Monday, January 16, 2012

Regal Turbo Chance Encounter

Nothing ruins a my day like the check engine light. Except for the FLASHING check engine light, which really means "STOP. NOW. Or you and your car might die".

Saturday morning I found myself at the repair shop with the Explorer. Cylinder 6 misfire. Bad coil? Bad plug? Maybe fried my computer? This can only happen on a holiday weekend, of course. And only when Baby Mama is borrowing the Lincoln.

Having reserved an intermediate rental car over the phone, the agency wanted to put me in a Nissan Sentra. In what parallel universe is a Sentra in any way "intermediate"? I asked what other cars were available and to my delight, they had a 2011 Buick Regal Turbo for $15 more.

This black on black rental didn't have a manual transmission. But seeing this as a three-day test drive, I didn't really care. I wanted to know how livable the Regal is beyond the hour we spent with it last December, when I test drove the 220 HP Turbo with three adults on board. Back then, I left thinking the more powerful (and more expensive) 270 HP GS would be the only Regal for us. Now, having driven the Turbo with fewer occupants, I'm in the unenviable position of being on the fence.

Both around town and on a run from northern Connecticut to New York City, I continue to be impressed at this car's quickness, agility, and desire to be driven fast and hard. It proved supremely comfortable and capable. I'm somewhere between proud and ashamed at the way I drove it to New York, tussling with a BMW 5-Series who was particularly pissed at being licked by a Buick.

When flogged, it doesn't come close to the EPA estimated 29 mpg. I don't think I hit 23. But the needle rarely dropped below 80 and spent a little time north of three digits, so go figure.

On one particularly cold 12° morning, however, the Buick was completely unwilling to lay down the power it had the day before. It wouldn't downshift properly in passing maneuvers and power off the line was limited. Later in the day, when the temp had risen another 10 degrees, the Regal seemed back to its old self.

With Anthony and I in the front, the car is really a three-seater, as legroom behind Anthony is severely compromised. When we did have additional passengers, the reports from the back seat were all good, with the exception of a certain bored 13-year-old.

We drove the Regal to the Volvo dealership when we test drove the S60 T5. It gave us a nice chance to compare the two back-to-back. My initial gut reaction was that the Volvo felt substantial, with deep power resources and superior quality in build and materials. The Buick was almost "new age solid". As if it were made from more modern, lightweight materials, giving it a sort of aerospace rigidity. The weight and safety systems of the Volvo are more confidence inspiring, but IIHS gives the two cars equal ratings. NHTSA hasn't weighed in yet.

A few minor quibbles:

- No seat memory - We love this feature in our current cars and really miss it on the Regal
- Awkward shape of side view mirrors
- Quirky iPod integration - Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't
- Center armrest doesn't accommodate front passenger beyond the elbow
- Piano black dash accents reflect blinding sun
- How can the GS not come with fog lamps when the Turbo does?

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the Regal Turbo. Anthony is CONVINCED we need the GS with its Brembo brakes, perforated leather, multiple ride controls, and flat-bottomed steering wheel. But I'm not yet convinced we need it or its $2,500 premium over the Turbo. And, of course, we have to finagle similar experiences with the other vehicles that make the first cut.

If Regal becomes The One, we will have a happy few years of driving ahead of us.

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