Buicks get no respect from enthusiasts anymore. The only people who seem the least bit enthused with them are the Chinese and they've probably never even seen a Grand National.
And yet here we are at General Motors' Milford Proving Grounds testing a pre-production version of the 2012 Buick Regal GS, a car with the potential to change its image the world over.
And you know what? It's good, easily the best-driving Buick in decades. Of course, that's like saying Tokyo Drift was the best of the Fast and Furious movies.
The 2012 Regal GS packs some decidedly un-Buick-like parts. For starters there's a pumped-up version of the 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injected inline-4 found in the regular Regal Turbo (like our long-term CXL). The revamped engine boosts power from 220 horsepower to 270 at 5,300 rpm. There's plenty of torque, too, as it peaks at 295 pound-feet at 2,400 rpm.
Then there's this shock: A six-speed manual comes standard. A six-speed automatic will come later, at no extra cost. There's also a pair of 14-inch front disc brakes with four-piston Brembo fixed calipers (rear brakes remain unchanged). Add to this a three-mode version of Buick's Interactive Drive Control adaptive damper system as well as a HiPer Strut front suspension.
The interior looks hardly different from our long-termer, with lots of flat-black plastic everywhere, although there's a nice thick-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel and some GS badges on the floor mats. The front seats are a slightly more bolstered variation of the Regal's standard seats. The leather is a bit slippery, yet there still isn't enough lateral support to cinch you in place during hard driving.
Wringing It on the Ring
Not that 'Ring, the so called "Lutz Ring," a 3.1-mile road course at GM's proving grounds nicknamed after former GM Vice President Bob Lutz. It's a fun, blind crest-strewn track, one that isn't exactly easy to learn within the five laps we were allotted. But it was enough time to figure a few things out.
First, if you were expecting an increase in performance along the lines of a Cadillac CTS to a CTS-V, fuggettaboutit. It's not even close. Baby steps, folks, baby steps.
When we fire the Regal GS up, it doesn't sound much different despite a less-restrictive 3-inch exhaust system. Blip the throttle and there's barely a hint of rasp. We were hoping for at least a bit of burble, something to get us excited.
The F40-6 six-speed manual is from GM Europe. Its throws are reasonably short, but it's a bit notchy for our tastes. We suspect Buick buyers will appreciate its light action, and probably won't care that pedal placement could be better for heel-and-toeing.
Full-throttle out onto the track and we immediately notice the extra power. Most of the extra juice comes from an increase in boost from 15-20 psi, along with induction and exhaust changes. There's some turbo lag initially, but unlike our long-term Regal, which is never, ever inspiring, the GS's breathed-on mill has a healthy, dare we say, exciting midrange (95 percent of the torque is available from 2,300-4,900 rpm).
And unlike many turbo engines, the GS carries that thrustiness right up to its 6,350 redline. Buick claims the GS will hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds (we achieved 8.2 seconds with our CXL automatic) and can run the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 98.0 mph (against the CXL's 15.9 at 90.0).
Charging into the first turn with this newfound speed, we notice another big difference. There's serious braking power and a much firmer pedal than what we're used to in the Regal. That firm pedal breeds confidence to brake later and later as we get used to the track. We experienced zero fade, but then we also only took five laps, and none of them consecutively.
OK, so we know the Regal GS has power. But can the suspension and those front tires handle it? And before you ask, no, all-wheel drive is not in this car's foreseeable future, due to added price, weight and reduced fuel economy (the current rating is 19 city/27 highway).
The changes to the car's chassis are aimed at enhancing the enthusiast experience without completely forsaking some semblance of Buick ride quality. The ride height is 0.4 inches lower and the spring rates are up by 20 percent. More importantly, there's now a third mode (beyond Standard and Sport) to the adaptive IDC driver-selectable damper system, called "GS." Standard and Sport modes also have slightly firmer damping across the board compared to the regular Regal equipped with IDC.
Buick fitted its HiPer Strut front suspension in the interest of reducing torque steer and maintaining negative camber through corners. It works, too, as there's never more than a minor tug at the steering wheel under power, a mighty feat when you have 295 lb-ft of torque to control.
Better, Still Not Great
One lap in Standard setting was enough to know that it's too soft for anything other than soaking up Michigan's famous potholes. Pressing the GS button immediately switches the instrument cluster from blue/green to white. Besides firmer damping, GS also brings some welcome heft to the hydraulic power steering.
Our long-termer's quick-yet-vague steering goads you into writing checks that the Regal's soft suspension and all-season tires can't cash. The GS, on the other hand, fitted with the optional summer Pirelli P Zeros (sized P255/35ZR20 at all four corners) is much more cohesive. The steering, tires and suspension all deliver more feedback to the driver, while body roll is significantly reduced.
It's not a complete transformation, though. The inside front tire will happily spin up if we exit a corner with too much power and too much steering angle. We finish off most of the high-speed corners with the Regal understeering to the edge of the track under power. Luckily this is quickly cured with a simple throttle lift, bringing grip back and settling the GS down.
The 2012 Buick Regal GS will start at $35,310 (including $860 destination) when production starts late this summer at GM's Oshawa, Ontario, Canada plant. Buick officials say that even if you order all of the few options available (such as a power sunroof, nav system and 20-inch wheels), the price still won't top $40K.
Is it enough to make enthusiasts care?
A few. There's no doubt that the GS rectifies many of the performance problems found in the standard Regal Turbo, and with its added power, stiffer suspension and manual gearbox, it will attract some enthusiasts back to Buick. But for the hard-core guys who bought up Grand Nationals back in the '80s it falls a little short. And there's no encore coming. As a Buick official told us, "This is as good as it's going to get."
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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