2002 Buick Regal Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Cruising softly with a big stick.
Buick Regal is a performance-oriented mid-size sedan. And because it's Buick's performance-oriented mid-size sedan, it doesn't wear its performance on its shirt sleeve.
The supercharged Regal GS can match Pontiac's nifty Grand Prix GTP stride for stride, sprinting from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds. But you would never know it just by looking. The Pontiac is an extrovert on steroids: All exaggerated bulges and air dams, it's like a muscular body in tight T-shirt. Conservative Buick prefers what we might call the 007 doctrine: Pack a powerful punch and a 9mm Walther PPK in the pocket of your tuxedo.
Two models are available. Regal LS starts at $23,230. GS retails for $27,285.
The major distinction between the LS and GS lies under the hood. Both use GM's ubiquitous 3800 Series II V6, a 3.8-liter unit originally developed by Buick. In the LS, this engine is naturally aspirated. That's an exotic-sounding term which simply means that it breathes the way most engines do, relying on the motion of the pistons to draw in air at atmospheric pressure. In that form, it is rated 195 horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque.
The GS is motivated by the same basic engine, but fitted with a supercharger. That's another exotic-sounding term, one that means, essentially, air pump. The supercharger pumps in more air than the engine would naturally draw, boosting horsepower to 240 and torque to 280 pounds-feet.
Both engines drive the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission, although the GS has a heavy-duty unit to handle the extra torque. Both LS and GS have ABS and traction control, but the GS gets a more sophisticated system. The LS system modulates engine power to reduce wheel spin under acceleration. The GS uses a full-range traction control system that can also selectively apply the brakes.
GS comes with a higher level of standard equipment, including a crisper Gran Touring suspension, 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels with slightly more aggressive tires, and GM's OnStar communications system. You can add the GS wheel/tire/suspension upgrade to the LS for an even $600.
Last year, Buick offered a limited-production Olympic Edition Regal by designer Joseph Abboud. Its successor for 2002 is simply called the Abboud Regal, and features a dramatic two-toned leather interior, abounding in Abboud signature emblems. Exterior colors are limited to Dark Bronze Mist, White, Graphite Metallic, and Sterling Silver Metallic, all with Light Sandrift lower body panels. Abboud Regals all come with a sunroof, premium Monsoon stereo, and unique accents on the grille and wheels. The Abboud treatment adds $995 to the price of a Regal GS, but a hefty $3647 to a Regal LS, as in the latter case it also includes major luxury upgrades plus the GS tire and suspension package.
Regal looks clean, nicely proportioned and free of excessive bright trim. Its S-curved belt line and full-width tail lights confirm its Buick identity, even though its horizontal-line grille departs from Buick tradition. Conforming to the current less-is-more fashion, that grille is body-color on the premium GS and chrome on the basic LS.
If you have any lingering doubt that General Motors can build dramatically different cars using the same basic chassis, compare Buick's Regal and Century. These two share the same platform (along with the Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Intrigue). Aside from basic dimensions, however, they are as much alike as milk and champagne.
The Regal is the sportiest Buick product, a trait that's reflected inside. Although the controls and instrument panel design look tame compared to a Pontiac Grand Prix, it's pretty daring by Buick standards. An attractive cowling curves over the instrument panel and the dashboard, in turn, sweeps nicely into the door panels.
Major instruments are readily visible through a large, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Optional auxiliary audio controls are built into the upper wheel spokes, and you can honk the horn by pressing on the center of the hub, which houses the driver's airbag.
Regal's bucket seats, covered in leather in GS models, don't offer quite as much lateral support for tearing down winding roads as those in the Grand Prix GTP. The Buick's seats are more comfortable for long trips than those in the Pontiac, however. On LS and GS, the driver's seat is six-way power adjustable. Heated outside mirrors are standard on all Regals. Optional heated front seats ($295) would be a welcome addition in the depths of a northern winter.
Part of GM's strategy for the mid-size sedan war is packing in more comfort and convenience features than its target competitors. Regal is rolling proof. Even the LS comes with dual-zone air conditioning; excellent audio; power windows, mirrors and door locks; antilock brakes (ABS) and low-speed traction control. And that's just hitting the highlights.
The GS is loaded. Rather than detail its contents, we suggest you study the data panel; it'll take awhile because there's a lot to read. However, one thoughtful item does bear mention here, a warning light to let you know when you have low pressure in one or more tires (standard on the LS as well). Low pressure is the prime cause of reduced tire life and can substantially reduce traction, particularly on wet pavement.
Interior room is a major asset of the Regal. There's plenty of space up front, which you'd expect, and plenty of space in back, which you might not. Three adults can sit back there comfortably, without territorial squabbles or contortions, and they can do so for extended periods. Moreover, because the rear seats are slightly elevated, rear-seat occupants have a good forward view, to help them critique your driving. The center seating position isn't quite as comfortable as the outboard spots, and it lacks a three-point belt, but in general, the Regal shames its import competition for rear-seat roominess.
The rear seat splits and folds down for hauling long items such as skis and fishing rods. In terms of safety, the Regal stacks up as contemporary, though not outstanding. Anti-lock brakes and traction control come standard. It has the required dual front airbags. A side-impact air bag for the driver's seat is standard on GS and on leather-trimmed LS models, but is not available for the passenger side.
Thanks to its excellent torque, even the LS V6 can haul this big sedan out of the blocks in a hurry. The Series II 3800 is an excellent engine, and it delivers 200 horsepower. It has stood the test of time, and has also been refined over the years. EPA-rated fuel economy is a very good 20/29 miles per gallon city/highway.
Though it's a good engine, the naturally aspirated 3800 pales next to its supercharged counterpart in the Regal GS. Supercharging adds 40 horsepower to the output of the 3800 V6, but the bigger benefit comes in the form of mass quantities of torque. While the Regal LS comes with 225 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm, the GS boasts 280 pounds-feet at a more useful 3600 rpm. Torque is the force you use to get off and running when the light turns green, or to pull out for a pass on a two-lane highway; the Regal GS performs both of these tasks with gratifying zeal.
This zeal is habit-forming. Because the Regal GS is so quiet, it requires some extra attention to the speedometer, as the supercharged V6 quickly tows the Regal beyond legal speed limits. Punch the throttle from a standstill and the GS will exhibit a bit of torque steer, a gentle tug on the steering wheel, but this trait becomes almost transparent after a little familiarization.
Even with its stiffer Gran Touring suspension package, the GS isn't quite as athletic as the Grand Prix GTP. On the other hand, the Regal's ride quality is distinctly smoother and more compliant. And it handles well. The Gran Touring suspension includes touring tires for better steering, handling and control. The front springs and front stabilizer are stiffer, while a rear stabilizer bar is added. Rear shock absorbers and front struts are tuned for higher dampening rates for more body control. The Gran Touring package also includes GM's MagnaSteer, the variable-assist power rack-and-pinion steering that provides easier steering at low speeds but increases effort at higher speeds for improved steering feel. As a result, the steering is accurate and exceptionally quick.
Likewise, braking performance is a definite cut above, with good control and pedal feel. The Gran Touring package comes with larger front brake rotors to quicken braking response.
The Buick Regal is an excellent blend of posh and performance, with plenty of space and many features. And the sportiest Regal, the GS, is one of the hottest mid-size sedans you can buy.
LS ($23,230); GS ($27,285).
Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
Regal GS ($27,285).
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