Buick can thank its European cousins in the Opel division for its new entry-level sedan's good looks. It's no secret that the 2011 Buick Regal CXL is, at its core, a rebadged Opel Insignia. Now that we think of it, Buick Insignia does have a nice ring to it...but whatever it's called and wherever it's from, the sedan is a looker. Up front the Regal features an attractive take on Buick's corporate waterfall grill. The sedan avoids a slab-sided look by incorporating an L-shaped character line that flows from just below the winglet mirrors down to the door sills and around to an attractive rear end with nicely sculpted tail lights. On one occasion, a bypassing car lover approached us, complimenting the sedans curb appeal and stating that "it didn't even look like a Buick." Whether that impression is a good thing for Buick as a brand is questionable, but we're betting on good.
Settling into the cabin, a bit of the Regal's luxury pretense fades as the driver finds himself facing a glut of dull black plastic. Granted, the top of the dashboard and the door panels are composed of a nice, soft touch material, but just below the glossy, black accent strip you find cheap-looking, hollow-feeling, dull, black plastic for the center stack of audio and climate controls and much of the center console. Color us unimpressed.
The Regal uses a cabin technology suite that is similar to what we've seen in prior GM vehicles, but a few small changes to the control scheme make the interface easier to use in some ways and more confusing in others. Starting with the hardware, the Regal's interface is built around a 7-inch LCD screen that sits at the top of the dashboard's center stack and is home to the Buick's infotainment information and optional navigation system. The screen is not touch sensitive; rather, the user must use the bank of buttons and knobs below the screen or the multifunction controller located on the center console to control the infotainment system. The Regal's multifunction controller is a rotating knob surrounded by shortcut buttons for navigation, audio source, phone controls, destination entry, and a back button. This sort of European-styled, knob-based input scheme seems to us to be a throwback to the Regal's roots as a transplanted Opel vehicle and is not reflected on any of Buick's other models.
The Regal's graphic user interface (GUI) is similar to the one we saw on the 2010 Buick Lacrosse, however the differences in their control schemes led to more than a few frustrating situations during the course of our testing. In order to understand how this conflict arose, we should revisit the GUI's organization. Just below the main interaction area of most of the menu, input, or information screens is a bank of up to six virtual buttons. On a screen like the radio source screen, these could be radio presets. However, on the destination-entry screen, this bottom row is where the "enter" and "begin route" buttons live. On the previously reviewed Lacrosse, these virtual buttons corresponded with a bank of six similarly spaced physical buttons that lived just below the screen. However, on the Regal, buttons numbered 1 through 6 have been relocated midway down the center stack among a larger bank of buttons on the side furthest from the driver, and have been reorganized into two vertical rows, rather than a single horizontal one. Compounding the issue, although the multifunction controller allows you to highlight and select any option in the main screen area, its cursor never reaches this vital lower row of buttons, making it impossible to select "GO" after you've input a destination without taking your hand off of the multifunction controller, reaching up to the dashboard, and taking your eyes off of the road to hunt for an arbitrarily placed "6" key.
Our complaints about the dashboard's user interface aside, the array of available functions and features on the other side of that interface are pretty good for a vehicle at this price point. Our Regal CXL featured USB and iPod connectivity, an analog auxiliary input, CD audio playback, and DM satellite radio with a 3-month subscription all as standard equipment.
Like most GM vehicles we've tested of late, the Regal's Bluetooth hands-free calling functions--also a standard feature--seem to fall victim to the automaker's allegiance to its embedded OnStar handsfree calling system. With the OnStar system, users get access to a dedicated phone number for making and receiving in-vehicle calls initiated either by the end user or during the course of utilizing OnStar's concierge-like service. However, for users who don't want to juggle a second number for in-car use, the Bluetooth hands-free system is merely adequate. The system pairs with a phone either through a series of voice prompts or through the onscreen menu. Once connected, there is no way to sync the paired phone's address book for voice dialing, although individual numbers can be saved with manually set voice prompts.
In addition to serving as a hands-free calling system, the six months of free OnStar subscription that comes with the Regal also nets you safety features such as automated crash response, convenience features such as remote door unlock, and OnStar's spoken turn-by-turn directions for vehicles with and without the optional navigation system.
Speaking of options, the Regal is available with six packages that become increasingly fully-featured as you move from the base RL1 package to the fully featured RL6 package. Our tester came loaded with the $4,785 RL6 options package that adds a sunroof, premium audio system, rear-seat airbags, hard-drive-based navigation, and a Comfort and Convenience package that includes a 120V AC outlet for the rear seats, ultrasonic rear park assist, and a 12-way power passenger seat to match the driver's.
The navigation system is a 40GB hard-drive-based rig that pulls traffic and weather data from the aforementioned XM Satellite radio connection. Response time is snappy when browsing the maps and routing is on par with our expectations for a hard-drive-based system. Maps and POIs don't take up the entire 40GBs and a portion of that storage space is allocated to the live radio pause function. This is a cool feature for people who listen to talk radio or sports broadcasts and who don't want to miss a play when stepping away from the vehicle briefly. Simply hit the pause button while listing to terrestrial AM/FM radio, and the Regal will stop audio playback and begin to buffer the broadcast for up to 20 minutes on its hard drive. When ready to resume listening, the user simply hits the play button to pick up where the broadcast left off. The system will maintain this buffer for as long as you continue to listen, even beyond the 20-minute limit, so there's no fear that pausing now will create a 20-minute gap later.
The premium audio system is Harman Kardon-branded, with nine speakers (up from the standard seven-speaker rig) that includes a front center fill, but no subwoofer. Even without the sub, audio quality tended to bias toward bass and midrange with the three-band EQ set to flat. However, with a bit of tweaking, we were able to coax clear highs out of the system and tone down the bass to more reasonable, less distortion prone levels. In addition to increasing the number of speakers, the Harmon-Kardon system also adds DVD video playback to the source selection mix, putting those nine speakers to good use with its 5.1 surround-sound decoding.