Thumbs Up: The most entertaining Buick since the 1987 GNX.
Thumbs Down: Needs more power; creaky plastic dash.
Buy This Car If: You want a compact domestic luxury sedan with a dash of sport.
For those of us in a certain demographic, the name “Buick” conjures up images of under-damped land yachts, leisurely driven by septuagenarians on their way to a 3:00 dinner at the Old Country Buffet. For driving enthusiasts, Buick hasn’t built a car of interest since the 1987 Regal-based GNX. The GNX has become the stuff of legend, with clean examples still trading hands at semi-insane prices. Still, the 1987 GNX was capable of a 0 to 60 sprint in under 5 seconds, and in stock form could run the quarter mile in 13.5 seconds at 102 miles per hour. Back in 1987, that wasn’t just fast, that was stupid fast.
Buick has seen its ups and downs in terms of product quality since then, but its recent cars (like the LaCrosse and Regal) have been well screwed together and offer a reasonable amount of value for the money. They’re also about as entertaining as a bowl of steamed white rice, served with a side of room temperature tap water.
That’s not really a criticism, since Buick’s traditional customer base expects a certain type of ride (plush and numb) with a certain level of refinement (an interior as quiet as a tomb). Driving excitement isn’t on the “must have” list for most Buick shoppers, and the brand has largely ignored handling in favor of adding content. The LaCrosse, for example, added onboard flash memory a few years back so that owners could transfer music from thumb drives directly to their cars. That’s nice, but we don’t know too many full-size Buick drivers who download music and store it on a flash drive.
The new Regal, specifically the Regal Turbo, was a step in the right direction. It offered buttoned-up handling and a surprising amount of style and content, all for a reasonable price. The front drive sedan was sporty, but it fell short of what we’d define as a sport sedan. Even its 220 turbocharged horses weren’t enough to be entertaining, particularly since the car had nearly 3,700 pounds of mass to haul around.
That’s why we were so enthusiastic when Buick announced the Regal GS model in 2010. Finally, it seemed, Buick was stepping up to the plate to occupy the space left vacant by Oldsmobile (and to a lesser degree, Pontiac). Buick, it seemed, would build a genuine sport sedan capable of bringing new customers into the fold. With an announced 270 horsepower and 295 pound feet of torque, the car promised to produce enough grunt to go with the car’s already fine chassis. Sure, it was still a front-driver, but Opel has done such a good job developing the Insignia (the German equivalent of the Buick Regal) that you almost don’t notice.
Even the exterior styling of the Buick Regal GS is more aggressive than anything we’ve seen from Buick in decades. Up front, air intakes are prominent in the lower fascia, and the car even sports a pair of faux brake-cooling vents. Chrome trim is kept to a tasteful minimum, and the car comes standard with 19-inch wheels (and offers available 20-inch wheels, too). In profile, there isn’t much to distinguish the Regal GS from it’s less capable siblings, but that fits in with the GS’s “Q-Ship” nature. Out back, however, the Regal GS gets an aggressively styled fascia with exaggerated exhaust outlets, trimmed in aluminum. Whether you like Buick’s new styling direction or loathe it, the Regal GS has a certain European flair that makes the car stand out from anything else on a Buick dealer’s floor.
Inside, you get more of the same. Interior style is decidedly European, and we can’t fault the GS for the quality of materials used. The dash is wrapped in textured, soft touch vinyl, and it’s trimmed with a blend of piano black and aluminum colored plastic. There are a lot of buttons on the Regal’s center stack, and they control everything from ride settings (the car gets a “GS” button, meant to mimic the “M” button used by BMW) through navigation, audio and HVAC controls. While not necessarily intuitive, the layout is mastered quick enough that it won’t be an issue for most drivers.
There’s a fair amount of hard plastic used on the lower dash, and we did notice some annoying creaks during cornering. That wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for us, but it’s something we’d likely go back to the dealer to have addressed.
The front seats, while supportive, felt oddly narrow. We’d stop short of calling them uncomfortable, but we’d have liked another inch or so of seat cushion width for long-distance comfort. That gripe aside, we liked the contrasting parallel stitching used on the seat inserts, and had no problem dialing in a comfortable seating position.
The rear seats are stitched to match the front, and outboard passengers get semi-bucket seating. There’s a decent mount of leg room for a car of the Regal’s size, but the sloping roof does impact rear seat headroom. Those much taller than six feet will prefer riding in the front seat of the Regal GS, while we doubt anyone else would complain about the rear accommodations.
Under the hood lies a 2.0-liter, high-output, turbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder engine, mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s the same engine used in the Regal Turbo, but for GS duty benefits from more boost and a less restrictive exhaust. The engine is rated at 270 horsepower and 295 pound feet of torque, but to be honest it didn’t feel anywhere near this powerful. The car’s leisurely 0 to 60 time of seven seconds backs this up, and even the fuel economy isn’t stellar. The Regal GS is rated at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, and we saw an indicated 20.3 mpg in mostly city driving.
Sometimes, though, a car is greater than the sum of its parts, and to some degree the Regal GS fits into this category. While quick enough off the line, the GS runs out of steam by about 5,000 rpm, so there really is no sense in flogging the engine hard. The “Hiper Strut” front suspension does an admirable job of negating torque steer, and the smooth shifting six-speed manual is one of the best we’ve seen in a GM product. The chassis is stiff, especially in “GS” mode, but the ride quality is never harsh. The brakes, which come courtesy of Brembo, are absolutely superb and among the best in the class, especially in the GS’s price range. While the car wouldn’t be that entertaining to flog on a track day event, we suspect it would be plenty of fun to push up and down your favorite canyon road. Best of all, it wouldn’t beat you up on the way there or the way home, especially in the normal ride mode. We’d stop short of calling the Regal GS a sport sedan, since it really needs more power to make that particular cutoff, but it is a distinctly styled personal luxury sedan that won’t disappoint those who like to drive.
General Motors supplied the 2012 Buick Regal GS for our evaluation. Base price on our press fleet tester was $35,310, including a destination charge of $860, and options on the car tested included the $1,145 Navigation System, the $1,000 Power Sunroof and the $700 20-inch Wheel Package, for a total sticker price of $38,155. For comparison, a similarly equipped Lincoln MKZ would sticker for $40,820, while an Acura TSX with the 3.5-liter V-6 and the Technology Package would list for $39,335.