When General Motors first announced that the U.S. would be getting some sort of hotted-up Regal, we were told it'd be just like the Opel Insignia OPC that continues to light fires within the hearts of European enthusiasts. That car boasts a 325-horsepower 2.8-liter turbocharged V6, six-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive. We've had the chance to drive the Insignia OPC and will say without hesitation that it is, in fact, the bee's knees.
Imagine our disappointment, then, when we found out that the Regal GS was fitted with a 270-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Oh yeah, and it's front-wheel drive.
But here's what everyone seems to forget: The Regal GS may be down on power compared to the Insignia OPC, but it still produces 295 pound-feet of torque, just like the Opel. The Regal is also about 500 pounds lighter than the Insignia OPC. And sure, all-wheel drive is nice, but the Regal uses what is arguably the world's most advanced front-wheel-drive architecture – GM's HiPer Strut system. Finally, according to our Buick man, the Insignia OPC would have been hit with a gas guzzler tax had it been ported directly over. By contrast, the Regal GS achieves up to 27 miles per gallon.
There's plenty of goodness to the Regal GS package, and after a long stint of hustling this hottest Buick along northern Michigan's finest backroads, we aren't all that disappointed after all.
The engines may be wholly different, but park a Regal GS next to an Insignia OPC and you'd think they were the same car. Aside from a different set of wheels and a couple of trishield badges, the GS is visually identical to the OPC. Everything from the fangs in the front fascia to the large dual exhaust tips out back have been carried over to the American car, and truth be told, we're smitten with the way this thing looks. It's bulgy, brash and uses an interesting blend of curving lines to create an aura of sharpness.
We've gushed over the OPC's design for years now, so instead, let's focus on the new bits for the Regal GS – i.e., the wheels. The standard wheel and tire package uses 19-inch alloys wrapped in all-season rubber that's similar to what is in use on the mid-grade Regal CXL Turbo. Our test car (and every other Regal GS you've ever seen a photograph of) uses the optional 20-inch wheel package with 255/35-series Pirelli PZero summer tires. Honestly, we don't love the chrome look of the larger wheels, and instead of going off on a "When will GM learn that not every car needs some sort of chrome treatment?" rant, we'll use this space to politely remind buyers that your local wheel and tire outfitter will gladly sell you a much more handsome set of 20-inch rollers for a small fee. We could tell you to just get the 19s, but after falling in love with the amount of grip available with the 20-inch set, we'll bite our tongues.
Moving inside, we have one very nitpicky complaint about the GS' interior – the shift knob for the six-speed manual transmission. Normally we aren't this whiny, but with a manual transmission, the shifter is one of the most important points of communication between driver and car (see also: steering wheel), and the sensory feedback you get from gripping a nicely shaped, thick shift knob heightens the whole cog-swapping experience. Here, Buick has chosen to use the same shifter as the CXL Turbo, which feels like it'd be more at home on a shift lever that clicks through a P-R-N-D-L gate. So often, our fingers felt oddly smashed against the Reverse gate release button on the back of the shift knob, and on a few occasions, we couldn't get a solid grip on the shifter for far throws into fifth and sixth gears. This would be such a simple fix.
We'll reiterate that the above complaint is immensely nitpicky, and the only reason it's a talking point is because the rest of the cabin is so nicely done. The steering wheel has been carried over right from the OPC, with its flat bottom and bulgy-in-all-the-right-places design. Interestingly, the backside of the helm has what feel like placeholders for paddle shifters, but Buick officials tell us that cars equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission (an optional extra that will be available later in the model year) won't have paddles. Not that you want the autobox, anyway.
American customers don't get the supremely comfortable and supportive Recaro seats available on the Insignia OPC, but after a few hours of butt-in-seat drive time, we're nonetheless pleased with the thrones being offered to us oversized 'Muricans. They're comfortable and offer ample amounts of bolstering for both our love handles and thunder thighs.
Other than that, the interior is the same as every other Regal, save the nifty 'Sport' and 'GS' buttons on the center stack (the latter turns the instrument back-lighting from blue to white). The center stack is still a bit button-heavy, but the fit of the panels and graining of the plastics are quite good. Anyone who says GM isn't capable of crafting a really nice interior has clearly never sat inside a Regal. Buick will be offering its nifty new IntelliLink infotainment system on all Regals later in the 2012 model year, and we were given a quick glimpse of some of its features. Check it out in the Autoblog Short Cut below (pay attention at 2:55 for an embarrassing – yet hilarious – moment for our narrator):
We had no doubts that the Regal GS' exterior and interior would be just fine – it's the powertrain and chassis that were the cause of our initial disappointment, remember?
Let's start with the engine: GM's 2.0-liter Ecotec turbocharged inline-four. We've previously enjoyed this engine under the hood of the SS-badged Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, as well as the Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn Sky Red Line, may they all rest in peace. Currently, Buick uses a detuned version of this Ecotec in the Regal CXL Turbo, where it produces 220 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, but a healthy dose of engine recalibration means that same engine now produces 270 hp and 295 lb-ft in the GS.
At launch, the only transmission offered will be the six-speed manual, and that's just fine with us. Aside from our overly critical issues with the shifter itself, the transmission is a joy to use. The clutch is nicely weighted with a linear action, though there's quite a bit of overall travel to the pedal. And while it seems odd to criticize the manual transmission shift knob from one side of our mouth and praise it from the other, we do admit that the shift action is engaging and solid. We would greatly appreciate shorter throws, especially in the horizontal gaps between second and third, and fourth and fifth, but the direct six-speed gate makes for very little in the way of complaints.
Now, 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of twist is a lot for a front-wheel-drive car to handle, but GM's HiPer Strut suspension does a phenomenal job of keeping things in line. We tried a couple of hard straight-line acceleration runs, and the steering wheel never moved. Occasionally, with a heavy foot on the throttle while coming out of a slow corner, we did notice a dose of torque steer, but it's gone before you even realize what has happened. Buick officials claim a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds, but judging by our time in the car, that feels extremely conservative. We'll bet our bottom dollar that real-world testing results in times in the low-six-second range.
Other performance enhancements include unique (read: stiffer) spring rates on the GS versus the standard CXL Turbo, and the ride height has been lowered by 10 millimeters. Keeping the power under control are a pair of 14-inch vented brake discs up front, with four-piston Brembo calipers clamping down to keep things from getting squirrely during quick stops. After long stretches of hard braking into turns, we noticed very little brake fade, and the HiPer Strut suspension works to keep the car's front end calm and collected during sudden deceleration, too.
Three suspension modes are available while driving – normal, Sport and GS – and as you'd expect, each one is significantly more dialed in than the one before it. Buick executives tell us that even the most hardcore GS mode is still the sort of setting that you'd feel comfortable using in the city, and while we found our drive through downtown Traverse City to be a bit bouncy with this setting, it wasn't teeth-chattering. Get the car on some smooth pavement, though, and GS mode is exactly what you want. Here, the Regal stays flat and composed through the corners, with no noticeable body roll making things wishy-washy during quick turns.
The turbo-four/front-drive package makes for a very well-sorted driving dynamic – the Regal GS never feels over- or under-powered, and it's tossable, light and more engaging than you'd think. We'd bet that the Insignia OPC is a total hoot to drive, but so is the Regal GS.
Buick says the Regal GS aims squarely at the Audi A4 and Acura TSX V6, the latter of which is the comparison we naturally made in our own minds. In this case, the Regal's dynamics trump the Acura, hands down, and while Buick would love to have a legitimate A4 or BMW 3 Series competitor on its hands, the simple fact is that the Regal GS isn't quite potent and poised enough to tackle the Germans. Then again, isn't that what the Cadillac brand is for?
Pricing starts at $35,310 for the Regal GS, and the only available options are some premium paint colors, navigation, a sunroof and the 20-inch wheels with summer tires. Check every box and you'll end up just under $39,000. That's pushing awfully close to the $40K mark, but keep in mind, an Acura TSX V6 with the tech package will run you about $39K, as well. We'll take the Buick, thanks. (Isn't it nice to be able to say that again?)
As a complete package, the Regal GS is a pretty slick deal, though it competes in a weird section of the market. An honest Opel Insignia OPC would be a nice thing to have on our shores, but in order to even make the project worthwhile, Buick says it would have to price it significantly higher than $35,000 (think: $50,000). It'd also be nice to have an M3 fighter from the Buick brand, but again, isn't that what Cadillac's V-Series is for? The new ATS is on its way, and we hear the ATS-V should have Bimmerfiles shaking in their boots.
In the meantime, we'll let Buick continue its path toward domination in the entry-level aspirational luxury segment. It's not the OPC we had hoped for, but the 2012 Regal GS is in no way a disappointment. We dare you to drive one and not walk away impressed.