2018 Buick Regal GS First Drive Review | More power, style and doors

Ben Hsu

During our test-drive of the 2018 Regal GS, Buick took us to Atlanta Motorsports Park and hired stunt drivers to teach us mild-mannered journalists how to do a J-turn. It's an emergency maneuver, also known as a Rockford, in which the car reverses at full speed, spins 180 degrees and takes off in the exact opposite direction from where it was headed. It symbolized perfectly Buick's hopes for the Regal GS, its most ambitious attempt yet at a bona fide American sports sedan.

Buick is trying to shake off decades of stigma as a maker of grandpa-spec wafters. Since 2008, it has been rebadging the Opel Insignia, developed by GM's German subsidiary and built in Rüsselsheim, as the Regal. In 2012, Buick revived the Regal GS badge, providing power from a 2.0-liter turbo four, initially at 270 horsepower but then detuned to 259 hp in 2014 as AWD was introduced.

Buick had high hopes of challenging the luxury greats, and while the previous Regal GS received good reviews as a genuine sports sedan, it never really caught on in the marketplace. Buick took a risk by redefining the brand, but ultimately, it wasn't quite successful enough to be uttered in the same breath as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.

The 2018 Regal GS doubles down on that lofty goal with a better-fleshed-out version of the outgoing car. It returns with improved styling and even more power, courtesy of a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 generating 310 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque. In other words, the new GS is up 40 horses, but down 13 lb-ft with an engine that comes straight from the GM parts bin.

Within GM, it is known as the "High Feature" engine, used in everything from Cadillacs to V6 Camaros to the GMC Acadia. Autoblog has knocked this engine on refinement but generally praised its power, so it's a mixed bag. On the Regal GS, though, the drivetrain exhibited a marked improvement on the refinement front. Buick spokesperson Stuart Fowle attributed this to the new nine-speed automatic it's mated to, a quick and smooth-shifting transmission well-programmed to keep the engine at optimal revs.

The result deviates quite a bit from the Opel Insignia, which maxes out with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four good for 197 horses and 300 lb-ft. With turbo 2.0-liter fours now the de facto entry-level engine for most luxury carmakers, having the 3.6-liter V6 makes the 2018 Regal GS more distinctive, a bit more American and less of a European copy-paste job than its predecessor.

All-wheel drive is now standard on the Regal GS, and it comes with an active twin-clutch system to apportion torque. The system can deliver 100 percent of the available torque to either front or rear wheels, but also direct that twist across the rear axle to either the left or right rear tire depending on conditions. It dials in more rear-wheel bias if either Sport or the more hardcore GS drive mode is selected. Sport and GS modes also tighten the steering and stiffen the dampers, but each one of these traits can personalized if you want, say, more precise steering paired with a softer ride.

The Regal GS even comes equipped with the de rigueur accessory of performance trims, a pair of bright-red Brembo calipers. They're front-only, peeking out from behind thin-spoked 19-inch wheels for maximum effect. With all these driver-oriented goodies, it makes you wonder — who, exactly, is this car for?

GM is marketing the Regal GS as a sports sedan, eschewing the muscle-car rep established by the Gran Sports and GNXes of Buick's past. However, Buick is also eager to point out that it's not a sedan, but a Sportback, the brand's name for a sweeping roofline silhouette whose rear opening is a hatch that includes the deck and glass area. Technically, it's a five-door because it doesn't have a traditional trunk, and Buick would prefer it if you don't call it a hatchback.

That's not to take anything away from its styling. In fact, quite the opposite. The Regal GS is streamlined and handsome without any of the amorphous fussiness that is so on trend these days. It wears more butch front and rear fascias than the standard Regal, paired with subtle side skirts and a thin blade of a spoiler. Its lines are taut, seemingly stretched over a smooth nosecone and along an athletic body.

During our drive through Georgia, we pulled up to an Atlanta hotel only to have the entire valet staff eye it up and down and bombard us with questions. "That's a Buick!?" one asked, as if he had just been cast in one of those irritating TV commercials. "I thought it was a BMW!"

We'd have to agree. Not about the BMW styling, per se, because they all have a distinctive corporate face, but that the Regal is a properly good-looking car. Better proportioned than a Mercedes CLA and less scary than a Lexus ES, it's a strong improvement over the previous Regal, whose shape, or lack thereof, added a lot of visual mass. (As well as actual mass — the new Regal GS weighs in at 3,796 pounds, about 200 pounds fewer than the outgoing model.)

The only knock, if we were forced to choose one, is that the look doesn't particularly scream "Buick." Say what you will about BMW, Lexus and Audi styling, but each one has a distinctive family resemblance that allows even non-car people to identify them from afar. The Regal doesn't even have Buick's traditional portholes, which had been moved to the hood on the previous generation.

In truth, the Regal GS has the performance to back up its rakish lines. During our extended drive, it tackled the Peach State's mountain backroads with confident composure. In the same way a Cadillac CTS channeled early 2000s BMW driving dynamics, the AWD Regal GS manifested handling closer to an early 2000s Audi than anything traditionally Buick.

It cornered flatly with minimal body roll, even on tight hairpins. The steering was accurate and nicely weighted (especially with GS mode on), but its electronic roots offered a tad less feedback than we'd like. It's comparable to the electric wheel on the much more expensive Infiniti Q50 — not exactly high praise.

While a manual gearbox is not available, and perhaps no longer a prerequisite for a sports sedan, the Regal GS doesn't offer paddle shifters, either. But we never felt like we needed them, as the nine-speed knew how to keep the engine in its powerband and changed gears with a dexterity and smoothness that didn't upset the drivetrain.

The cabin was overall a good place to get down to business. It's roomier than that of a BMW 3 Series or Audi A4. The seats are well-bolstered and snug enough to keep you in place during hairpin slings without hampering ingress or being too hard on your posterior. With power 14-way adjustment, drivers of just about any build will be able to settle into a comfortable position. The car has all the modern conveniences and active safety bells and whistles as well — adaptive cruise control, forward automatic braking, lane-keeping assist and front pedestrian detection — when equipped with the $1,690 Driver Confidence II package that our tester had.

What it doesn't have is the plushness or refinement of an Audi or Acura, to say nothing of Mercedes or Lexus. For example, the well-shaped seats would be notable standouts in their class if not for three faults. First, the leather feels tougher and has more wrinkles than rival cowhide would. Second, we could lose the plastic triangles embedded in them, made to resemble openings for a racing harness – a tacky gimmick. And third, the massage function seems to have good intentions, but rather than relax the driver as a Mercedes shiatsu would, it ends up carelessly jabbing your back like a distracted boyfriend one week away from breaking up with you.

Perhaps even more egregious are the gappy fit and finish of the interior. The dashboard is well designed and even sports a smart design element that sees the left- and right-most vents interlocking with negative space in the door panels. Unfortunately, the alignment of these contours is off by a noticeable amount, ruining a key part of the interior's design, which would otherwise be quite clever.

These may seem like petty gripes, but Audi basically made a name for itself perfecting and obsessing over such details. Mercedes and Lexus would never use such a large and light piece of plastic for the head-up display bezel, one that reflects distractingly on the windshield. When these details are done right, they're not noticeable. But when they're done wrong, it's impossible to unsee them.

If you can live with these annoyances, at a $39,070 base price, the Regal GS undercuts much of the competition from Japan and Germany. An AWD Lexus IS350, for example, starts at $40,660. An Audi A5 Sportback starts at $42,600. With all the boxes checked, the difference is even starker. Base pricing is most similar to that of an Acura TLX, another V6 luxury sedan available in AWD. If you want just the basics, the Regal GS actually starts out pricier than the Acura's $38,200. But once you add all the tech and safety options, the Buick comes in at $42,190 versus the TLX's $45,750. But, we would also argue that if you're in the market for a Volkswagen CC or Nissan Maxima, the Buick makes a compelling case for a bit more dough.

The previous Regal GS sought to redefine Buick's identity, but the market disagreed. The 2018 model has a better chance of getting traction with sports sedan buyers. Even if it doesn't quite win over Audi customers, it's a stake in the dirt, showing that Buick won't back down from pursuing this direction.

It seems to take three generations for a brand to become associated with a defining characteristic such as performance, luxury or quality in the minds of the car-buying public. Look at Audi: In the mid-1990s, it was considered an also-ran in the luxury game. Then Audi revamped its entire lineup with the "A" nomenclature, spent much of the 1990s and 2000s honing every aspect of its products, and became the brand equal of BMW.

If the brand in question is, like Buick, trying to do a complete 180, it may take even longer, especially if it's just one model being asked to carry out the entire mission. That's a long time, and even if the company has a particular vision at Generation One, the brand often isn't able to sustain it for, at minimum, 12 years. External forces such as leadership, market and marketing changes constantly threaten to derail the train.

Alas, the first two modern Regal GSes seem to be on the right trajectory, but the sale of Opel to PSA probably means they won't make it to Generation Three. We hope we're wrong on that.

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2018 Buick Regal GS First Drive Review | More power, style and doors originally appeared on Autoblog on Wed, 07 Mar 2018 09:00:00 EST.