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It's easy to write about a car that's very good. It's also easy to write about a car that's very bad. But when it comes to cars that ride the centerline, where there are some good qualities and other not-so-good qualities -- well, that's a bit harder.
And that's where the 2018 Buick Regal Sportback lives. Its hatchback form should help appeal to buyers that are considering shifting from cars to crossovers, and it's a rather pleasant drive. But some other parts seem old or half-baked, largely related to Buick's attempt to ride that middle "premium" line between mass-market and luxury.
Buick is at the tail end of a large lineup shift. Every car in its stable has been recently refreshed, and the Regal is the final piece of that puzzle. The Regal Sportback is a fine car, but being just OK is a hard sell in a price category where there are so many good vehicles.
The last Regal was a bit dowdy, but not this one. Relying on the strengths of recent concepts like the Avista, the new Regal Sportback adapted some very handsome looks that have been adapted to other new Buicks in varying degrees of success. Alongside the Enclave, I think the Regal Sportback is one of the prettiest new Buicks in some time.
The fast rear end that comes with a hatchback gives the Regal Sportback a heavy dose of style. The headlights look sharp. The grille is appropriately sized -- a growing rarity. There's some clever sculpting on the hood and on the door panels.
The interior is hit-or-miss, leaning toward the latter. There's a nice amount of layering on the dashboard, but once you stop looking at it from the outside, the narrative falls apart amid a liberal use of coarse plastics and leather that feels no cushier than mid-tier vinyl. Panel gaps are big, especially near the doors, and one piece of trim gap on the transmission tunnel was sharp enough for my co-driver to be concerned about cutting himself on it. The gauges feel small and tough to read in a hurry.
GM's love for plastic panels with faux stitching best exemplifies the interior quality -- fine to look at, less than fine when any other sense is involved.
That said, the interior does have some redeeming qualities. Even with its sloping rear end, headroom is ample for a six-foot-tall passenger, and when sitting behind a six-foot-tall driver, there's loads of legroom. Fold the rear seats down and you can toss a bicycle in the back without removing the wheel while still retaining enough space for bags and backpacks.
Every Regal Sportback, with the exception of the hopped-up GS trim, will come with a 250-horsepower turbocharged I4. With front-wheel drive, the Regal Sportback packs 260 pound-feet of torque and a nine-speed automatic. Opt for all-wheel drive, and the transmission loses a gear, but torque jumps to 295 pound-feet.
More torque is nice, but strangely enough, the front-wheel-drive Regal Sportback felt like more of a driver's car. Its nine-speed automatic moves quickly and smoothly through the gears, with the engine providing a bit of a pleasing grumble if you push the pedal hard enough. The AWD version packs nearly 200 more pounds, and as you might expect, that extra heft cuts down on the FWD variant's feeling of lightness. The eight-speed is a little more reluctant to shift, too.
No matter the number of driven wheels, the Regal Sportback's ride is excellent. The suspension is soft enough to eat up bad roads without leaving the driver wallowing in body roll. The brakes work, and well. And just like the Enclave, this Regal is nice and quiet, with very little road or wind noise making its way into the cabin. Buick has been creeping up on Lexus in terms of interior isolation, which is high praise.
Buick touts the Regal Sportback as a driver's car, and in a bubble, it is. But once you start driving competitors from the non-premium space, like the Mazda6 and the new Honda Accord, the Regal once again becomes a hard sell -- provided driving dynamics is near the top of your list of requirements.
If there's one thing GM almost always gets right in 2017, it's in-car tech. Standard equipment includes a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system (8-inch screen available, but optional), keyless entry and GM's ubiquitous 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, which always manages to have coverage when my own network fails me.
However, having been in and out of GM vehicles over the last several years, nothing's really improved upon in the Regal Sportback -- it's just more of the same. The Regal Sportback doesn't have the latest version of GM's infotainment system, which started rolling out to Cadillac and GMC models this year, so the UX feels behind its time if you've been within 100 feet of the new one.
In terms of newfangled safety equipment, nothing is standard. There's a package available on all but the base trim that offers rear parking sensors and blind spot monitoring. If you want adaptive cruise, automatic braking and forward collision warning, you'll need to move up to the highest trim and spend about $2,500 in options packages. Moving up from the base trim alone will set you back nearly $7,000, so you'll really have to want those safety systems.
Considering some automakers -- less expensive ones, even -- are democratizing their active safety systems and offering them as standard, even on lower trims, Buick's decision to keep its systems tucked away behind a four-figure upgrade is disappointing.
For all its foibles, Buick nailed the pricing for the new Regal Sportback. A base FWD Regal Sportback will set you back $25,915 (including destination), which is $2,000 less than what you paid for a base model from the previous generation. The price rises to $32,655 for the top-trim Essence, with two other trims in between. Only the top two trims are eligible for all-wheel drive, and the Essence alone is capable of equipping the most important safety systems. Tick every box and you'll still be under $40,000, which is nice.
There is value in the Regal Sportback. It's a solid driver with an equally solid complement of standard and available tech. The new Regal continues Buick's tradition of riding that line between the mass-market and luxury segments, but with a few missteps along the way, it feels like the Regal Sportback is a bit closer to the former group than the latter.
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