Let's say you're in the market for a new ride. You've done well and want to reward yourself with a nice set of wheels.
You have about $45,000 to spend and would like to see a front-drive sedan with all the goodies parked in your garage. That narrows it down, right? Well, not exactly.
Front-drive luxury can take several forms, from quiet and cushy to firm and sporty. We've put two of these premium cars together to highlight just how different two $45K sedans can be.
First, there's the Buick Regal GS, the high-performance version of a nameplate that Buick revived in 2011. It's a design with a distinctly European flair that has exactly nothing to do with Regals of yore.
We also got our hands on the new-for-2013 Lexus ES 300h, a hybrid version of the Japanese company's entry-level luxury sedan that has been a staple in its lineup since day one.
The base Regal starts at $36,845 and is powered by a 2.4-litre electric-assisted four-cylinder engine with direct injection that produces 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. (Curiously, the non-hybrid, non-turbo Regal, which started at less than $35K last year, has been dropped for 2013.)
While the base eAssist model doesn't exactly scream performance, the $41,455 Regal GS's motive force is provided by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-banger that generates 270 horses and 295 lb-ft of torque. Now that's more like it.
For those not needing all of that power, there's also a mid-level turbo model that starts at $37,450 and pumps out 220 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Standard equipment on the Regal includes the subscription-based OnStar communications service, remote start, auto-dimming mirror, rear parking sensors, 17-inch alloys, a seven-inch touch screen interface for entertainment functions, seven speaker audio, dual-zone climate control, push-button start, and heated leather seats with power adjustment.
The Regal's more accessible starting price means it isn't loaded with goodies like the Lexus, but pile on the option packages and those features do make an appearance. Things like bi-xenon headlights, 18-inch wheels, driver-adjustable suspension damping, a heated steering wheel, a nine-speaker Harman-Kardon audio system, a glass sunroof and a navigation system can all be had for a few more shekels.
Standard on our GS tester were unique exhaust tips, front parking assist, alloy pedals, sport seats, unique suspension, flat-bottom steering wheel and 19-inch wheels. Our tester was further equipped with a no-charge six-speed manual gearbox (that's right -- a Buick with a stick!), 20-inch alloys with summer rubber, the navigation system and a power sunroof for an as-tested price of $47,065 including destination.
Lexus starts the pricing quite a bit higher than does Buick, with the ES 350 starting at $39,500, but throws in the power sunroof as standard equipment. It also has power adjustment for steering-wheel tilt and telescope, but gives up leather in favour of "NuLuxe" synthetic material. On the plus side, both front seats get 10-way adjustment as standard.
Like the Regal range, Lexus offers both conventional gas and hybrid options for the ES. Unlike Buick, though, the less-powerful hybrid version is the pricier of the bunch with the ES 300h starting at $43,900.
While the six-pot ES 350 is rated at 268 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque, the hybrid is decidedly more pedestrian with its 2.5L four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine combined with a permanent-magnet electric motor producing a combined 200 hp for the hybrid system (same as in the Camry Hybrid).
Like the Buick, the Lexus powers the front wheels but, rather than a six-speed manual as is available in the Buick, the Lexus gets a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is an essential part of Toyota's hybrid technology. It functions as the brains of the hybrid operation, with the job of finding the most efficient way to translate the driver's inputs.
Our hybrid tester didn't wear any extras, so, once the whopping $1,995 destination charge is added in, we get an as-tested price of $45,895, or about $1,000 less than the Regal we tested.
So we're talking about two four-door, front-drive sedans with similar dimensions (the Lexus' wheelbase is about 80 mm longer) and price tags. But that's where the similarities end.
Not surprisingly, the Lexus IS the luxury liner of the pair. It's quieter, more softly suspended and generally goes down the road in a coddling, fuss-free manner. Toyota's hybrid technology gets better with every new application, evidenced by the most seamless transition between gas and electric power I've experienced. But, while the powertrain is adequate, I wouldn't consider it a particularly luxurious setup since the four-cylinder with CVT can still drone under sustained acceleration.
Lexus IS going after the traditional luxury-buyer who wants to be isolated from the outside world as much as possible. The quiet interior of the new model is a big step forward for the ES design-wise, and gives it some legitimate luxury cred. Just check out the stitching on the dash, classy centre-mounted clock and satin-finish accents throughout the interior. Wood trim is there, but it's very restrained in its application. Plus, those have to be the quietest power-window motors on the market.
What is surprising, at least for those who haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to Buick lately, is that the Buick is about the sportiest front-drive sedan on the market. Rather than being coddled and isolated, the driver is connected to the car's controls and to the road surface. The six-speed stick (the first for Buick in more than 20 years) is a pleasure to run through the gears, and the turbocharged engine just loves to put the boost on.
The Regal's firm ride and steering are complemented by a driver-selectable "Interactive Drive Control" system that changes handling characteristics at the driver's whim. Sport mode stiffens up the suspension, while GS mode further firms up the ride and increases steering effort for a closer-feeling connection with the road.
Of course, the trade-off to all of this involvement is a rated city fuel-consumption figure for the Buick that is more than double that of the hybrid Lexus.
The Buick's interior isn't as quiet or luxurious as that of the Lexus. Rather, it's designed around the driver, with very little in the way of luxury touches. Some may like its purpose-built look, others will likely find it bland and less than what might be expected at this price point.
So which one is for you? We don't expect to see anybody cross-shopping these two entries. But it's safe to say that Lexus IS the new Buick, offering a more isolated environment, while Buick now goes after the more engaged driver who might also check out Acura's offerings.
2013 Lexus ES 300h
Drivetrain: front-wheel drive ENGINE: 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, Lexus Hybrid Drive
Net System Power: 200 hp
Transmission: continuously-variable automatic
Length: 4,895 mm
Wheelbase: 2,820 mm
Fuel Consumption (L/100 km): 4.7 city, 5.1 hwy
Base price: $43,900
Price as tested: $45,895
2013 Buick Regal GS
Drivetrain: front-wheel drive
Engine: 2.0-litre direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder engine
Power: 270 hp @ 5,300 rpm, 295 lb-ft of torque @ 2,500-4,000 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Fuel Consumption (L/100 km): 11.1 city, 7.4 hwy
Length: 4,831 mm
Wheelbase: 2,738 mm
Base price: $41,455
Price as tested: $47,065