Buick Gets Attitude as $35,000 Regal GS Shakes Plodding Image

2012 Buick Regal GS
The 2012 Buick Regal GS. The target buyer for this car is the driver who wants an American car with a bit of speed and a dash of luxury. Source: GM via Bloomberg

I grabbed the keys and told my wife I had an errand to run. We needed eggs.

Actually, we didn’t. There were two dozen in the refrigerator. What I really needed was an excuse to drive over rolling hills on a squiggling, wiggling road I’ve been dreaming of for days.

This is not unusual behavior for me. What was odd was that the keys were for a $35,310 front-wheel-drive Buick, the Regal GS, and I was eager to squeeze in another test ride.

General Motors Co. is aggressively pushing the Buick brand in the States. (It does very well in China.) The entire line has soft corners, friendly front grills and swell interiors. Tastefully bland, inoffensively handsome. Former greeting-card writers must come up with names like the Enclave and Encore.

I get where Buick is going -- solid autos with mid-level luxury accoutrements -- but they don’t fill any holes in my heart.

Not that I haven’t tried, spending hours in the LaCrosse and Regal sedans. Great for somebody, surely, but there’s just no spark.

The midsize Regal, reintroduced as a 2011 model, is based on the European Opel Insignia. The base Regal starts at around $28,000 with a 2.4-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder with 182 horsepower, and 31 miles per gallon on the highway with regular gas.

Dividing Line

The GS model stands for Gran Sport, the type of auto appellation that generally overpromises and under-delivers. In the Regal’s case it turns out to be the dividing line between nice and quite interesting. The GS has spark, and if it’s less than perfect, its quirks make the whole shine.

It gets a turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder with 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. In terms of luxury sports sedans, that’s modest, with 60 mph arriving in a please-be-patient 6.7 seconds. The front wheels, rather than the rear rubber, are driven, which will also give enthusiasts pause. All-wheel-drive is not offered.

A Cadillac CTS-V sports sedan it is not. Yet the standard transmission is a six-speed manual, and the front wheels have larger disc brakes and Brembo calipers. It also gets a special front suspension designed to minimize the understeer characteristic of front-wheel-drives.

Sparkling Rims

The GS is dressed in a sharper body kit, too, with an integrated rear spoiler, mean twin tailpipes and more aggressive vents on the front face. My test car, which came to $38,155, had optional 20-inch alloy rims so bright they sparkled. The five radiating spokes, which each fork into two, are like a stylized snowflake. They wouldn’t look out of place on an $80,000 Audi.

My new favorite road carousels up a narrow valley, and on my way for those imaginary eggs I sprinted along an S-shaped road. The turbo comes on early and stays strong, making the GS seem faster than its 0-to-60 numbers indicate. There were no spikes or dips in power.

The GS pivoted nicely through a series of undulating turns. It was eager to turn in, with light brake pressure helping the car pivot. The reworked suspension is wonderfully sorted, especially if you don’t overcook corners. Too fast and the car will plow wide until you come off the gas again and let it settle. Standard procedure for a front-wheel-drive.

The engine produces a hefty amount of torque for a front-wheel-drive, but the GS is solid from a hard, standing start, as I’m reminded by the only stop sign for miles. Oops, I missed the turnoff to the grocery store. Bygones.

Snow Tires

Since it was winter, my car had snow tires rather than the optional summer performance rubber. Snow tires are louder and less supple than regular all-weathers, but didn’t affect performance except under hard braking, when the front wheels would warble as the nose dived.

Mostly, though, the GS was fun to drive. The cars pulls rather than pushes you, and some maneuvers are awkward. But it keeps you mindful and engaged, paying attention to corner speed and manually shifting gears.

The GS didn’t overmatch the road, unlike the latest Porsche 911 or a Nissan GT-R, which slice up double lanes all too easily. The GS is a more even match between asphalt and machine. Inside, the seats were black leather with contrasting stitching, and a black piano finish on the dash broke up the standard GM plastic.

Messy Buttons

The major failure was the center console and optional navigation system; such a mess of random buttons.

It has a seven-inch touch screen. That should be the end of the story. Instead Buick has redundant manual controls underneath. You’ll find, in no particular order, buttons for home, source, engine start, RPT navigation, destination, favorites, configuration, tone, info, traction control.

Quick, you want to change the sport setting? Good luck with that.

Nonetheless, the Regal GS has spark. Stop by if you want to see for yourself. We’ve got plenty of eggs.

The 2012 Buick Regal GS at a Glance

Engine: 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 270

horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city, 27 highway.

Price as tested: $38,155.

Best features: Manual is standard, engaging.

Worst features: Still a front-wheel-drive; the center

console controls.

Target buyer: The driver who wants an American car with a

bit of speed and a dash of luxury.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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