By Christopher A. Sawyer
In its second generation (1978-1987), Buick spawned a Regal with a number of performance variants, including the Grand National, T-Type and GNX. These rear-drive cars stood in stark contrast to the heavily chromed mainstream Regals and, in GNX guise, carried a turbocharged and intercooled V6 with 276 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque under the hood. Yeah, buddy! However, the performance aura these cars created never really permeated the rest of the Regal family or, for that matter, the Buick line. They were anomalies meant to attract younger/youthful buyers to the brand, but which—despite their cult status—had little lasting effect on the Buick brand.
Does the same fate await the Regal GS? It places a 270 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood, and sends power through either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. Brembo calipers peek out from behind the front wheels, and the driver can change the ride and handling equation by choosing either “Sport” or “GS” mode. Unlike the earlier performance Regal, this one is based on GM’s front-drive Epsilon II platform. It started life as an Opel Insignia, and has been given new front and rear fascias, and a revised interior for its overseas assignment as a Buick. Which is ironic considering that Buick sold Opel cars through its dealer network in the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to combat the influx of import nameplates. Now it’s doing something similar to get into the entry-level luxury game.
Undoubtedly, the transition from Opel Insignia to Buick Regal was more difficult than changing the front and rear fascias, hood and trunklid, but the bulk of what makes the Insignia an Opel has survived. The entire center section of the car is carried over intact, right down to the hockey stick character line running along the Regal’s flanks. Though handsome in its more pedestrian forms, the Regal’s shapes seem to come alive in GS guise, especially when fitted with the optional 20-in wheel/tire combination.
Say what you will about the “chromed tree branch” look of the wheels, it is their aggressiveness that draws attention to the way that the tires fill the wheel arches, and add a muscularity the normal car, or even the GS on its standard 19-in rims, lacks. When fitted with this wheel/tire combination, the Regal’s looks begin to fulfill the promise of its GS trim. This takes the form of brushed steel “shark’s tooth” trim surrounding the front brake cooling slots, similar jewelry around the exhaust tips, and more aggressive front and rear bumper fascias. The trim falls thankfully short of being over the top, and grabs attention without screaming for it.
The optional ($325) Crystal Red paint should be the standard color for the GS. It is both vibrant and subtle, and accentuates the car’s curves and highlights its unique trim. Exclusive to Buick, but not to the GS, are the brand’s trademark “Ventiports” located on top of the hood. Their number (two per side) designate the number of cylinders located underneath, and provide a bit of eye candy without being ostentatious.
At first glance, the interior of the Regal GS is an inviting environment. The heated front seats are comfortable, with eight-way power adjustment for the driver and passenger, plus a four-way lumbar adjustment, and hold you in place without clamping your torso in a vice. Even the split-fold rear seats, if you duck under the fast-sloping roof, offer a decent amount of room and comfort. What they don’t offer, on the other hand, is a style that expresses any sort of individuality. Change the sew pattern on the seat covers, and you can imagine these chairs in anything from a Chevy Volt to a Buick LaCrosse.
This visual dichotomy continues throughout the interior. Take, for example, the gauge cluster. It comprises two large and two small gauges grouped around a rectangular information screen. The gauges themselves are finely marked along a pyramidal outer edge that splits the odd and even numbers along its inner and outer sections. It must have looked great in the design review, but it’s too busy for use in the real world. The digital information display, on the other hand, must have come over unchanged from Opel. It has coarse letters and numbers, demands scrolling via twisting the end of the turn signal stalk or pressing the “menu” button on its face, and uses backlit green numbers and letters. Even worse, the display shines more brightly than the instruments at night, making it impossible to get it to an agreeable brightness without darkening the instruments to the point of irrelevance.
Another problem is the use of brushed metallic accents, mimicking those on the exterior of the car. These stand in stark contrast to the chrome accents carried over from the less sporty members of the Regal family, and suggest the GS is more of a stopgap than a cohesive contender. And while the steering wheel is thick, its circumference partially covered in perforated leather, and its bottom is flattened like it belongs on a rally car, the large brushed metal accents (which look like the front fascia’s “teeth”) look added on, and clash with the chrome Buick “Tri-shield” emblem at the steering wheel’s center. Buick would have been better off biting the cost bullet and replacing the shield with a brushed “GS” emblem.
The accountants also should have given a few more dollars to cover the shift lever in perforated leather. The soft-touch plastic on the knob isn’t objectionable, it just doesn’t fit the image. If the seats could have been sourced from any number of GM products, so could the shift knob. This oversight is compounded by the glaringly plastic thin chrome accent around the shift boot which is dominated by a thick chunk of brushed trim on the leading edge of the center console.
This may sound like I hate the ebony with piano black accents interior in its entirety, but that’s not the case. Despite an overabundance of buttons on the center stack, the fussy gauges, a navigations system you can’t use without turning on the radio, and mismatched bright trim, the Regal GS interior is quite handsome. It’s also a bit schizophrenic. It seems stuck between the overstuffed interiors of Buicks past and the sleek, stylish look of a true sport sedan; as though it is unsure of whether American buyers want Euro-style sportiness or if import intenders ever would consider a Buick.
Judging from the powertrain, both groups would. The high-output 2.0-liter turbocharged four is one of GM’s most competitive engines. A surprise in the Cadillac ATS, the Ecotec turbo is smooth, powerful and refined, especially when mated to the six-speed manual gearbox. It is blessed with strong mid-range torque, and often can pull the car to speed without need of a downshift. Because ninety-five percent of peak torque is available from 2,300-4,900 rpm, the portly 3,710-lb Regal GS carries overdrive gearing on fourth, fifth and sixth gears, which usually is good for fuel economy.
If, however, this powertrain has any fault, it is it’s the perception of thirst. Rated at 19 city/27 highway/22 combined by the EPA (the mileage ratings are the same for both the manual and automatic transmissions), these numbers are just shy of the magic 20 city/30 highway plateau. On the other hand, they are pretty impressive for an engine that pumps out 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. In comparison, the Audi A4’s 2.0-liter turbo motor produces 211 hp and 258 lb-ft, and has an EPA rating of 22 city/32 highway when mated to a six-speed manual transmission.
The Regal’s clutch takes up cleanly with just the right amount of weight and, since the gear lever and clutch pedal possess a similar weight and feel, up- and downshifts are a breeze. The slippery-when-wet rubber-dotted aluminum-faced pedals, however, are not placed for infallible heel-and-toe downshifts. You can do them, but they require a bit of thought, not just a roll of the foot to the right. Fortunately, most drivers don’t use this technique, at least not around town, making it of lesser importance to everyday driving. That said, this is the GS—the sporty Regal—and such abilities are to be expected in this class of car.
GM makes a lot of the fact that the GS has its HiPer (high performance) front struts with dual-path mounting. This design is supposed to help reduce torque steer, improve grip and maintain negative camber while cornering. On top of that, the ride height has been lowered by 10 mm (0.39 in), and the anti-roll bar rates raised by 20%. Out back, there’s a four-link independent rear suspension, and the front and rear shocks have computer-controlled damping that alters the damping levels in response to road conditions.
On the GS, this goes up a notch with three-position damping. The standard setting is meant for everyday driving, and requires no action on the part of the driver. Pushing the “Sport” button firms up the dampers and reduces body roll. Hit the “GS” button, and damping increases, as does the steering effort. Which brings me to a continuing complaint with these types of systems: If the chassis computer can read the road well enough to adjust the damping in the standard setting, why not encompass all of the settings into this control algorithm and let the computer switch from one to another as needed? Also, do the folks at Buick expect owners to take the Regal GS to track days or fling it around back roads with abandon? Having these buttons gives a certain bragging rights quotient, but most people never will engage them—especially if they must traverse potholed pavement or roads with numerous expansion strips. Under those conditions, the normally agreeable GS gets loud and bumpy.
Which brings me back to the powertrain of the GS. Pull the trigger, and you will feel the steering lighten as torque steer begins to raise its head. The car won’t dart violently, but it does pull hard enough to one side under acceleration to get your attention. The last thing you want to feel in a car with power like this is steering that begins to go light just when you are piling on the power. If only it had the torque-vectoring Haldex all-wheel drive system offered on the Opel Insignia Turbo Sport. Then again, rumors abound that Buick still has plans to use this setup to produce a version of the turbocharged V6-powered Opel OPC under the GNX name. If so, its effect on the Buick brand may prove to be as minimal as the original GNX’s. This strategy also robs Buick of a sport sedan variant that would go head-to-head (in terms of performance) with cars like the Audi A4 quattro, and create a sharp delineation between its Epsilon II platform stablemates.
TVD Rating: 3.75 out of 5.
Despite the criticism, I missed the Regal GS when it went back. It is handsome and capable, refined and sporty, and eats the miles while returning fuel economy right on the EPA numbers. Never touch the Sport of GS buttons, and you will never have to deal with the harshness these settings can encourage while reaping the visual benefits of the GS trim.
This is not, however, what a GS should be. If there is one major problem, it is that this car is hindered by its Regal name and Buick badge. Strip these away in favor of GS badging, and you have the opportunity to more clearly focus its manners, trim and mechanicals. Though far from perfect, Buick has the opportunity to take the Audi A4 on face-to-face with a GS that is faster, almost as fuel efficient and nearly as handsome. By rethinking the interior’s shortcomings, adding the option of all-wheel drive and honing its personality and image, it could create a Buick entry-level sport sedan buyers would consider and respect without question. That day, however, is still somewhere in the future.
2013 Buick Regal GS
Options: Power sunroof ($1,000), AM/FM/CD stereo with navigation ($895), 20-in polished alloy wheels ($700), Crystal Red paint ($325)
Destination charge: $885
Price as tested: $38,785
Engine: Transverse 2.0-liter inline turbocharged four-cylinder. Cast aluminum block and heads. Dual over head cams with intake and exhaust continuously variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder. Direct fuel injection.
Horsepower: 270 @ 5300
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 2400
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
EPA mileage rating: 19 city/27 highway/22 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Variable effort power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: MacPherson struts with dual-path mountings, hydraulic bushings, hollow anti-roll bar, switchable continuous damping control/Four-link independent, hollow anti-roll bar, switchable continuous damping control.
Brakes F/R: 14.0-in vented discs with four-piston aluminum Brembo calipers/12.4-in vented discs with single-piston aluminum calipers. 4-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution.
Dimensions (in inches)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 18.5
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 14.25 (seats up)
Anti-corrosion: 6 years/100,000 miles
Powertrain: 6 years/70,000 miles
Vehicle: 4 years/50,000 miles
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 6 years/70,000 miles with courtesy transportation.