As soon as Joachim Winkelhock burst out of the pits and toward Hatzenbach, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those tame exercises where a racing driver leads a procession of journalists at a funereal pace around the track, trying to familiarize them with every corner and desired racing line in a boring game of follow-the-leader. There was no time for such formalities, since the Nordschleife was booked and we were squeezing our drives into someone's lunch hour. Not to mention the fact that the 'Ring has some seventy-three turns and is thirteen miles around. Winkelhock's voice came crackling over the two-way radio with these simple instructions: "Try to stay close to me and follow my line as best you can." And with that, I followed Winkelhock's Opel Insignia OPC performance sedan out onto the track in a four-cylinder Buick.
A Buick? On the Nordschleife? As comical as that notion might be, the new Buick Regal was surprisingly good in this unlikeliest of environments, and I wasn't even driving the sportiest version. Body control, directional stability, brake pedal feedback, and steering feel were, if not to the level of the BMW 3-series, fully up to the job of very spirited laps, and the eighteen-inch Michelin Pilot MXM4 tires weren't overly tasked. Sure, I had to flog the modest, 182-hp, 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine and furiously bang the six-speed automatic gearbox's lever up and down its manual shift gate between second and fourth gears, and the fastest speed I could summon on the long straight heading into Tiergarten, where serious racing cars approach 200 mph, was only 120 mph. But I had my best laps ever at the Nordschleife in this, my fourth visit. For that, I equally credit Winkelhock's intimate knowledge of the track - he is a two-time winner of the Nürburgring's twenty-four-hour race - and the Regal's impressive chassis composure.
That chassis is a familiar one, as the Regal is based on GM's global Epsilon II architecture, and the first year's production for the States is being built at GM's Rüsselsheim, Germany, plant alongside the highly regarded, Epsilon-based Opel Insignia. We'll have to wait until mid-2011 - when Regal production moves to Oshawa, Ontario - for a production version of the high-performance Regal GS that debuted at this year's Detroit auto show and that promises to be as fun to drive as the Insignia OPC. Unlike that car, which has a 321-hp, turbocharged V-6, our GS will get a version of GM's Ecotec turbo four making at least 255 hp. "I intend to wring every bit of power out of it that I can," claims Regal chief engineer Jim Federico. For now, a tamer version of the Ecotec making 220 hp arrives in August mated to an Aisin six-speed automatic (the 2.4-liter's gearbox is a GM-built Hydra-Matic). An optional six-speed manual follows this fall. The last time Buick offered a manual transmission was so long ago that no one at the company seems to remember when it was.