive form, is compelling in ways that the previous Regal sedan never was.
Sharing much of its platform with the latest Chevrolet Malibu, the shapely Regal is larger yet lighter than before, with more accommodating rear quarters. While both the Buick and the Chevy have a strut suspension up front and a multilink setup at the rear, the Regal’s chassis has been modified to accommodate its optional torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, a $2000 extra on Preferred II and Essence trim levels and standard on the V-6–only Regal GS. At 3426 pounds, our front-drive, Essence-level test car weighed 119 pounds more than a comparable Malibu 2.0T yet 596 less than the previous Regal GS with all-wheel drive, a turbo four, and an automatic.
Grace with Space
Regardless of configuration, the Regal Sportback is a fetching assemblage of flowing lines and elegant creases, handsome but not pretentious. And its wide hatchback portal is nicely integrated into the design. While the maximum-versatility award goes to the full-wagon Regal TourX, the Sportback’s cargo hold will swallow 32 cubic feet of stuff, roughly doubling the trunk space of most mid-size sedans. Drop the 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat found in top versions (base and Preferred trim levels make do with a 60/40 split) to open up an almost-flat load floor and a big 61 cubes of storage space. However, without any power-opening or -closing mechanism, accessing that space requires manually lifting and shutting the bulky liftgate; with its large integrated piece of glass, it is considerably heavier than a regular trunklid.
Except for the range-topping GS, all Regal Sportbacks are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four making 250 horsepower. Whereas maximum torque is 295 lb-ft at 3000 revs on all-wheel-drive versions, front-drivers are detuned to 260 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. The reduced amount of twist indeed results in little tugging at the wheel under hard acceleration, but the front contact patches do scrabble for traction when the driver punches the throttle from a dead stop. Front-drive Regals also feature a smartly tuned nine-speed automatic transmission in place of the eight-speed unit currently fitted to all-wheel-drive, non-GS models (Buick says it will eventually phase in the nine-speed on all versions).
Strong yet Reserved
Despite the implication of the Sportback nameplate, the Regal is less athletic than it is pleasantly competent. Effort from the electrically assisted steering is light, and loading up the chassis in corners engenders a precise if muted conversation with the driver. The cushy suspension irons out broken pavement well, even on our test car’s 18-inch wheels fitted with 245/45R-18 Continental ProContact TX all-season tires (17-inches are standard on lower trims), but at the expense of some body roll at the limit. Despite the Regal’s European roots—it’s essentially a reskinned Opel Insignia—its role as a Buick is of a composed cruiser. However, it doesn’t do a great job of isolating road noise—impacts are often heard more than felt. At the track, our test car clung to the skidpad with 0.87 g of lateral grip and minimal understeer, a solid performance. As with many newer General Motors vehicles, the Sportback brake pedal is pleasingly firm and easy to modulate, and its fade-free stop from 70 mph required just 162 feet—two feet shorter than the best we’ve seen from Audi’s far pricier A5 Sportback.
Most Regal buyers should be more than content with the front-drive Sportback’s softer dynamics as well as its solid straight-line performance. The 2.0-liter revs smoothly and with little lag from the turbo. Although non-GS Regals do without selectable driving modes and the nine-speed generally upshifts to top gear as quickly and smoothly as possible, the gearbox is quick to issue kickdowns in response to throttle inputs; the sprint from 50 to 70 mph happens in a respectable 4.0 seconds. Our test car also reached 60 mph in a competitive 5.6 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.2 at 101 mph. Our quickest runs were accomplished with the nine-speed in its automatic mode, which Buick’s engineers curiously calibrated to skip third gear under heavy throttle applications because the ratio change from second is so small. Third gear is employed only in gentle driving or when using the transmission’s manual mode, but the ratio change from second is indeed almost unnoticeable and, when trying to drive quickly, it’s nearly impossible to avoid colliding with the fuel cutoff in third.
Its track results put the Regal on pace with more expensive competitors such as the Acura TLX V-6 SH-AWD and the BMW 430i xDrive Gran Coupe, both of which posted similar acceleration times despite lugging around their heavier all-wheel-drive systems. A more direct comparison is to the excellent 2018 Honda Accord with its optional 252-hp turbo 2.0-liter engine and 10-speed automatic. A polished 10Best Cars–winning sedan that weighs within a few pounds of the Regal, the Accord 2.0T is more enjoyable to drive and returns similar performance numbers, save for a 70-mph stop that was eight feet longer. The front-drive Honda and Buick share the same EPA fuel-economy figures—22 mpg city, 32 mpg highway—and both averaged 24 mpg in our testing. (All-wheel-drive Regals are rated 1 mpg less in the city and 3 less on the highway.) The Accord, however, bettered the Sportback’s 31 mpg on our 75-mph highway test loop by 4 mpg.
Walking the Tightrope
The inside of the Sportback is airy and inoffensive, with familiar GM switchgear and ample room for four occupants, although headroom for the middle rear-seat rider can be limited. The Regal’s front seats are relatively soft and offer moderate lateral but surprisingly aggressive thigh support, and an actual mechanical shift lever adorns the center console instead of the funky joystick Buick fits to some of its models. Noise levels are decently hushed—75 decibels at full throttle and 70 decibels at a 70-mph cruise—if not as quiet as in a more expensive Audi or BMW. However, the Buick interior’s clean, sweeping design layout, while ergonomically sound, borders on bland, and the mix of mediocre plastics on the steering wheel, center console, and lower door panels looks and feels low rent. Here, too, the humble Accord’s latest uptick in refinement makes a stronger showing.
Although pricing for the Sportback in its base, cloth-only 1SV trim starts at just $25,915, the top-level Essence model seen here raises the entry point to $32,695 and piles on the standard kit, including leather upholstery, eight-way power-adjustable and heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a 4.2-inch color display in the gauge cluster, and Buick’s 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system (a 7.0-incher is standard) featuring Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a 4G LTE data connection with Wi-Fi.
Inflating our car’s as-tested price to $35,615 was $395 for Darkmoon Blue Metallic paint, the $945 Sights and Sounds Package (navigation and a premium Bose audio system) that frustratingly also replaces the standard spare tire with an inflator kit, and the $1580 Driver Confidence Package I (LED headlights, rear parking assist, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-change and blind-spot alerts, a wireless charging pad, four-way lumbar front-seat adjustments, and memory settings for the driver’s seat and the heated exterior mirrors). Active-safety features, such as adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking, cost extra as part of the $1090 Driver Confidence Package II that our car didn’t have.
The Regal’s relaxed ride, dashing looks, and pleasant driving behavior bode well for Buick’s quest to broaden its appeal. We’d question spending much more than our test car’s price for its near-luxury finish, but the Sportback graceful design and hatchback versatility are compelling virtues at any of its trim levels.