A Sort of Homecoming

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2012 Buick Regal eAssist

There is nothing like recalling past triumphs.

At this year's Chicago Auto Show, I had the great opportunity to present the 2011 Vehicle of the Year award to Tony DiSalle, Vice President of Marketing for Buick and GMC. The Buick Regal won this award by virtue that it was an absolutely superb premium midsized sedan. It did everything well – all I could ask from a globally-developed, German-made car.

My personal editorial policy states that I do not review the same vehicle twice. In this instance, there was an exception. While the Regal I reviewed last year had a 220 horsepower 2.0litre turbocharged engine, this one came with something completely different – an additional electric motor. As is the case with most automakers these days, the push to improve fuel economy includes taking steps to find ways to alleviate the stress on the standard internal combustion engine or find another energy source to power the vehicle.

General Motors already had a hybrid system in place that appeared in the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura. After a couple of years off the market, GM dusted off the system, made some improvements, and installed it into three new models for the 2012 and 2013 model years. One of these new models just happens to be the Buick Regal.

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The Regal eAssist begins with the standard 182 horsepower 2.4litre ECOTEC four-cylinder engine. GM’s "mild" hybrid system works the same in theory as with every other petrol-electric propulsion system on the market. Though there are differences between the systems – namely with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive and Honda's Integrated Motor Assist – GM's hybrid takes a slightly different approach to manage both energy sources by primarily taking its cues from the transmission, rather than the engine. The electric motor is installed for the purpose of cutting fuel efficiency when the engine is not needed. Also, the electric motor only operates by itself at very low speeds.

Providing energy to the electric motor is a 115-volt Lithium-Ion battery pack. Like all hybrid systems, regenerative braking recharges the battery for later use. GM's system includes a stop/start system that shuts off all motors when you waiting for the light to turn green. The 20 horsepower electric motor comes on first when you depress the accelerator, followed by the ECOTEC engine after a certain speed is achieved. You get to see all of this in action by looking at the LCD screen between the speedometer and tachometer. GM's six-speed automatic sends this power down to the front wheels.

Overall, the result is rather interesting.

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The first interesting tidbit about the Regal eAssist is the fact that you cannot tell the difference between a standard model and this one from afar. There are no special badges on the car that tells you it's an eAssist model. Some hybrids are doing exactly that – blurring the lines between "normal" and hybrid variants with only a few telltale clues to their differences. With that said, I've always enjoyed the look of the Regal with its global lines and shape. It exudes a sporty air that masks the sustainable drivetrain underneath its skin.

Compared to the model I drove last year, a few changes were made to the Regal across the board. While last year's award-winning turbocharged sampler was built in Germany, this one was built in Oshawa, Ontario – outside of Toronto. This has been the case with all 2012 model year Regals. Buick added its signature "portholes" to the hood – a modernized feature connecting today's Buicks with its past.

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The LCD screen above the center stack received an update with touch screen controls in the guise of app-like buttons to press. Certainly an improvement from last year's CXL Turbo model, but some functions are not exactly redundant. Though it is a touch screen set-up, some people may have trouble reaching it while driving. Luckily, some of the center stack buttons and the knob control on the console could do some of the work. If you cannot reach the screen, try the knob instead.

One such screen to watch maps the Power Flow of the eAssist system. If you drive any of the hybrids out in the market, this screen may look very familiar to you. Touch the app and it will show you where the energy of either petrol or electric use is going – including regenerative braking. You could watch this – or, switch back to the navigation screen or any screen you wish.

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Another telltale of it being an eAssist is the Eco gauge just left of the fuel one. If you stay in the middle – the "green zone" – you're fine. Otherwise, the needle will swing left or right into the "white zone" telling you that you are not driving economically. The tachometer also reads "Auto Stop" indicating that the Stop-Start system is in place when you're waiting for the light to turn green.

Open up the trunk and you will see that it does not run deep. The reason is the multitude of batteries wedged between the rear seat and actual trunk space. Compared to normal Regals, it would not be wise to carry long items in this model. Cargo space is sufficient for just a long weekend's trip for four.

However, if one would look for any indication that this Buick had the eAssist under the hood, the 17-inch alloys shod with Michelin Energy tires are a dead giveaway. Only the trained eye would know to look for this, as these "smaller" wheels are only available as part of the eAssist package.

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Yet, the Regal does have its foibles. I had a couple of friends complain about the seats. They were firm – despite the balance of bolster and lumbar adjustment on the driver's side. Still, if you had to do a long drive in the eAssist, try out the other models first to confirm if you have any issues with the seats. Rear room is a bit tight for long journeys.

I do miss the Interactive Drive System from last year's CXL Turbo. That Sport mode was fantastic. In the eAssist, you do not have that option. It is competent, but not overly exciting in its overall driving dynamics.

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As for the eAssist system, it's not exactly fluid or responsive to your right foot. When you brake, you can feel the engine transitioning to the electric motor, with the stop-start jerking the engine/motor to a full stop. Standing starts are sluggish regardless of which motor you have on – especially in passing or getting onto a highway. Once you get going – it is quite good. The electric motor has nothing to do with additional power when at speed, but you have to wonder if there is more than 182 horsepower on tap in the ECOTEC.

The trade off for all of this is fuel consumption. While I enjoyed filling the eAssist with regular petrol (The Turbo and the GS takes Premium), I was quite pleased with the mileage I got. The overall consumption figure was 30.2MPG, equal to the two compacts that sat alongside the Regal during its stay at the V&R Garage.

At $34,930, it is quite a bit of coin to pay for a car that gets over 30MPG. I had a fully equipped Premium II group model with optional sunroof and navigation system. Included with the sticker price was the $2,000 for the privilege of driving the eAssist.

Is the eAssist system worth the extra $2,000? If you consider the fuel economy aspect, it may be beneficial. However, it is not the best setup for the Regal. The standard 2.4litre ECOTEC four-cylinder is sufficient, despite what many of my colleagues have said last year when the Regal was first introduced. You could always jump to the GS – 270 horsepower of pure performance. For less than $3,000 more, you can have a real enthusiast's car that delights you at every turn.

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My choice – let's go back to the 220 horsepower Turbo. If I equipped it as it was last year – Interactive Drive Control being the focal point of the package – it is just $1,000 more than the eAssist I drove. Yes, I will lose precious fuel economy by going with the regular ol' Turbo (They call it the Premium III package for those keeping score), but I get fluid performance and more responsiveness from a Regal. Hardcore enthusiasts will argue that I will be short 50 horsepower if I did not get the more desirable GS, but would you rather have a Buick that gets the job done or simply be satisfied with good fuel economy through a so-called "mild" hybrid system?

While I honor the Buick Regal for being one of the catalysts in the growth of V&R, I know I will be presented with other vehicles that will challenge its pedestal standing. Some have already passed through my hands – with more to come. The Regal works for plenty of people, and deserve more sales volume than at present. Yet, it is not perfect.

It is still Victory & Reseda's reigning Vehicle of the Year…until November.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by General Motors.

All photos by Randy Stern

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