How does a European sport sedan dovetail with an American luxury brand that exists because the Chinese want to ride in the back of pillowy four-doors? It's a mind-melting philosophical question, but the answer is simple for the masters of brand management. After a seven-year sabbatical, the forty-seven-year-old Gran Sport name is back.
The Buick Regal GS has its roots in Europe's Opel Insignia OPC, but don't call this a badge-engineering exercise. Buick opted not to use the OPC's strident 2.8-liter twin-turbo V-6 and Haldex all-wheel-drive system in a play for lower weight and higher fuel economy. Instead, our GS has a high-output version of the Regal Turbo's direct-injected, boosted four-cylinder driving the front wheels. Even so, compared with an Audi A4, the GS is about 200 pounds too heavy (at 3710 pounds) and comes up at least three miles short for every gallon of gas it swills (at 19/27 mpg city/highway).
Dialing the boost pressure from 15 psi to 20 psi pushes power from 220 hp to 270 hp and smooths out some of the awkward surges that plague the Regal Turbo. Despite the more civilized power delivery, the GS-tuned engine is still afflicted with subtle, uneven pulses at part throttle, and the turbocharger whistles and whirs like it's bolted into a Class 8 truck. At full tilt, it doesn't sound more exciting than any other frenzied four-cylinder, but the 2.0-liter turbo delivers prolonged bursts of power that stretch all the way to redline. Its 295 lb-ft of peak torque isn't reached until 2400 rpm, which translates to a single breath of lag leaving the line.
To combat torque steer, the GS employs the so-called HiPer Strut front suspension that decouples the steering and suspension geometries. It can't eliminate every tug at the steering wheel, but it does reduce the severity enough to turn punches into prods. The Sachs adaptive dampers are similarly adept at softening blows -- at least in their most compliant standard setting. There's now a mode (on top of sport) called GS that makes the ride -- and body control -- substantially tauter. Few adaptive suspensions manage to effect changes that are both as palpable and as constructive.
The nicely contoured steering wheel is backed by quick responses and a natural effort, although there isn't much feedback from the front wheels. New sport seats offer excellent bolstering without being too aggressive, and the six-speed manual swiftly clicks through light throws. (A six-speed automatic becomes available in early 2012.) Driven quickly over back roads, the Regal GS displays obedient fluidity, impressive composure, and surprising balance. The optional twenty-inch Pirelli PZero summer tires stick impressively through corners, and the chassis responds positively to trail-braking. The Regal GS doesn't have the connected, organic feel of the best sport sedans, but it is much sharper and more fun than an Acura TSX V-6 and more alert than an Audi A4.
The Saturn Aura Redli -- er, Regal GS -- may be an anomaly among the current Buick lineup, but it makes for a convincing modern interpretation of the Gran Sports of the late 1960s, when the name was synonymous with fast-and-fabulous grand touring machines. All this upscale sport sedan needs is a bit of powertrain polish. After all, it does wear a Buick badge.
ON SALE: Now
ENGINE: 2.0L turbo I-4, 270 hp, 295 lb-ft
EPA MILEAGE: 19/27 mpg