2012 Buick Regal GS: First Drive

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2012 Buick Regal GS

2012 Buick Regal GS

Buick has been transformed, and in automotive terms, it's a towering achievement. It took Toyota three generations to get its full-size trucks right. It took three decades for Mercedes to realize its cruise-control stalks were ergonomic gotchas.

Buick's taken just four years to get from the days of Terrazas and Rainiers to where it is today: a power trio that includes the tasty Regal, the luxe LaCrosse and the sumptuous Enclave. The average age of Buick buyers is now under 60, and sure to fall once the late Lucerne factors out. If Buick used to be the last car you bought--ever--it isn't anymore.

It's the Regal that convinces us most convincingly, that this iteration of Buick is going to matter. We're even more certain now that we've driven the 2012 Regal GS, a car that's made some of our High Gear Media staffers positively asthmatic with anticipation. We came to GM's Milford proving grounds for laps yesterday in the Regal GS, and we're glad to report we can breathe better now.

So can the Regal. In our sister site TheCarConnection's review of the 2011 Buick Regal,  we said "We’ve always wanted a sedan as sleek and comfortable as this—but if the Regal’s going to wear a Buick badge, it probably needs more room and more power." The back seat still feels a little snug, but more power is here via a stronger turbocharger, bundled with a finely honed suspension and a real shift-it-yourself gearbox.

2012 Buick Regal GS

2012 Buick Regal GS

The Regal GS starts with the hard points of the Regal CXL turbo, now the mid-level model in the four-door's lineup. The CXL's 220-horsepower output deemed too pedestrian, the GS gets a higher-performance turbocharger tune that runs at 20 psi, versus the CXL's 15 psi. The Regal GS' powertrain is actually descended from the one in the old Cobalt SS and HHR SS, and it's a welcome boost, if not the venomous turbo V-6 piece you'd find in the Euro version of the Regal, the Opel Insignia OPC. It's also shy on output on paper, against cars like the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T at 274 horsepower.

Here, the turbo massage raises output to 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, and the torque number plays a big role in the GS' happy urgency. It spins out 95 percent of its peak torque from 2300 to 4900 rpm, and the three low gears in the six-speed manual are staged tightly to keep the turbo on boil, and to keep the GS in that band, while the upper gears seek out fuel economy.

The formula works. Buick says the Regal GS manual will hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, about the times promised for a Hyundai Sonata turbo. And like it does in the CXL, the turbo gives the GS that particular feel--a muted whistle here, a whippet hit of power there--that maybe all cars will have soon as turbocharging keeps displacing big displacement. Rolling on and off the throttle shows how carefully the turbo's thrust has been tuned, and it's only in really tight second-gear turns at Milford where you can catch the engine off-boost.

The Regal GS could be the first time I've ever driven a manual-shift Buick, and the six-speed is a good one. The clutch footwell is a little tight, but the lever action and uptake would feel fine in any Acura. The lever has a unique reverse lockout trigger switch you'll be flipping and clicking between shifts. A six-speed automatic is coming, but won't be joined by paddle controls, a gimmick we kind of like.

A lot of energy has been consumed in making the front-drive Regal GS behave neutrally, and that work nudges the Regal's handling higher up the Euro-feel scale. Buick calls its new front suspension "Hi-Per Strut," and in practice it means a more stable, better-isolated set of front struts that contribute to flatter handling and mimic some of the benefits of a good control-arm suspension. It also squashes most of the torque steer that could rear up on full-throttle runs.

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