The Buick Regal GS represents a very ambitious move for General Motors.
While Buick has a large and loyal following among GM and domestic car buyers, it is a big step up to attract intenders looking at established luxury marques wearing Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes badges. Yet that is exactly where the Regal GS it aimed.
It will be interesting to watch because people shopping for those other brands aren't likely to wander into a Buick dealership. The brand just does not yet hold the same degree of respect.
That is the perception, at least. The reality is that this particular vehicle would hold up very well in a direct and detailed comparison.
One issue may be the Regal name, hardly a reminder of excellence. Since 1973 it has been slapped on a wide variety of Buick-badged vehicles sharing Chevrolet underpinnings.
The GS (Grand Sport) label does have a history, having been attached to a variety of high-horsepower Buicks with 401-425 cubic inch V-8s stuffed under their hoods; cars like the Skylark Gran Sport, Riviera GS, Buick GS 455 and the Buick Century Gran Sport.
But, none of them boasted any semblance of driving dynamics beyond straight-line heroics.
The 2012 Regal GS deserves a new name, something that might point out it is not based on anything wearing the bowtie badge and/or saddled with a monstrous and inefficient V-8 under the hood. It is instead, just as German in origins as those competitors mentioned above.
The Regal and the Regal GS are based on a chassis developed in Germany by Opel, one that has seen countless hours of suspension, steering and brake tuning on the famed Nurburgring.
It didn’t take more than a few turns in my test vehicle, shod with uber-sticky high-performance summer-only tires, Brembo brakes and a very stiff platform, to realize this is perhaps the best Buick yet.
It is a svelte, mid-size, front-driver riddled with technologies that were not even on the radar when the last GS appeared. Things like Interactive Drive Control, ABS and Driver Shift Control. It is also proof that they don’t build them like they used to.
High specific output
The turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in the new GS is the most powerful ever offered by GM in terms of specific output (power per unit of displacement).
It's rated at 270 horsepower, with 295 lb-ft of torque, and it gets the GS from 0-to-100 km/h in less than seven seconds – something the 401-425 cubic inch GS of the past could not accomplish.
I should point out that Audi, BMW and Mercedes competitors in this price range all have turbo fours under the hood.
Some credit must go to the fact that at 1680 kg (3700 lb), the Regal GS weighs about a half ton less than we’ve come to expect from a Buick in this price bracket.
As a result of it lighter weight and more efficient powertrain, the new GS goes about twice as far on a litre of fuel as the old one could go on a good day with a tail wind.
The muscle cars of yore had dreadful brakes and woeful handling. The new Buick GS has an all-independent suspension, gummy high-performance summer tires wrapped around giant 20-inch wheels within which rest big Brembo calipers clamping ventilated rotors with high performance pads. There is no comparison.
The Regal GS is available with as six-speed manual gearbox – a Buick with a stick! That fact alone gives an indication of what the development and marketing teams intended for this car – to reverse the Buick image from laid-back, pillow soft highway cruisers for old folks.
My test vehicle didn't have that manual transmission, but instead an Aisin six-speed automatic.
Among the vaunted competition, only the Audi (base model) is front-wheel-drive so here again is a valid comparison in which the Regal shows well.
The GS, which sits 10-mm lower than its “normal” Regal siblings, is one of the first recipients of GM’s new HiPer Strut front suspension, developed to counteract torque steer. Tossed into a corner at speed it still understeers, but it retains its composure, especially while accelerating out of the turn. And the hydraulically-assisted steering provides lots of feedback.
The standard Drive Control System allows the driver to vary the amount of steering assist, throttle response and suspension stiffness from comfortable (standard) through enthusiastic (Sport) to gung ho (GS). And when it comes time to erase speed, the big Brembos clamp the front rotors with authority.
In normal or sport modes the Regal GS remains comfortable on the open road. The GS setting, aided and abetted by the low-profile, stiff sidewall performance tires is best left to frost-free, glass-smooth roads.
The GS has unique fascias, front and rear. There are vertical air inlets cut into the front one to feed the intercooler and the rear is sculpted to incorporate twin trapezoidal exhaust outlets. From the side, it differs with to rocker panel extensions and unique 20-inch wheels.
The interior is well executed but to my eyes the designers tried too hard to replicate the austere look common in German cars. While not all black, it is laced with ebony and dark gray with piano black and dark brushed aluminum trim. The darkness extends all the way to the roof.
Big twin instruments inform of engine and road speed while a pair of smaller gauges in between keep you abreast of engine temperature and fuel level. A selectable digital display rests beneath and between the tach and speedometer.
The centre stack is one of the less-impressive parts of the interior. A raft of big flat buttons appears in a haphazard array beneath the high-res, 18-cm touch-sensitive screen which can only be used if the radio has been activated.
The audio system controls are comparatively normal with big round buttons for volume and tuning - kudos for that. The electronic parking brake is activated by a button on the centre console and the instrument panel lighting changes to ice-blue when the GS driving mode is engaged.
As the top offering in the Regal family, the GS is loaded. Standard equipment includes Intellilink, which connects a smart phone to the touch screen display. But, it does not have a backup camera, a glaring omission in a $40,000 car. The ultrasonic park assist front and rear has to be manually activated.
For enthusiasts who don’t wish to follow the pack, the 2012 Buick Regal GS offers American style and attitude combined with European prowess.