The easy way to explain the 2011 Buick Regal is to compare it to cars badged as Buicks in the 1990s. This was a decade of anemic V6-powered machines with mushy suspensions, cars altogether so similar to their corporate bretheren at Pontiac and Chevy that you didn’t have to be a cynic to figure that GM was just exploiting the legacy of a great pre-war American brand to consumers who actually remembered World War II. The new Regal couldn’t be more different.

Powered by a pair of potent four-cylinder engines and featuring an available sport suspension, GM wants the Regal to be taken seriously as a driver’s car, just as it hopes the reimagined Buick brand can compete with the likes of Lexus, Acura and Volvo. While that’s a tall order, there’s some evidence that the Regal could be the car to change people’s attitudes about Buick once and for all.

Unhampered by memories of recent American Buicks, Chinese carbuyers think it makes perfect sense that the new Buick Regal grips like a BMW and promotes driving as an active sport. The new Regal debuted in China in December 2008, and over the past year-and-a-half young Chinese have been buying a steady stream of Regals, essentially the same car that’s now available to Americans. Last year the Chinese purchased four times as many Buicks as did Americans.

The 2011 Buick Regal (GM).

While the car may have been developed in large part for the Chinese market, its genesis comes more from GM's European subsidiary Opel, which has been working on the Regal since 2004, long before it was ever planned to have a Buick name. (In Europe, the car is known as the Opel Insignia.) For those Buick faithful who still remember the days when Flint, Michigan, was known as “Buick City,” the Regal’s German lineage must be downright shocking.

Weighing in at 3,600 pounds and measuring 190 inches in length, the Regal is conceptually a seven-inch shorter version of Buick’s flagship Lacrosse sedan. By comparison, it’s four inches longer than Acura's TSX, or about the same size as a Nissan Altima. Regal buyers will find an extensive list of standard equipment in the base CXL model, which is powered by a 2.4-liter, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine that makes 182 hp and revs smoothly to its impressive 7,000 rpm redline. By the end of the year, a 2.0-liter turbocharged version making 220 hp, will go on sale in the CXS trim level. This one will have an even sportier, adjustable suspension, with upgraded brakes and tires.

The 2011 Buick Regal (GM).

Buick expects 30 mpg on the highway from the 2.4-liter, and 29 mpg from the 2.0-liter turbo. City mileage in the 2.4-liter is 20 mpg. Buick is not promising a hybrid, but there are seven different four-cylinder diesel configurations available in the car in Europe and China, which could be brought to market in the U.S.

Consumers who might be hesitant to embrace the notion of a Buick with a four-cylinder shouldn’t be, as both engines provide sufficient power. The transverse-mounted engines are both mated to six-speed automatic transmissions, which shift quickly and practically without notice. While a manual tranmission is not (yet) available, both models also alow the driver to tap the shift lever for upshifts and downshifts. We managed super-legal speeds in a pre-production 2.0-liter CSX with both exhilaration and confidence. Although not as lively, the 2.4-liter is competent, and we drove it with haste on twisty mountain roads. GM has also announced that it plans to build another version of the Regal, based on the GS concept shown at this year’s Detroit auto show. That concept had a manual transmission coupled to a 255-horsepower version of the 2.0-liter engine and all-wheel-drive.

It's difficult to tell the standard Regal is a front-driver, because the wheels turn in quickly and grip without plowing in corners, even during acceleration on the exit. Grippy 18-inch Michelin tires were reluctant to squeal, and the optional 19-inch Goodyears protested heavy loading even less. The Regal’s ride is refined, meaning full-travel bumps don't upset it much and body motion is controlled and never excessive.

The 2011 Buick Regal (GM).

The Regal benefits from numerous sound-reducing techniques, like baffles over small drain holes and other body openings that help reduce noise that can penetrate the cabin. The instrument panel and interior trim is clean and attractive, but one literally glaring mistake is the bright chrome shifter surround, which is just too much. GM knows how to pad seat structures (all those years studying the sore backs of its geriatric Buick customers?) as the results here demonstrate. The Regal has form-fitting seats at all four corners, seats that still remained comfortable after more than two hours of driving. Rear-seat headroom is inadequate for six-footers, but shorter passengers should be comfortable on long trips.

The Opel version of the new Buick is called the Insignia, and has been available in Europe for the past year with a range of engines from a 1.6-liter four to a 2.8-liter V6, and a wide selection of four-cylinder diesels, each of which come standard with manual transmissions. Perhaps more interesting is that the Insignia is also available in hatchback and wagon body styles. We Americans, as well as the Chinese, get the sedan only.

The Regal went on sale in April, starting at $26,245. Currently only the CXL model with the 2.4-liter engine is available, but the turbocharged version will go on sale later this year. Currently all Regals are built at the Russelsheim plant in Germany next to the Opels, but by early 2011 our cars will be built in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, alongside the Chevy Camaro.