Review: 2012 Buick Regal GS Automatic

Is there a place in the world for a young person’s Buick?  I mean, a Buick, with a heavily boosted turbo four, adaptive suspension, 20 inch wheels with PZero summer tires, sport seats, and various sporty adornments on its exterior?  The folks at GM had better hope there is, because you can bet that they can probably count the number of long-term Buick customers who have purchased a Regal GS on one hand.  To paraphrase a line from Top Gun, is the Regal GS’s body writing checks its powertrain can’t cash?  Read on to find out.

Better check your account balance.  There’s only so much that a front wheel drive, turbo four cylinder entry-luxury car can be expected to do.  Yes, the 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct-injected four cylinder is very power dense (its 270 horsepower means that it produces 135 horsepower per liter, which is both the highest specific output of any GM engine in history and the highest specific output of any SAE J1349-certified engine in history).  If the Corvette ZR1’s LS9 supercharged V8 were as power-dense as the Regal GS’s 2.0T, it would produce 837 horsepower instead of 638.

But the thing is, despite out-powering and out-torqueing its declared competitors (Acura TSX, Audi A4, Volvo S60 T5), the Regal GS never actually feels super quick.  Off-the-line response is sluggish until the turbo wakes up around 4,000 rpm, even when standing on the brake and gas together and lifting off the brake.  The GS’s engine boasts a stout 295 lb-ft of torque, and the torque is around, just not below 2,000 rpm.  The torque peak occurs at 2,400 rpm, which is low in the whole scheme of things, but kind of high for a turbo.  In a drag race, a Camry V6 would kill this thing.  In the looks department, not so much.

After 4,000 rpm, the turbo engine comes alive.  Passing power is outstanding, and the transmission (in automatic mode) kicks down fairly quickly.  There’s a manual shift gate (to the left of the main shift track, unlike the ass-backwards pattern on some cars), but it’s kind of pointless unless you want to use it to hold a specific gear.  It does not respond to shift requests with much urgency, but it will hold whatever gear it’s in – whether that be to the rev limiter, or whether you be in sixth gear and floor it, it won’t move unless you slow the car too much for a particular gear.  (For instance, if traveling 55 in sixth but subsequently slowing to 25, it will downshift to about third without any driver intervention).  Aside from a plea for faster shifts, a sport-auto mode would be nice (it’s either auto or manual, with no in-between that automatically holds gears to the redline).  So would rev-matching downshifts.

Despite being a relatively small four cylinder (considering the Regal GS’s 3700 pound curb weight), the car doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with its fuel economy.  The EPA rates it at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway (22 mpg combined), but I found it almost impossible to get anywhere close to the 27 mpg highway number, even at 65 mph on a relatively flat highway.  That being said, my fuel economy over 500 miles of mixed driving was around 21 mpg, so perhaps it’s a bit more efficient in the city than the EPA ratings give it credit for, but I expected bigger numbers on the highway from such a small four cylinder.  The non-GS Regal Turbo (also a 2.0 liter DI engine) is rated at 18/29, but gives up 50 horsepower to the GS.  Note that the standard Regal GS with the six speed manual has the same EPA ratings as our automatic tester did.

Savant’s Corner:  Buick Regal GS vs. Opel Insignia OPC
If the big “fang” air intakes on the bumper grab your attention, you can thank the donor car they are shared with:  the high-performance Opel Insignia OPC, sold in Europe.  In fact, the OPC shares nearly all of the Regal GS’s exterior and interior features.  Some of the few exterior differentiators are the Buick taking a waterfall grille in place of the OPC’s horizontal chrome bar, and the GS having a different aluminum wheel design.  Inside, the only visible difference is in the seats; the OPC gets much more expensive-looking seats that fat-assed American drivers probably would not appreciate.  The GS also borrows the OPC’s HiPer Strut front suspension geometry which basically eliminates torque steer, as well as its German cousin’s three-mode electronic suspension (though the GS has normal, sport, and GS while the OPC has normal, sport, and (you guessed it) OPC).

However, the two cars share very little with their drivetrains.  While the OPC gets a version of the late Saab Turbo X’s 2.8 liter 325 horsepower turbo V6 and Haldex all wheel drive, the GS has the turbo four (and 55 fewer horsepower) with front wheel drive only.  Of note, both the Insignia OPC and Regal GS engines produce 295 lb-ft (400 nm) of torque.  Why didn’t Americans get the big engine and all wheel drive?  Cost and fuel economy.  The OPC drivetrain would have incurred a gas guzzler tax in the Regal, and would have made an already-expensive car even more expensive.

I’ve spent a bit of time on a track in a Regal GS with the manual transmission.  At the time, I felt that the Regal GS was one of the best-handling front wheel drive cars I had ever driven.  That may still be true, but it’s also one of the harshest-riding front wheel drive cars out there.

When driving the GS solo, I preferred putting it in GS mode.  That dials in maximum suspension firmness and maximum steering effort.  It also changes the gauge backlights from ice blue to white (but the center stack and other accent lights remain ice blue).  In GS mode, the car feels like it’s pushing back against bumps rather than absorbing them.  In reality, the car’s suspension isn’t really compressing very much, and whatever it gives up, it quickly takes back.  So, you really feel every imperfection in GS mode, and my wife was quite annoyed by that (on a road that’s not in awful condition, either), so family time meant no GS mode for the most part.

Normal mode is still on the firmer side.  Certainly, the giant 20 inch wheels and low-profile tires don’t help ride compliance.  They do seem to help with the sharpness of the steering, which has a nice heft even outside of GS mode, and in GS mode is fairly communicative for a front driver.  Surely, the large Pirelli PZero summer tires help handling.  In fact, on a hot day, I couldn’t even get very much of a wheelspin from a standing start with the traction control (two mode – off/on) deactivated.  Blame grippy tires and a dearth of low-end torque.

Stepping up to the GS gets you four-piston Brembo front brakes.  These had great pedal feel and really brought the fun to a halt quickly.  I’m sure some very spirited racetrack driving could overheat them, but I didn’t get anywhere near that aggressive with the car.  One demerit against the Brembos:  they generate a hell of a lot of dust.  And that dust likes to linger on your beautiful polished chrome 20 inch wheels.

The interior has good materials and nice textures for its class.  The upper dashboard is soft to the touch; rather than wood trim between upper and lower dash, there’s “piano black” trim (some call it shiny black plastic).  Below the trim piece there is hard plastic.  Hard plastic also appears on the lower door panels, sides of the console, and at the base of the windshield.  Generally, though, the parts you touch are soft to the touch.  The GS gets a special version of the standard GM car steering wheel that’s found in everything from Sonic to Camaro, but it has a flat bottom and very thick rim at the bottom.  Curiously, the rim is thinner at the 10 and 2 positions than it is at the bottom.  Still, it’s among the best I’ve seen in a GM car, unless you don’t care for fake metal that’s made of plastic, because you can expect to have your hands (and fingerprints) on that if you ever hold the bottom half of the wheel.  A metal wheel might be dangerous in hot climates, though.

I found the GS’s front seatbacks to be comfortable and supportive (there is decent bolstering on the sides of the seatback).  However, after a drive of a little more than an hour, I felt that my rear end was not adequately supported by the bottom cushion.  The seats have an interesting grooved design on the seating surfaces that, for some reason, makes them look more European to me.  The car has heated seats, but not cooled., which was a bit disappointing in 100 degree F weather.

For 2012, the Regal gets GM’s new IntelliLink infotainment system.  Though our test Regal was not equipped with navigation, it did feature a color LCD display, as will all IntelliLink-equipped vehicles.  IntelliLink allows, among other things, very simple pairing of a Bluetooth cell phone and on-screen access to Internet radio via Pandora or Stitcher.  You need to have your iPhone plugged into the USB jack in order to use Pandora or Stitcher with on-screen controls (apparently not with Android devices, though) and the app has to be installed and running on your phone before connecting the USB cable.  But it does work.  Also, this car is the first GM vehicle I have ever tested that had Bluetooth streaming audio – and it worked well.  Welcome to 2009, GM!  We put together the quick video below (about 7 minutes long) showing Bluetooth phone pairing and using Pandora with IntelliLink.

Buick Regal sales have not been great in the US since the car’s rebirth for the 2011 model year.  The car finds itself squeezed on the low end by the new Verano compact and on the high end by the larger, similarly-priced LaCrosse.  It doesn’t have as much appeal to traditional (*cough* old *cough*) Buick buyers as some of its roommates in the showroom, and there don’t seem to be many twenty- and thirtysomethings who are eager to buy or lease a Buick.  One positive impact of the Regal (at least the GS) is that GS buyers average 43 years old.  They are literally the children of people buying the LaCrosse.  Another interesting statistic:  the take rate on six speed manual Regal GSs is an impressive 55 percent.  For almost every non-performance car, that number is less than 10 percent.  Heck, I’d be surprised if the Corvette’s was even that high.

It’s not exactly a bargain, and it’s not exactly comfortable, but it is an entertaining car to drive once you get it rolling.  The Regal GS is a great looking entry-luxury car, and with an as-tested price of $36,745 ($34,835 base price for the Regal GS, $325 for the Crystal Red Tintcoat paint, $700 for the 20 inch wheel upgrade, and $885 for destination), whether it’s a good price or not depends on whether you consider it to be a luxury-car peer to an Audi, Volvo, or Acura, or whether you consider it to be a gussied-up Opel, the favorite of leasing companies in Europe.

Buick provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. It sure is purdy. But, besides that, this review is a good one. I mean it’s good writing, not that its super positive. But it’s honest and you explained why you feel the way you do. I got a lot out of it.

  2. The coupe-like styling looks cool but is ultimately impractical. I really dislike the trend of the past 10 years or so of shrinking windows. It takes away headroom, visibility, and natural light.

  3. I predict Buick drops the Regal in a few years. This car would be better with the 3.6L V6 than the 2.0L turbo.

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