Where have you gone, Sponge Bob Buick? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? The marshmallow-mobile has left and gone away?

It's true. The old mushy, floaty Buick ride, and the handling that went with it, are things of the past, as is the often nondescript styling. Nowhere in the Buick lineup is that sea change more evident than in the latest addition: the sporty 2011 Regal.

Smart, stylish, refined and nimble, this European-designed midsize sedan is essentially everything the Buicks of yore were not. I haven't been in a Buick that looked and acted this sophisticated.

It is also Buick's first truly global car (versions are sold in Europe and China), and a good value (the $26,245 base price includes leather seats in its standard equipment list).

"They are selling well," says Ryan Irish, sales manager at Granite Run Buick/GMC in Media. "The car is attracting a younger buyer, and a lot of former Pontiac owners."

The front-drive Regal was designed in Germany by General Motors' Opel subsidiary. Based on the company's Epsilon 11 platform, the car debuted in late 2008 as an Opel/Vauxhall Insignia in Europe and as a Buick Regal in China. A version was also planned for Saturn, but that car wound up in the North American Buick portfolio when Saturn got deep-sixed.

The Regal is being built now at the Opel plant in Russelsheim, Germany. Next year, production will shift to GM's Oshawa, Ontario, assembly line.

The North American Regal is available in two forms: the CXL model I tested, which arrived in metropolitan area showrooms last summer, and the CXL Turbo, which came on board in October.

The CXL uses a normally aspirated, direct-injection 2.4-liter engine rated at 182 horsepower, and a six-speed automatic transmission. The CXL Turbo, which costs $2,500 more, employs a 2-liter, 220-horse, turbocharged engine that can be buttoned to either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual - the first manual transmission offered in a Buick since the 1989 Skylark.

The Regal is a nicely realized automobile from both a design and manufacturing standpoint. The body styling is handsome, cosmopolitan, yet unmistakably American. It's also well-assembled. The tester had even body margins throughout, and an impeccable paint job. The interior was equally appealing. With a nice boost from the leather seat upholstery and eye-catching elements like saddle stitching, the Regal's innards managed to look richer than they really were. There were some hard plastic surfaces, but mostly on the lower door panels where you didn't come in contact with them. The interior also employed graceful shards of inexpensive, black shiny plastic as accents. (I prefer an honest piece of black plastic to a piece of plastic pretending to be an exotic wood veneer. "Wood" cut from the petrochemical tree just drives me up a wall.)

The interior is as spacious as it is tasteful. It boasts good backseat legroom and a roomy, 14.25-cubic-foot trunk.

Driving the Regal has its dynamic as well as aesthetic pleasures. The suspension is a well-negotiated treaty between comfort and performance. The Regal's suspension is firm enough to promote composure and fight body roll in the corners, yet has enough compliance to afford a very nice ride.

That good ride, coupled with the quietude in the cabin, the car's solidity and the directional stability afforded by the steering's excellent on-center feel, make the Regal a pleasure to drive on the highway.

At over 3,600 pounds, the Regal is a bit portly by midsize sedan standards. That poundage no doubt helps the ride, but it doesn't do the car's acceleration any favors - especially when its engine is putting out only 182 ponies. The result is 0 to 60 times between eight and nine seconds. That's passable, but nothing to write Mother about. The turbocharged model is much brisker business, doing the 0-to-60 chores in a little over seven seconds.

The tester had EPA mileage estimates of 19 city and 30 highway. Its bumper-to-bumper warranty is a luxury-car four years/50,000 miles, and it was one of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top safety picks.

Excellent

2011 Buick Regal CXL

Base price: $26,245.

As tested: $29,785 (including shipping).

Standard equipment: Includes 2.4-liter engine, six-speed automatic gearbox, stability control, six months of OnStar protection, dual-zone climate control, the usual power assists.

Options: Include power seat for front passenger, rear parking assist, 120-volt power outlet, premium sound.

Fuel economy: 19 m.p.g. city, 30 highway.

Engine performance: Ho-hum.

Styling: European flair.

Handling: Top drawer.

Ride comfort: Excellent.

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.

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