Opel Insignia OPC plus other goodies on their way to Buick

Earlier this week, we previewed the impressive Opel Insignia-based Buick Regal. But that’s not all we saw. In addition to development prototypes of the Regal we’ll see next year, we also got some seat time in variants of the car that could make their way to the States in the very near future.

“We’re trying to show the bandwidth of what we can do with this car,” said vehicle line executive Jim Federico, who headed up development on both the Regal and the Buick LaCrosse.

At by far the most extreme end of this bandwidth is the Opel Insignia OPC. With its black livery and turbocharged V-6, it’s not hard to imagine how it might fit with Buick’s performance heritage. In reality though, it drives more like a poor man’s Audi S4 than any Grand National. Transmitting 325 turbocharged horsepower through a Haldex all-wheel-drive system, the OPC is utterly unflappable even on cold, damp Michigan roads. It also features active dampening and speed-sensitive steering, both of which will be options on uplevel Regals at launch. Brembo front brakes, gorgeous twenty-inch rims, and wonderfully snug Recaro seats round out the package. We were let down a bit by the 2.8-liter V-6. It provides plentiful passing power at speed but seems to get bogged down somewhat during hard launches, even when the car is set in superaggressive "OPC" mode, which brings on stiffer dampening and firmer steering and puts stability control into a competition setting.

Overall, the OPC lacks the last bit of smoothness and refinement that make its BMW and Audi rivals so special, but then, it’s also considerably cheaper, selling for about 6000 euros less than an S4. If that could translate to a $10,000 difference in the United States, Buick would be able to offer a taste of German high-performance for the price of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.

Even higher on our wish list -– and happily, almost a sure thing -- is a six-speed manual transmission for the 2.0-liter turbocharged model. Less pretentious and easier to wring out than the heavier OPC, the spunky manual-transmission, turbo model strikes us as a cheap and easy way for Buick to show import-minded enthusiasts that it’s serious. The gearbox itself, by the way, is not the sort of numb, cheap affair that we last experienced in mid-size GM cars way back when. Shift action is a bit notchy but extremely precise, and the clutch is smooth and well-weighted. Gas and brake pedals are positioned for quick footwork. Heel-and-toe shifting in a Buick, it must be said, is a surreal, but nonetheless sublime experience -- one; that customers should be able to enjoy sometime shortly after the turbo model launches in summer 2010.

“We have to deliver this manual, and we will,” Federico said.

Other models we didn’t sample from the broad Insignia range include a wagon (which someone in our office saw roaming around Ann Arbor this week) and diesels. Federico added that GM could bring over any variant of the Insignia, which was developed from the outset with global sales in mind, within “months to a year.”

In other Buick news, we can expect the 2.4-liter four-cylinder LaCrosse to arrive for the 2011 model year, along with a suspension option called "hyperstruts" for the 3.6-liter-powered CXS model. The latter refers to struts mounted slightly differently to the steering knuckle, which Federico promises will address the manageable but annoying torque steer that afflicts that car while providing better feedback.

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