Skin Deep

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2011 Buick Regal

You’d think that after a couple of postings that there may have not been any conclusions made regarding the relationship between the automotive industry and the LGBT community. The questions asked over the past couple of weeks simply remain unanswered. Yet, for every unanswered question, there are a few more to ponder about.

The survey conducted for the "Them and Us" series was a telltale sign of how the LGBT community has gone beyond being selective of their products based on the industry's relationship with their culture. It also revealed a want for knowledge and awareness of which automobile brands would welcome them into the showroom and provide them with unprejudiced sales and after-sales care.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the most important part of the cycle: The product. Could LGBT consumers embrace an automotive product that loves them back? Could the automotive industry provide a product for the GLBT community to be embraced universally?

If we revisit the stereotypes of the LGBT community, we entrap ourselves to certain products. For gay men, that would mean the Jeep CJ-5 of the 1970s, emerging to the all-white Volkswagen Rabbit Cabriolet of the 1980s, the Mazda Miata of the 1990s and the Toyota Prius of the last decade. For Lesbians, it’s the Subaru Outback.

Why do we buy into these stereotypes when we know they are not completely true? Not all Lesbians own a Subaru Outback. Nor do all gay men have a Toyota Prius or a BMW. Even if you don’t read Out, The Advocate or Lavender, you probably ought to know which automobile you should consider trading in your stereotypical (or, non-stereotypical) vehicle for?

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, if you turn the cover of the May edition of Out magazine, you will find a two-page spread of your next automobile – the 2011 Buick Regal.

Why the Regal? For starters, it is an international design – with input from designers and engineers in Shanghai, Russelsheim and the Renaissance Center. It is about the same size class as an Acura TSX, Audi A4 or Infiniti G sedan. And, it’s exactly what LGBT folks love: An upscale, stylish sedan.

Let’s get serious for a moment. The Regal is more than just a contender for the so-called entry-level premium sedan marketplace. General Motors created a sequel to their highly successful global Epsilon platform by crafting a product that would be sold to middle-market consumers worldwide. The first market to sell this product is Europe with the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia. Initial global reaction was pretty positive, especially when they brought out their hottest model: The OPC/VXR with a turbocharged V6 underneath the hood. GM was already ahead of the curve on intercontinental demand as they rolled out the Buick Regal in China before looking at a very important marketplace: North America.

The timing was right since Buick began to reinvent themselves as a smart, hip premium brand for a younger audience. Part of that smart, hip crowd just happens to be LGBT folks – perhaps established (or, in some states, legally married) couples that need a stylish vehicle to get around in. The Regal even attracts the single professional who may be dating someone (or not) with a positive path towards greater success. They key element for these demographics, gay or straight, is the bottom line. While your typical upscale so-called entry-level sedan is priced in the $30-35,000 range, the Regal starts just under $27,000.

Is this value proposition worth considering against the products that make up the heart of the LGBT automotive market?

To attract a buyer, it must look good, or, in Buick’s words from Out magazine: “Luxury that is comfortable in its own skin.” Being a sucker for a handsome face and shape, the Regal did not disappoint. Sure, the 2009 Vehicle of the Year, the LaCrosse, certainly forged the brand’s new look upon the buying public. I will argue, however, that the Regal is much more handsome than its larger stablemate.

The Regal’s size is taut, making its shape more understated. The details make up the difference with curves and lines that create impact all around the exterior. Take the rear end, for example. Some may not like the chromed jut towards the top of the trunk lid that houses the Buick badge, but it works to create an visual impact for everyone else to admire.

Another detail that must be mentioned is the headlight design. The 2011 CXL Turbo model sampled here came equipped with high-intensity discharge lights – which has a unique lamp housing design when ordered. There is a set of LED daytime running lights that look like side cut of an angle bracket. They’re shaped around a turn signal light and the round HID lamp. It’s not about how it lights up, but rather the design of the lamp housing itself – one of the best I’ve experienced in my personal automotive history.

The Turbo also came with 19-inch wheels as part of one of the most extensive ordering packages you can get from Buick. The wheels may seem like overkill to the rest of the design, but they give the Regal a certain visual swagger you did not expect from any Buick since the GNX of yore.

Given the experience of the LaCrosse (and the Chevrolet Equinox), I was better prepared for the latest in GM's cabin design this go round. However, the edge must be given to the Regal due to its larger dials, cleaner set-up and better front seating space. The seats themselves are heaps better, too! Once you set up the seats to a comfortable position, you’re absolutely in tune with the car. However, I will suggest finding a place behind the wheel that will give you a chance to become interactive with it. That’s where the Regal comes into play – it invites you to become engaged with the car.

Again, it is the details that enhance the cabin experience. The leather upholstery is thick and sporty to sit in. The navigation screen is crisp and easy to follow. The touch points are fine and the material quality throughout the cabin is pretty good. I also like the subtle piano black trim that is evident in this cabin. The position of the navigation/infotainment screen is right where I want it – up top of the center stack directly in my field of vision.

The set up for the infotainment and navigation system alone did not take long to comprehend and use. The map is visually brilliant along with great graphics for the audio (satellite radio and iPod/USB) and phone readouts. Sound is filtered through a nine-speaker Harmon/Kardon audio system – quite a nice piece of aural ambiance. The Bluetooth syncs up very easily with the voice recognition system. You can either use voice recognition to make the call, or use “The Knob” on the console. On top of that, there’s OnStar – the original telematics system.

There were a few concerns to express about the Regal’s cabin. If you have full-sized adults in your family – your definition of “family” may vary here – the rear seats may be a pinch to get comfortable in. Tall passengers will have trouble managing the slope of the roof.

Then, there’s the array of buttons as found on newer GM automobiles on the center stack. To a driver who likes simplicity in operating a vehicle (myself included), those buttons can be a bit intimidating. We prefer our climate control knobs, slides or buttons to be simple and easy to use. Our audio system switches should be, too! But, as with most vehicles, once you get use to the plethora of buttons in the middle of the instrument panel, you’ll be able to use the switches closer to your fingers that do the same thing. For example, the audio system and hands-free phone switches on the steering wheel made life easier on the road.

However, the one thing that was initially a head scratcher in the Regal was the aforementioned “Knob.” Understanding this particular vehicle was built on Opel’s Russelsheim assembly line, it falls under the German obsession over knobs placed on the center console to operate everything infotainment-wise. GM doesn’t give it a fancy name, such as iDrive or MMI or COMAND. It’s simply a knob, along with adjoining buttons, that controls the screen for navigation, audio system and hands-free phone functions.

The point of the knob is to make things easier for the driver to operate these infotainment functions. Sure, I get it. It is necessary to use them when making calls or changing playlists from your iPod. However, when production shifts to the Oshawa, Ontario plant for North American consumption, the knob will go away. Instead, GM’s touch screen system, as seen on the LaCrosse and other GM models, will be installed in the Regal.

Of course, any use of the infotainment/navigation system in a GM vehicle is not complete without talking about OnStar. For the uninitiated, OnStar is a universal application controlled by three buttons placed on the bottom of the rearview mirror. With OnStar activated, it conveys information to the driver through a live person at a call center for assistance on an array of services from stolen vehicle tracking, accident response to simply getting directions to unfamiliar locations. In my case, I wanted to test its interface with the navigation system to find the location of a softball tournament being held on Memorial Day weekend. I called OnStar with my location and they sent it right to the navigation screen. You are prompted both by the screen and by a voice calling the directions based on points along the map. To say it worked is an understatement. Overall, I was extremely impressed with my experience with OnStar.

Under the hood, the Regal CXL normally comes with the familiar and reliable 2.4litre ECOTEC four-cylinder mill. Instead, the CXL Turbo has the new 2.0litre ECOTEC turbocharged four-cylinder motor with direct injection. That brings the horsepower up from 182 to 220. It gives the Regal some legs. It’s also a pretty quiet mill, even under pressure, and you also do not feel any turbo lag whatsoever. The boost is fluid and available throughout the power band. This turbo can also be fed with Premium Unleaded or E85 Ethanol. I put in a few gallons of corn juice to see any difference in engine performance. As soon as the E85 was in the system, engine response was noticeably smoother. It did come with a cost to fuel consumption – a net loss of .6 MPG over Premium Unleaded.

Connected to this turbo is a six-speed automatic gearbox with a long throw shifter down to either reverse or drive. The front wheels benefit from this power and strong torque. The overall package is to my liking – just enough performance to make driving a bit more spirited than usual.

But, if you must have more performance, you will have to wait. The 270HP Regal GS is looming this fall.

When presented with a higher performance engine under the hood, a driver would prefer to have a sporting experience to go along with the additional firepower. In this CXL Turbo, there is such an experience available through the Interactive Drive Control. What this does is give a driver a choice between three driving dynamics settings – two of the settings are available on the upper left set of buttons on the center stack. If do not touch either the “Tour” or “Sport” button, you get a "normal" driving experience. It drives just fine without pressing the two buttons – like what you expect from a globally developed Buick with a few compromises to North American drivers.

Press the “Tour” button, also known as the “Touring” mode, and things change. The suspension tightens up and the steering feel becomes sharper – albeit just a tad. Any roll you find in the corners is limited in this Touring setting, which will help you tackle freeway cloverleaves and the oft curve in your neighborhood. The point of the Touring mode is to make highway driving a bit more manageable when presented with a long journey across state lines. It’s not bad, really.

However, if you press the “Sport” button, you get even better driving dynamics. “Sport” mode tightens the suspension settings to a near-zero roll in the corners and a sharper feel on the road. The steering is tightened up to minimize wheel play. Gear changes become sharper and the throttle opens up to welcome your led foot with maximum power from the ECOTEC Turbo. This is my favorite setting out of all three of the Interactive Drive Control’s options. In Sport, I can truly feel the control of the Regal Turbo. There is a catch: If your roads are pockmarked with unrepaired potholes from last winter, you end up feeling them even harder than you would in Normal mode. Regardless, I’d still set the Regal in Sport and forget it.

The only thing the Interactive Drive Control does not connect to are the brakes. It doesn’t really have to, as the Regal stops with sharp, short distances in both regular and panic situations.

Another thing about turbocharged engines: They can be notorious for lower fuel consumption over their naturally aspirated brethren. The overall fuel economy rating for the Regal came out to 23.8 MPG. Considering the EPA rating range was 18-28 MPG, this was about right what I expected even on both Premium fuel and E85.

As I mentioned before, regular Regal CXLs with the 2.4litre normally aspirated ECOTEC start under $27,000. If you want the Turbo, you pony up another $2,500. My sample vehicle ran the sticker up to just over $35,000. Compared to similarly equipped vehicles, it is right in that upscale "entry-level" sedan price range. If you are looking at similar vehicles in that segment, there is something important to consider: The Regal is available only in front-wheel drive. For those of us in the Northern Climes, we would have to look elsewhere if we must have the convenience of all-wheel drive. But, if you’re looking for a sweet performing comprehensive package that includes telematics and everything else you want in an upscale so-called entry-level sedan – add the Regal to your list.

After the research and surveying about the interrelationships between the LGBT community and the automotive industry, I can heartily endorse the Regal as a good choice for living the lifestyle. It doesn’t broadcast you as part of the cast of “The A-List: New York,” “The L-Word” or the growing cadre of 21st Century hipster Bears. Seriously, do you really have to?

The Regal is the kind of sedan that fits every lifestyle. It speaks to both our luxury and sporty sides. It may not immediately turn heads when you arrive with your date or long-term partner – it doesn't have to! I love the elegant subtlety of the Regal, but I also like how it stands out in a crowd full of copycat mid-size sedans in both mainstream and premium markets.

However, the Regal is not just for LGBT folks. It’s truly a sedan that appeals to everyone who loves the feel of an upscale sedan without the over-the-top pretense you might find in its price range. The overall air of the Regal is business-like without being flash or showy. I think a lot of consumers, regardless of identity, would want something like that in their garage.

For someone like me who appreciates subtle luxury, a bit of performance and handling with plenty of useful gadgetry on board, the Regal's beauty is truly skin deep. Then again, I could look at its handsome exterior all day with a grand smile. Better still, it's always great take it out for a nice drive somewhere – even if it's to a softball tournament!

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by General Motors.

All photos by Randy Stern

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