Regular readers of this column know that my favorite cars are affordable, compact hot hatches like VW GTIs, Ford Fiesta STs, even wild-winged Honda Civic Type Rs. Small though their sales numbers may be, they boast supersized bandwidth: low center-of-gravity and turbocharged engines for performance — and five-door, hatchback utility for carrying stuff.
Right on these hatches’ rear bumpers is a new breed of five-door beauties that have caught my wandering eye. Call them sportbacks.
Budget-friendly kin of high-end, five-door thoroughbreds like the Tesla Model S and Audi A7, the appeal of the new Buick Regal Sportback and Kia Stinger sportback should be no surprise — they mix the hot hatch’s appealing recipe, but in a bigger pan.
The Stinger was a 2017 Detroit show-stopper and is a finalist for 2018 North American Car of the Year. Its rear-wheel drive power, sleek shape and interior volume not only recast the Korean maker as a sports brand, it brings Fifth Avenue design to Main Street showroom windows.
Running in its luxurious footsteps is the 2018 Buick Regal Sportback, which transforms Buick’s vanilla, mid-size sedan into a graceful swan. And it’s even more affordable (stop the presses!) than the Kia.
Heck, if Audi had a nickel for every time someone benchmarked to its stunning A7, they would be able to pay back all of parent VW’s Dieselgate fines in a fortnight. Since its birth in 2009, the A7 has been the sedan-beauty standard (well, the Aston Martin Rapide is more stunning, but it also costs the same as your house), eclipsing even the venerable Porsche Panamera sportback.
As the SUV sales revolution has threatened to make sedans as irrelevant as snow tires in St. Croix, sedan designers have had to recast the traditional, three-box, four-door concept. Their answer was as simple as hiring cheerleaders to rev up sleepy Detroit Lions fans: sex appeal.
The mid-size, front-wheel drive Chevy Malibu and Honda Accord were given sleek, Audi-like four-door coupe designs. But the premium-segment all-wheel-drive Regal goes further.
Designed and built in Germany as a rebadged Opel Insignia, the Regal Sportback’s ski-slope roof opens with hydraulic struts like a hatchback (thus the term sportback) to mimic the A7 and Model S in beauty, cargo utility and all-wheel drive dexterity. Cost of entry? Just $32,540.
Add three inches of wheelbase and subtract 200 pounds of weight from the previous generation and you have a bigger, nimbler, 250-horse looker with a European accent that brings real personality to the mid-size dance floor.
Buick needs every bit of that charm because the $30,000 mid-size disco is ferociously competitive — and not just from Regal’s usual Acura, Lincoln and Infiniti rivals. Indeed, those competitors, which Regal handles with better looks and value, are the least of its worries.
Take the Accord stallion that’s neck-and-neck with the Stinger for Car of the Year. Like the lovely Mazda 6 — which will arrive later this year with a turbo-4 spitting a serious 310 pound-feet of torque — Honda’s a mainstream brand with premium abilities.
Loaded to $36,700 — $2,000 shy of my Regal Essence trim — and the Honda matches the Buick feature for feature: 252-horsepower turbo-4, smartphone app compatibility, seat memory, adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist. And then it trumps the Buick with a nicer interior (wood trim, silver-bezeled cupholders), 10-speed transmission, packed steering-wheel controls and a heads-up display. Why GM starves the Regal Sportback of the latter — which the General invented! — is a mystery.
Row the two cars through the twisties and the Honda’s turbo-4 is more responsive, its chassis tighter, its 10-speed tranny a match for the Buick’s eight-speed unit.
But the Regal brings moves of its own.
While the Accord’s huge trunk could hide an elephant, the Buick’s hatched opening is more versatile. Pop it open, flatten the rear seats, and its 60 cubic feet of space will easily swallow a bicycle and three pieces of luggage.
And then there’s that all-wheel drive thing. The Accord doesn’t offer it — though I should note, the Buick can be had with front-wheel drive like the Accord for just $25,000, as Buick tries to do some down-market poaching in Accord value territory. Slogging through Michigan this time of year, all-wheel drive is a priority in the Payne family. Mrs. Payne won’t leave home without it, which has made her a Subaru groupie.
Regal’s four paws ain’t your average zoo animal. Armed with twin-clutch packs in her rear, the all-wheel drive all-the-time Buick can send torque to any wheel it needs to, meaning you can conquer slippy, icy conditions that would bedevil a Subaru — or even on some, more expensive Audi A5s — with more traditional open differentials.
I confidently plowed through snow before Christmas in an Audi SQ5 SUV. But I feel more confident and connected to the road in a lower-center of gravity Regal. That’s just physics.
The Buick’s all-wheel drive system also helps the front-drive biased car rotate better through corners, but the Buick is not a car you’ll be tempted to flog like the eager Accord or Stinger. You’ll drive with confidence and style. With its attractive winged grille and LED-lidded lights, it’s country club-pretty compared to the ready-to-rock-the-night-club Accord.
That said, the Regal’s design could be less, well, stuffy German. Buick’s Enclave does some wonderful things with chrome across its tuckus that are absent in the Regal — and there’s that bland (if ergonomically commendable) dash.
Perhaps the Regal — on sale now — is saving some panache for its pricier brothers: the 310-horse, V-6-powered, performance GS and the stunning Tour X wagon. With these two vehicles — which I will test later this year — the Regals cover a lot of customer real estate from $25,000 all the way to the mid-$40,000s. In a smaller sedan marketplace, that’s clever.
That’s a lot of personality for a brand that once had the presence of a wallflower. And it’s well-timed in a $30,000 aisle stuffed with neat toys. Those toys include entry-level Germans like the Mercedes CLA, Audi A3 and BMW 2-series. But despite their brand cachet, these cars simply can’t compete with the larger, feature-rich Buick and Honda. That’s how much the gap has shrunk between luxury and more mainstream brands.
Brand matters, but the Buick and Accord offer comparable value to sport utilities with more sex appeal. And should you have the need for speed, you can always spend a few extra coins on the Kia Stinger. It’ll stow your bike while you hunt down Panameras.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution idea: More sportbacks, please.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Buick Regal Sportback
Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan
2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder;
9-speed automatic (front-wheel-drive); 8-speed automatic
3,417 pounds (FWD base)
$25,915 base FWD; $32,540 AWD
(38,715 AWD Essence trim as tested)
250 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque (AWD)
0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (AWD, Car and Driver)
EPA mpg est. 22 city/32 hwy/26 mpg combined(FWD);
EPA mpg est. 21 city/29 hwy/24 mpg combined(AWD)
Sportback style, hatchback utility; get the all-wheel drive
Interior lacks character; is it a better value than the
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★