The Gran Sport name has had plenty of peaks and valleys since it first appeared on a Buick back in the mid Sixties. The most recent offerings were nothing special, and the moniker was retired for a while. Now, the slimmed-down General Motors has fewer brands to feed, giving it more leeway to resurrect the idea of a sporting Buick, in the hope of giving the division the cache enjoyed by premium European (and Japanese) brands. With the Buick Regal GS, it is doing so with an actual European car, as the underlying architecture is primarily that of the Opel Insignia (and, also, the Chevrolet Malibu). And although the idea is laudable, the execution is wanting, chiefly in some of the subjective areas that the old pros in the sports sedan game usually get right.
Big HP NumbersThe GS uses one of the hottest version of GM's Ecotec 2.0-liter four, which combines turbocharging with direct injection to make an impressive 270 hp and 295 pound-feet of torque. The Regal's big engine output numbers exceed most competitors' (such as the BMW 328i's 240 hp and 255 pound-feet) but its factory-estimated 0-to-60 time of 6.7 seconds is no better than average -- perhaps due to the Buick's 3710-pound curb weight, which is heavy for this class.
No version of the Ecotec inspires with its engine note, and that's again the case here, although that's mostly because you can't hear an engine note. What you do hear is the whistle of the turbocharger. That may be because the turbo is working hard, and its prominence makes for throttle response that's not very linear.
Buick launched this car with a six-speed manual transmission; but my test example had the recently added six-speed automatic instead (a no-cost option). The automatic does exactly what you want it to do, but drivers who want to call the shots themselves might be disappointed by the lack of shift paddles, which is a little surprising in a car with such lofty sports sedan ambitions.
Sadly, Buick elected to leave the Opel Insignia's all-wheel-drive system back in Germany, so the Regal GS sends its 295 pound-feet torque to its front wheels. GM fits its HiPer Strut front suspension to this car in order to keep a lid on torque steer, and for the most part it does a good job.
Capable ChassisBesides the aforementioned HiPer Strut front suspension, the GS version of the Regal also gets Brembo front disc brakes and a firmer suspension. Its Drive Control System changes the damping rates (as in the Regal Turbo), and its GS mode additionally alters steering effort and transmission shift quality. As exciting as that sounds, there's little discernable difference among the three modes. The steering is artificial-feeling, although it's not overboosted. The suspension tuning is more successful, snubbing body motions while delivering an acceptable ride even on the extra-large, 20-inch wheels shod with high-performance rubber.
Mild StyleThose 20-inch wheels are one of the major GS differentiators outside; another is a new front fascia punctuated by huge, silver-rimmed nostrils that do little to sex up the Regal's otherwise generic exterior. At the rear is a subtle trunk lid spoiler and dual exhaust outlets.
The interior materials are all of good quality, although the overall design again is somewhat muted. As in other Regals -- and most other GM sedans -- the center stack is a sea of too-similar black buttons. Buick's IntelliLink touch-screen audio system is standard. The Regal's driving position isn't particularly sporty, and lacks a dead pedal. The biggest letdown in the cabin, however, was that I found the GS's sport seats to be excruciatingly uncomfortable, with a power lumbar support that is too prominent even on its lowest setting and ultra-stiff lateral bolsters that make for a narrow, confining seat cushion.
An Unexpected ComparisonAs it happened, I had the Regal GS right after spending a week in a Volkswagen Jetta GLI. Both are the sportiest offerings of their respective model. Both have turbocharged, direct-injected, 2.0-liter fours. Both had 6-speed automatics (a DSG in the case of the VW). And, driving home the parallels even further, both were red over black.
Frankly, I enjoyed my time behind the wheel of the Jetta much more than in the more expensive Regal. Sure, the Buick's turbo four delivers 95 more horsepower than the VW's, but the GS isn't any quicker than the smaller, lighter Volkswagen. And while the Jetta may be smaller, it has more back seat space, and (subjectively) a much more comfortable driver's seat and a better driving position. The Buick does have a more sophisticated suspension, and decidedly nicer interior finish. Neither car is particularly stellar in the tuning of its electric power steering. With base prices that are more than $10,000 apart, these sport sedans aren't direct competitors, but that's my point: Aside from its adaptive suspension and nicer interior, it's hard to see why you'd spend more for the Regal GS.
GM threw a lot of impressive-seeming equipment at the Regal GS (295-hp engine, available stick shift, adaptive suspension, Brembo front brakes), but more work needs to be done on the subtleties of the sports sedan experience before this latest GS marks another high-water mark for the Gran Sport name.