2018 Buick Regal GS First Drive - The Regal GS We Want Is Not the Regal GS We Deserve
Spoiler alert: At some point in this review, I am going to make the idiotic suggestion that the Buick Regal GS ought to come with a manual transmission.
I’m assuming you’re all somewhat familiar with the Buick Regal, a lightly Americanized version of the European-market Opel Insignia. By our standards, the Insignia is legitimately European. It’s a hatchback masquerading as a sedan, which is (or at least used to be) a popular bodystyle in Europe. It’s built in Germany, which is more than a lot of BMWs and Benzes can say. By European standards, though, the Insignia is – well, it’s sort of a Buick. It’s wallowy and a bit soft around the tummy.
The GS is the hod-rod model, which dumps the 2.0-liter turbo four and replaces it with a 310 horsepower version of GM’s corporate 3.6-liter V6. It gets a nine-speed auto tranny and all-wheel-drive, bigger front brakes with red-painted Brembo calipers, unique front and rear fascias, and fancier gauges and front seats.
Surprisingly, the GS’ suspension differs little from the regular car. The front springs are calibrated to carry the extra weight of the V6 engine, and the Regal GS gets Continuous Damping Control, which is GM-speak for adjustable shocks. (One wonders why the Regal didn’t get the magnificent Magnetic Ride Control system. My guess is that CDC offers more discernable variation between driver-selectable drive modes.)
How does it drive? For the most part, it’s quite good. If you’ve ever driven an Audi A4 and thought, “Well, that was a bit overrated,” you’ll understand my feelings about the Regal GS. This is a competent car that does what you’d expect a 300-ish horsepower all-wheel-drive sedan to do. The steering feels nice. The grip is strong. There’s no corner-exit drama, and if you push too hard it raps you lightly on the knuckles with a bit of gentle understeer. You can crank it up to pretty high speeds in the corners and it won’t embarrass itself. I’m not the world’s greatest hot-shoe, nor am I the world’s biggest coward (though I’m more of the latter than the former), and the Regal GS didn’t do anything that scared me.
Unfortunately, it didn’t do anything that really thrilled me, either.
Let’s start picking things apart, shall we?
Before we get to performance, I’d like to talk about appearance. (Ideally, a good sport sedan generates a little adrenaline pressure before you open the door.) I happen to think the Regal Sportback is a good-looking car to begin with, and the GS looks fine to me. From the outside, at least.
Inside, not so much. Not that there’s anything wrong with the new Regal’s interior; goodness knows it’s a huge improvement over the old one. But a video speedometer and some piano-black trim isn’t enough to differentiate the GS from lesser Regals. How about some red stitching on the dash and seats? How about a big fat “GS” embroidered on the headrests? How about programming that video IP so it glows red when you select “Sport” or “GS” mode?
As I said earlier, there’s nothing really wrong with the suspension setup. Buick engineers had to get down with the whole Quiet Tuning thing. I get that. And frankly, they did a pretty amazing job. The Regal GS is as peaceful as a library and has an exceptionally comfortable ride, which is no small accomplishment considering how well it handles.
No, the big letdown is the powertrain. High Feature V6, j’accuse!
It doesn’t help the GS’ case that the 2.0T engine fitted to the regular Regal is a solid powerplant. Of course, there’s a good argument for replacing a turbo four with a V6: Better off-the-line performance courtesy of strong low-end torque.
Problem is, the 3.6 doesn’t have any.
The 2.0T in the Regal Sportback delivers 295 lb-ft of torque when equipped with all-wheel-drive, with peak delivery between 3,000 and 4,000 RPM.
The 3.6 delivers 282 lb-ft of torque, and it peaks at 5,200 RPM.
I’d be willing to bet that the average human can’t detect a 13 lb-ft deficit. But you could have all of the nerve endings in your back and buttocks removed and still figure out that the V6-powered Regal doesn’t take off any better than the 2.0T.
Of course, an engine doesn’t have to be fast to feel fast. There are tricks of the trade: Enough low-end torque to push you back in your seat (and we know that boat has been missed), or a deep, throaty engine note. Nope, the GS doesn’t have that either. Buick claims the Regal GS has a sport-tuned exhaust. Apparently, the sport in question is badminton.
My point – and I probably should have gotten to it earlier – is that the $39,995 Buick Regal GS isn’t enough of an improvement over the regular Regal Sportback. Not enough to justify the $5,200 premium over the top-of-the-line Regal Essence, and sure-as-feck not enough to rationalize the $14,000 increase over the entry-level Sportback.
So what could Buick have done differently?
Well, for one thing, they could have put a stick shift in it.
For the record, I hate, hate, hate it when automotive writers make this ridiculous assertion, especially when the automotive writer in question is me. Don’t get me wrong: I love manual transmissions. If I had my druthers, everything would come with a manual transmission. Who wouldn’t want a Wraith with a three on the tree? But the reality, as we all know, is that few people buy manuals. (Although they’d probably buy more if there were more to buy.)
Pointing out that a given car ought to come with a manual does nothing but highlight the fact that we can’t get what we want. Pour a little lemon juice in the wound, why don’t you.
We can all guess the reason why the GS doesn’t come with a manual: Budget. The Euro-market Insignia obviously comes with a manny-tranny, but it’d cost a bunch o’ money to get U.S. emissions certification for a stick Regal, and it’s just not worth it for the few copies they would sell.
Complicating this is the fact that American performance enthusiasts aren’t that important to Buick. For every car Buick sells in the US, they sell five and a half in China. While I can’t claim to know the mind of the average Chinese auto buyer, I have a feeling they aren’t exactly looking for Lancer Evo clones with Buick badges.
Now, we know GM can build proper performance cars. Anyone who has driven a late-model Corvette, Camaro, ATS-V, or twin-turbo CT6 can attest to that. Buick could have built a Regal GS that would have knocked our socks off, but it probably didn’t make good financial sense – and that’s why the GS appears to be best suited to overweight oldsters who haven’t been able to drive a stick since their knees started acting up a few years ago.
So there’s no business case – but what ever happened to brand pride? Back in ’65, Buick lied about the displacement of the 401 V8, calling it a 400 so that they could skirt the corporate rules restricting the maximum engine size for an intermediate car. If we were back in the 1960s – the days when GM divisions were competing against each other, and not just the rest of the world – Buick would have built a world-class GS.
Sadly, outside of Chevrolet and GMC, brand pride at GM seems to be a relic of the past.
Imagine if that spirit of FU was still alive at Buick. In my dream world, the Regal GS would have a high-output version of the 2.0T cranked up to 300 hp and 300-or-so lb-ft of torque. It would have a six-speed manual lifted from the Insignia. It would have an interior that would make the Civic Type R look as sedate as a Volkswagen Golf. It would have adopted the flappy-valve exhaust from the Corvette, and at the press of a button would go from church quiet to popping and farting on the overrun. It would have the same fantastic suspension setup, with the body dropped a half-inch or so to hug its standard-fit summer performance tires. It would have been a bargain at the GS’ $40k price tag.
The GS I am envisioning would have been ridiculously expensive to engineer and never would have justified the few sales it would garner in the US. But you know what it would do? It would get people like you and me to sit up and take notice of Buick. It would have made us realize that, hey, maybe we had Buick all wrong. Maybe not all Buicks are old man cars or gussied-up rental-quality Chevys. Maybe they’re ‘60s cocktail cool, elegant cars with big-ass motors and hot styling.
Maybe it’d get us to seriously consider Regal Sportbacks and TourXs, just as the ’65 GS cars got people to buy Special Deluxes and Skylarks and LeSabres.
And then Buick would follow up the Regal GS with a Regal TourX GS wagon, and wouldn’t that make people like us lose our shit!
Sadly, I know I’m dreaming. The Buick Regal GS I want is simply not realistic. In fact, Buick tried something like this with the 2012 Regal GS. It didn’t sell many, and I don’t think it did much for Verano, LaCrosse, or Enclave sales, either.
So, like I said, my suggestion that Buick build a stick-shift Regal GS is just plain stupid. Still, can you blame me for thinking the 2018 Regal GS is a missed opportunity?
[Images: General Motors]
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