General Motors now has a truly global product development organization, but it still seems somewhat flustered when it comes to marketing "foreign" cars in the United States. The Buick Regal GS is the latest vehicle -- the Saturn Astra, the Pontiac GTO and G8, and the Cadillac Catera also come to mind -- to land haphazardly on our shores without a well-defined mission.
To recap briefly, the Opel Insignia, which debuted in Europe to rave reviews in 2008, was supposed to come to the United States as part of a broad alliance between Opel and Saturn. Alas, Saturn went belly up and GM ran away from the idea of an "Opel USA," though the company's latest products, including the Chevrolet Cruze and the upcoming Malibu, ride on platforms developed largely in Europe. Cast about in this shuffle, the Insignia, by now a three-year-old car, arrived to fight in a bitterly competitive segment wearing an old muscle-car nameplate for a brand looking to steal Lexus buyers. As if that weren't enough to swallow, the official launch party for the GS, which I attended, was at a Buick-sponsored Plain White Tees concert in Miami Beach. Can you say, "Huh?" Compare this confusion with the focused campaign that accompanied the Ford Fiesta's U.S. launch, and you'll see the issue.
I bring all this up because I worry the marketing will sabotage a very good product. The GS treatment polishes over our complaints about the Regal 2.0T. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder seems to breathe more freely in this high-output configuration and suffers less from turbo lag, though the moment's hesitation off the line and a faint whistling keep it from quite matching the Audi A4's excellent four-cylinder. The GS has some of the sharpest steering I've experienced in a front-wheel-drive car, and despite the extra power, doesn't suffer from much torque steer. It dives into corners with almost unsettling quickness and exhibits very little body roll, especially when the dampers are in "GS" mode. The firm ride, progressive brake pedal, and slick manual shifter all further the impression that the Regal is a well thought out European sedan. And unlike the imported Holdens and Opels of yore, the Regal doesn't have a bland exterior or a confounding interior. The latter does suffer from having too many center-console buttons but this, again, reflects the car's age more than its origin. Some will continue to question the decision to forgo the Insignia OPC's turbo V-6 and all-wheel drive. I actually drove that car and find this setup much lighter and more responsive feeling.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Most of my life I've associated Buick with my grandmother. It's all she has ever owned. Then my brother bought one, but it did not change my mind; he always buys old-lady cars. Then Buick showed up at the magazine's offices with the Regal GS, and I went outside with the staff for the walkaround of the car with the chief engineer and the PR guy. My first impression was, wow, this is a Buick? It looked so nice, with its carbon metallic paint glistening in the sun. When I drove it, it seemed like a menagerie of features from competitors. Some of the interior controls reminded me of Audi. The information toggle mouse is like the ones Mercedes uses, and the powertrain, right down to the whistle in the turbo, is pure Saab. Interior styling reflects Hyundai. All in all, the car is far better to drive than any other Buick I've ever been in. I'd probably buy it before its Asian competitors, but it's a hard sell against the European lineup.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
The Regal GS is without question the best Buick I've ever driven. The clutch and gearshifter on the manual transmission are perfectly matched, the steering is quick and accurate, the chassis is well-balanced, and the 270-hp turbocharged four-cylinder manages to add some dynamism that's missing from the other Regal models. Not surprisingly, since the Regal is based on the Opel Insignia, it drives much more like a European car than a traditional American car -- or at least a traditional American Buick. I'm also a fan of the styling of the Regal. Every time I see one in traffic it catches my eye -- it's not beautiful, but it has very pleasing lines that give it a unique character.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I second the positive comments made by my colleagues regarding the dynamic goodness of the Regal GS. Light, direct steering and a supple, responsive chassis combine to make the Regal an effortless yet enjoyable driver. To me, this Buick's only disappointing characteristic is its manual shifter. It's light and easy to use but has a somewhat spongy quality that isn't on par with the rest of this otherwise excellent car.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
My mother, who drives a Buick LeSabre, certainly would not even recognize this car as a Buick. It's a legitimate, front-wheel-drive sport sedan with very athletic reflexes yet a supple ride and little torque steer. It has a great six-speed manual, with satisfying clutch pedal action and good heel-and-toe placement. The lid for the center console projects up to the left, and gets in the way of your right arm when you're shifting. There's a cutout in the lid, but it's on the right to expose the cup holders; it should be on the left, the way BMW does it. That quibble aside, overall, this is an impressive effort from Buick.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
An ad for the 1967 Skylark GS400 proclaimed "Your father never told you there'd be Buicks like this." How very true: my father once told me there were Buicks like that, but as the brand set its sights on aging, semi-affluent buyers, I -- like many others my age -- assumed the age of the performance Buick had permanently passed.
I'm glad I was wrong. The 2012 Regal GS might not be the hairy, rear-wheel-drive muscle car baby boomers remember, but it isn't utter heresy, either. It is, after all, one of the first Buicks in eons designed first and foremost to entertain the driver.
Though GM's turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine is getting on in years, it still manages to deliver a sweltering 270 hp, which is more than enough to move the speedometer into speeding-ticket territory. The chassis tuning, however, is even more impressive -- the so-called HiPerStrut does a commendable job of ironing out most torque steer from the car, although torque steer still peeks out from the shadows when you do something stupid -- say, mat the throttle midway through a corner. The adaptive dampers make traditional Buick body roll a thing of the past, especially when set in GS mode, and Brembo brakes also offer great stopping power and little fade, although purists may prefer a little additional feedback. I wish the shifter were a little smoother and less rubbery, but these are nitpicks, issues GM could easily resolve down the road.
GM's true test isn't if it can build a high-performance Buick -- it's if it can sell it. Judging by the online response to this car over the past several months, it seems many buyers -- especially in the younger, affluent bracket Buick's targeting -- aren't quite ready to open their minds to such an idea. That's too bad, because the Regal GS costs about the same as both the Volkswagen CC and Acura TL yet is undoubtedly the most fun of the three.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The GS transforms the capable but slightly bland Regal into something special.
The clutch is heavy but precise. The gears are well-spaced and the shifter is quite accurate, and the act of driving this car, slow or fast, is easy. It's a pleasant place to sit, because the seats are extremely well bolstered; the car is comfortable (this is, after all, a Buick), and highway cruising is calming.
This Regal has another trick up its sleeve: push the GS button (I call it "hyperspace control"), and the car turns everything up a notch. Now, it's eminently capable, efficient and quick, a true sleeper car. I'm sure the line of cars I passed on the freeway this morning weren't expecting to get carved up by a Buick. And letting the driver hear plenty of turbo whistle instead of tuning it out? Bravo, GM.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor