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Buick Regal GS

The Buick Regal is the upscale version of the Century, ranging from about $21,000 up to $27,000. Our test Regal GS landed at about $24,000, not a bad price for a comfortable sedan equipped with leather, a optional Monsoon audio system, traction control, and, oh yes, a 240 hp supercharged V6 engine.

The engine was in many ways the distinguishing feature of this comfortable vehicle. It has gobs of power available at all speeds, and the supercharger kicks in subtly, making the engine seem more like a V8. Most of the time it is probably not needed at all, but it does provide extra kick. (Indeed, we recommend that most buyers opt for the base, 200 hp engine, which does not need premium fuel). A performance shifting button, conveniently placed on the shifter, makes the most of the engine without hurting smoothness.

Needless to say, the Regal is fast. Its zero to sixty times are quite good (just under 7 seconds, according to Buick - about 8 seconds for the standard model), passing power is tremendous, and hill climbing is very good. There are few cars in this price class that can boast of this kind of power.

The down-side is gas mileage, which is fairly low. We averaged about 15 mpg city, 25 highway, but it's possible to do better. EPA estimates are 18 city, 27 highway - the standard V6 gets 19/30, a tad better, but it also takes regular gas.

Outside of the engine bay, the Regal is more mundane. Handling is fairly nimble but it is fairly easy to make the tires squeal, both through fast turns and on acceleration. We also do not understand why the tires break free so easily on a car with traction control. A tire upgrade is certainly called for, as a partial solution. We would recommend the Eagle RS-A to Buick, the Yokohama Avid or a similar tire to ordinary people without bulk discounts. Steering is very light.

The ride is comfortable even with the touring suspension, if not as well insulated or quiet as, say, the Pontiac Bonneville. It is easy to enter and exit both the front and rear seats. There are foldout cupholders for both front and rear, though they are not as effective as they could be. The rear cupholders look fairly fragile, but they do fold away when not in use. Both front and rear seats have a closing center console.

The front console includes a removable change holder, which is, unfortunately, the only place to hold coins. You cannot throw them into the cupholder, the ashtray can be a little hard to get to unless the door is already open, and there are no other surfaces except maybe the door handle. Making matters worse, the console is pushed back (because of the center-mounted gearshift, rather unnecessary with an automatic transmission), so it is not easy for the driver to put coins in. This is admittedly a minor gripe unless you are at a tollbooth. (There is a center storage unit but it is far too deep for coins - or, indeed, for most other objects).

The thermostatically controlled climate control is easy to use and understand, and has dual temperature control. The fan is quiet at most speeds, and the air conditioning is powerful and effective.

The Monsoon stereo is a pleasure given clearly labelled buttons and actual knobs for bass, balance, volume, etc. The display is also easy to read. The Monsoon arguably does not sound better than the gadget-festooned Delco we're used to in General Motors products.

For those who want more guidance, the OnStar system provides emergency aid and a concierge service.

General Motors ergonomics were certainly at work with the cruise control, which is on the same stalk as the windshield washers and turn signals, while the steering wheel holds radio controls and the right stalk - isn't there. The horn is hard to press, and the controls for the trip computer are blocked by the steering wheel (and are fairly low on the instrument panel). We did like the integrated trip computer, which not only tells of fuel economy but also provides a boost gauge, but wished it had a compass as well. (The trip computer is only standard on the supercharged model.)

Speaking of General Motors ergonomics, we were surprised to see a holdover from the olden days - separate keys for the outside locks and the ignition. As far as we know, GM is alone in maintaining this awkward system. Even in the 1970s, Chrysler decided that one key should be for the trunk, the other for doors and ignition, because otherwise you have to flip keys every time you open the door. Nowadays, when everyone uses the remote, it is less of an issue, but we still have to wonder why they do not use a single key - or, at least, one for drivers and one for the trunk.

The instrument panel is easy to read, with large gauges. The boost gauge is digital (in the trip computer), and there is no oil pressure or current gauge.

Headlights can be left on automatic, or overriden by the driver. When the turn signals are on, little sideways headlights also light up.

The personality of the Regal is quiet, dignified, and ready to fly at an instant's notice. In some ways, it is a contradition in terms. This feels like the kind of car you drive sedately, but it's ready to take on that Solara, Accord Coupe, or Celica if it needs to.

This is a crowded market, and while the Regal has that high-output V6 and OnStar, you may also wish to consider the Toyota Camry and Avalon, for their legendary reliability and insulation; the Dodge Intrepid, has a similar range of engines (though the Intrepid R/T's 250 hp V6 is not supercharged and takes regular gas) with a larger interior and better handling; and the Chevrolet Impala, whose drivetrain also feels ready and eager. They are all good choices.

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