No, in this particular case, it was the car that had me chuckling. I wasn't in a mad hot hatch or a rally-derived rocket – I was in a Buick. The 2014 Regal GS, to be more precise. Somehow, despite its recent product renaissance (not to mention its distant – yet storied – history of performance models), I was having a hard time believing that this attractive, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sedan sliding around the Great White North could possibly be wearing a Tri-Shield badge on its nose.
But it was, and slide about it did. While having access to a vehicle in this setting is fairly rare, what's rarer is the fact that I've had so much exposure to it. In Mr. Ewing's recent Volkswagen Golf R drive story, for instance, his ice capades were his first experience with the new model. In my case, though, I was lucky enough to first test the refreshed Regal GS for a week back in December before flying to Quebec to drive it on the snowy, icy, winding roads of Canada's most fiercely independent province and on the track at Mirabel.
While we were sufficiently impressed with the Regal GS when it arrived in 2010, Buick has really done a number, freshening the car for 2014. The new fascia wears restyled HID headlights with integrated LED accents, while Buick's trademark waterfall grille remains relatively unchanged. I'm admittedly not crazy about the vertical vents fixed to the front of the car, and agree with another journalist who suggested it makes this Regal look like a saber-toothed tiger. Where the GS really looks good, though, is from the rear.
The back of the Regal is accented by a chrome strip that runs nearly the width of the car, and it cuts right into the lightly smoked taillights. Those lights themselves are wider than on the previous GS, with an element integrated into the trunk lid. Atop that lid sits a subtle spoiler, while the rear bumper is accented by trapezoidal exhaust housings.
Where the GS really looks good is from the rear.
The Regal's cabin is nothing to write home about relative to its segment. Material quality on the dash is adequate, with soft plastics on the upper dash. The lower dash and trim around the center stack is harder plastic, although it appears to fit nicely and isn't prone to creaking in cold weather, even when pushed. The leather on the seats is soft and smooth, although the hides used for the steering wheel don't feel quite so supple.
The big news in the cabin doesn't have to do with materials – it's all about the way the redesigned interior is organized. Gone is last year's horrible mess of buttons haphazardly festooned across the center stack, and in their place sits a much cleaner, more attractive design. The crown jewel is an eight-inch touchscreen housing Buick's IntelliLink system with a few redundant buttons nestled below it. Under that is a clean, logically designed set of controls for the climate system, which is set off by a pair of capacitive-touch displays that manage the temperature of the dual-zone climate control and the heated seat functions, hiding them when not in use. The instrument cluster, meanwhile, is home to a 4.2-inch display that shows everything from trip, navigation and audio information to performance settings data, all of which are controlled via steering-wheel-mounted buttons. In general, it's just a much easier interior to live with and use.
Gone is last year's horrible mess of buttons haphazardly festooned across the center stack.
What remains unchanged in the GS is the amount of space in the cabin. There's 96.8 cubic feet according to the EPA, and I can report that even someone as tall as I am – around six feet, one inch – will have no problems in either of the front seats. The back seat, meanwhile, remains rather cramped, particularly in terms of headroom. Trunk space remains unchanged as well, at 14.2 cubic feet.
Buick has outfitted the GS' driver's interfaces accordingly. Snug, supportive, leather bucket seats and a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel do an admirable job of putting the driver in a sporting spirit – a concern of primary importance, especially when most of these sports sedans log anonymous miles stuck in traffic. Even if one's everyday drive isn't special, it's important that these sorts of cars make you feel like they could be.
Like all non-hybrid Regals for 2014, my GS arrived fitted with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, complete with 259 direct-injected horsepower available at 5,300 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque, which is spread from 2,500 to 4,000 rpm (the torque curve represents a 500-rev head start on non-GS models). There's more to it than that, though, because up to 260 lb-ft of twist is available between 1,700 and 5,500 rpm. With a loftier redline than the 2013 GS' 2.0T (7,000 rpms instead of 6,350) and much more usable power, the 11 hp sacrificed from 2013 to 2014 seems negligible. On all-wheel-drive models like this tester, the only transmission available is of the two-pedal variety, with six gears and a manual mode – front-drive GS buyers can select a six-speed manual.
Like the previous GS, the 2014 model can be switched to either Sport or GS mode. The former firms up the continuous damping control, while the latter delivers an even firmer ride, quicker shifts from the six-speed automatic and adjusts the Haldex all-wheel-drive system to send 15 percent more torque rearward (than in normal or Sport), a nice complement to the setting's heavier steering and sharper throttle response. Thanks to an electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential, power can be shunted laterally from wheel to wheel, as well as fore and aft.
On all-wheel-drive models like this tester, the only transmission available is of the two-pedal variety.
In practice, the AWD system is dynamite. Even in the inclement conditions that slushed over the roads of rural Quebec the day before my arrival, the GS felt surefooted and able as I traveled from the airport to the hotel, a distance of nearly 80 miles (although the circuitous route through the countryside meant I traveled quite a bit further). Unlike earlier Haldex systems, this one can shuffle up to 90 percent of available torque to the rear axle, momentarily imbuing the GS with rear-drive-like dynamics.
My pace through the countryside was good, thanks to the AWD and my car being fitted with non-standard 19-inch Pirelli Sottozero winter tires. With the GS set in its default mode, the handling tends toward understeer, but only when pushed hard. The GS features GM's Hi-Per Strut front suspension, which is designed to curb torque steer in high-power applications like this, and it does a fine job at discouraging such wriggly antics, aided nicely by a rear control-arm setup that stands in for the front-drive model's multilink architecture. Driven at a reasonable clip on the slushy roads, the Buick's overall sense of agility felt quite good, despite its nearly 4,000-pound curb weight. There's not a lot of undesirable motion in the suspension, whether fore, aft or laterally, and the degree of feedback transmitted through the seats as I circled the icy, one-mile road course setup at Circuit ICAR left me well informed of just how much grip the snow tires had. If there's one word to describe the GS' overall experience in winter weather on these tires, it's "predictable."
The ride, meanwhile, remains firm but compliant. The car feels planted when rocketing down highways and isn't overly disturbed by bumps. Before traveling to Montreal, the pothole-ridden roads of metro Detroit did prove a challenge in either Sport or GS mode, as the firmer ride amplified the roughness of the road surface. For those who value a comfy ride, I'd recommend leaving the suspension in its default setting on anything but smooth roads, or perhaps going with a non-GS Regal, which features a softer ride and similar power levels. I'd also recommend avoiding the GS' optional 20-inch wheels. The 19s don't look as stylish, but the improvement in ride quality provided by the smaller wheels and taller tire sidewalls shouldn't be discounted.
If there's one word to describe the GS' overall experience in winter weather on these tires, it's "predictable."
The GS, like many new cars, uses an electric power steering system. Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of feedback sent through the thick-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel, especially at the track. It's not telepathic, but for a car with a Buick badge on the nose, it's nicely chatty. The weighting is linear, building nicely, and it feels quite confident at speed. Swap over to GS mode and it starts to feel more like a traditional hydraulic setup, with heavier weighting that feels more natural and intuitive.
With nearly 300 pound-feet of torque spread across such a substantial portion of the rev range, it shouldn't be a shock that the amount of usable power in the Regal GS is impressive. Off the line, it's quoted as hitting 60 in 6.8 seconds, but it feels a bit quicker. Mid-range punch, particularly on the freeway, is more than adequate, while accelerating and exiting through corners is fun, if only because it shows how good the AWD and eLSD systems are.
Buick has tuned the throttle tip-in quite nicely, with a fair amount of room for modulation in normal or Sport mode, and a crisper, snappier response when in GS. Lag – long the scourge of high-output, turbocharged engines like this – is scarcely an issue thanks to the twin-scroll unit fitted to the GS' 2.0T. Power delivery, meanwhile, is linear and predictable due to the abundance of easily accessible torque.
Buick somehow decided not to fit paddle shifters to auto-equipped GS models.
If there's a foible with the GS, it's the six-speed automatic. Really, there's not much wrong with the transmission itself, but rather, the decisions Buick made that surround it. First and foremost, you can't have all-wheel drive and a manual gearbox, despite this car's European cousins, the Vauxhall Insignia VXR and Opel Insignia OPC, featuring the same all-wheel-drive system with a stick.
Secondly, even with the sporty 19 or 20-inch wheels, look-at-me body kit and turbocharged grunt, Buick somehow decided not to fit paddle shifters to auto-equipped GS models. Let me put it plainly – a car like the GS and a set of paddles go together like french fries and poutine. Not having them standard is an indefensible omission, especially when they cost so little to add. Compounding this for me – and this is merely personal preference – is that the manual mode on the shifter feels backwards, mandating that drivers push forward to upshift and pull back to downshift.
Product-planning complaints aside, the Hydra-Matic six-speed auto shifts quickly enough and will drop gears nicely based on throttle inputs. As I mentioned, GS mode sharpens up shifts, although it isn't a neck-snapping increase in immediacy by any means.
A car that's agile and goes quickly is all well and good, but if a driver doesn't feel confident in his steed's brakes, things can quickly go from being fun to downright scary. Thanks to its Brembo stoppers, the Regal GS is anything but. Four-piston, aluminum calipers and 13.6-inch vented rotors are mounted in front, while out back, there's a single-piston caliper and 12.4-inch vented rotors. It all feels quite nice, with plenty of modulation and feedback through the brake pedal, without feeling overly grabby or soft. Much like the AWD system, there's a sense of confidence delivered by the GS' brakes.
Its sporting character aside, the Regal GS is still a comfortable, quiet car.
Its sporting character aside, the Regal GS is still a comfortable, quiet car. Buick tuned the cabin well, managing to mask wind noise. Road noise remains a small problem, although the Regal is on par in its segment. Engine noise, meanwhile, is sporting when pushed hard and at high rpms, although it has a generic, four-cylinder sportiness to it. At lower engine speeds, it's mostly quiet and unobtrusive.
There is a price to be paid for the power, torque and AWD awesomeness in the Regal GS, and it comes at the pumps. The EPA ratings claim 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, which certainly seems attainable. In my experience, even driven briskly, 19 to 20 mpg was possible around metro Detroit.
Prices for the Regal GS start at $36,905, but if you'd like the Haldex AWD system, plan on shelling out at least $39,270, not counting a $925 destination charge. That figure is comparable to the $39,300 starting price of the 240-hp BMW 328i xDrive or the $39,400, 248-hp Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic, cars that Buick says this car is aimed at.
Obviously, this General Motors product doesn't have anywhere near the same level of brand cachet as the Europeans (Cadillac would be closer), but if you move beyond badge snobbery, the Buick does begin to make a case for itself. Most notably, that's because the Regal doesn't bury its owner under the cost of optional add-ons like the Germans. The sole available extras are the aforementioned 20-inch wheels ($700), an average-sized moonroof ($1,000) and a pair of packages. The $890 Driver Confidence Package 1 adds blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert and a suite of other safety items. For another $1,695, customers can get adaptive cruise control and automatic collision prevention with the Driver Confidence Package 2. Out the door, a loaded Regal GS AWD with destination is $44,480, which is a fair bit less than similarly equipped competitors from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
If you move beyond badge snobbery, the Buick does begin to make a case for itself.
The Regal GS is a capable all-weather entertainer that has looks and performance at a price that won't break the bank. It might not be as pure of a driving instrument as a comparable 3 Series or as luxurious a vehicle as the C-Class, but it really is an automotive total package for anyone that's looking for a sports sedan just a bit outside the norm.