Buick Somerset Regal: a coupe to compete with the imports

The Buick Somerset Regal, a 4-passenger compact coupe, is just that -- regal. Like its two sister cars, the Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Calais, the Regal is smaller than the compact X-car, but larger than the subcompact ``J.'' It's aimed directly at the smaller, sporty -- albeit luxurious -- European and Japanese imports that have had such major success in capturing the American car buyer.

With a wheelbase of 103.4 inches and a curb weight of 2,542 pounds, the Somerset Regal is very competitive in its market segment. So are the Calais and Grand Am.

Bear in mind, of course, that this is the first year for the car and, as with any other all-new car or product, some adjustments on the production line may be needed before the car is fully up to the standard that the manufacturer has set for it.

Don't confuse the Buick Regal with the Somerset Regal. The first is a standard-size, rear-drive Buick, the second a compact-size front-drive car.

The standard engine in the Somerset Regal is a 4-cylinder ``4,'' which may be all the engine that most drivers would need or want. It gives a highly satisfactory account of itself on the road. There is, however, an optional 3-liter, multi-port, fuel-injected V-6 for the motorist with a drive for more zip.

As for handling on the road, the car responds to driver input with ease, although the road feel through the steering wheel was not as responsive as I would have liked.

Even so, the Buick Somerset Regal gave a good ride on just about every road surface except potholes. And how many cars can navigate those deep pits without complaint?

The dashboard is well arranged for visibility and control. I did not especially like the complex light-control cluster. There are simply too many buttons to control the lights and windshield wiper-washer functions on the car.

Speaking of the multiplicity of buttons, the designers of the electronic radio didn't know when to stop. You almost have to halt the car to get your station. What has happened to easy-to-operate car radios? And the pricey Bose system is simplicity itself, compared with some of its lesser-cost competitors.

The electronic instrument panel is fun to play with. To keep close tabs on the fuel in the tank, you can flip a button to get an enlargement of the fuel gauge between empty and the one-quarter mark. A nice item if you're used to driving with little gas in the tank. You can also get numerous other readings by pushing a button -- voltmeter and engine oil pressure among them.

The base price of the Buick Somerset Regal coupe with standard 4-cylinder engine is under $9,000, but count on several thousand in extras before you're through with at the car dealership. Air conditioning, for example, is $630 and automatic transmission, $395.

Although the cars are all basically the same, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac have put their divisional mark on the N-body coupes. The grilles, trim, inside d'ecor, dashboard -- all have an identity of their own, even though the mechanicals are really the same.

As to room, figure on a comfortable fit for four, but a squeeze for five. In 1986 GM will expand its N-body lineup to include a 4-door sedan.

Mileage in the V-6 Limited version of the Somerset Regal may give less than 20 in combination-type driving; the 4-cylinder, a few miles more. In steady-state driving on an expressway, figure on 25 m.p.g. and up.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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