Quick Take: 2012 Buick Regal GS (Review)

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Man, does this car look good. I absolutely love looking at this thing.

Buick’s Regal is a great car. I reviewed a mild-hybrid e-assist Regal earlier this year and liked it a lot.

Regals start at CDN $30,085 – this one, in GS trim with a couple of options added on, comes in at CDN $46,150.

 

Exterior/Under the Hood

The Regal’s styling appeals to me. It’s a clean shape, with muscle and class. The GS takes things further. It looks hunkered down, aggressive and menacing. You’ve got a revised front and rear end. The front sports vertical air intakes that remind me of Diego from Ice Age. In a good way.

The Regal’s scalloped side carries over, and there’s nice sporty trim around the lower lines. The rear end has two integrated exhaust finishers and the whole deal is rolling around on gorgeous 20″ 5 twin-spoke polished wheels. Shod in massive 255/35 Pirelli P-Zeros. By the way, they’re only a $270 upgrade from the smaller 19″ rims with all-seasons on them. Nice! The GS looks like it’s going fast – even when it’s sitting still. And it gets a lot of looks.

The Buick grille doesn’t bother me, although some can’t stand it, and the nod to Buick’s heritage with the faux air vents continues here – they’re on the hood.

Under the hood sits a Buick-exclusive (for now) 2.0-Liter turbocharged direct injection 4-cylinder. Its numbers are very impressive. 270 HP at 5300 RPM, and a meaty 295 lb.ft of torque available as low as only 2500 RPM. The juice makes its way through a 6-speed manual transmission and drives the front wheels.

Fuel efficiency is not stellar, but decent enough for the power it gets on paper. The engine is rated at 11 L/100 km (21.4 mpg) in the city and 7.4 L/100 km (32 mpg) on the highway. I calculated my mileage twice. Once after driving quite aggressively in the city for a few days – I averaged 14 L/100 km (17 mpg). I recalculated it after driving relatively economically, but not to the point of idling around town – just taking it nice and easy. I ended up getting a pretty impressive (for pure city driving) 8.5 L/100 km (28 mpg) – doubly impressive because it’s better than the official city rating the car has been given.

 

Interior/Tech/Convenience

The interior is much like the one found in the e-assist Regal. Though not a huge car, the space in the front is good, with plenty of headroom. Materials are nice, there is nice contrasting stitching throughout the cabin and the fit and finish seems very good. Sculpting on the dash is chunky but subtle but nice to look at, and things work pretty well. The center stack starts with a medium-sized screen on top, with a messy sea of similar-looking hard buttons below. Underneath that sits an automatic dual-zone climate control system.

The GS-specific seats are fantastic. They’re leather upholstered, heated and power-adjustable, and have the perfect balance of stiffness and comfort – AND offer excellent bolstering and support. I loved them!

The manually adjustable steering wheel is an interesting take on a sport wheel. It’s a good one, but the lower section’s chrome-rimmed flat-bottomed segments were almost too fat for my liking. Gauges are lovely, with cool luxury-watch-like markings on the bezels. Between the main gauges sits GM’s crunchy graphic display – if you can get over how bad the text looks, it works quite well, letting you toggle between various trip meters, fuel economy settings, averages, etc.

Of course everything is powered – door locks, mirrors, windows, the sunroof. Entry is keyless, and ignition is push-start.

The touchscreen is a bit of a reach to get to, but its audio/nav/settings functions can also be accessed and controlled with the console-mounted rotary jog dial/buttons. It’s not a great way to interface with it, but it works fine. The harman/kardon branded stereo sounds good, but never wowed me.

Other than that, you get a couple of GS-specific touches – embroidered floor mats and alloy sport pedals. I can’t explain why, but both my daughters noticed the pedals and said they are cool.

 

Rear Seat/Storage

There are 3 seats, 3 seatbelts and 2 headrests. The two outboard are seats are lovely to look at and although stiff, they remain very comfortable. As is typical for rear seats, they suffer from a complete lack of bolstering support. The middle seat, as expected, is tiny, hard and would be brutal for an adult – never mind that there’s quite a tunnel in the middle on the floor. Things are just fine for 3 kids, or 2 adults back there. Kids’ seats are accommodated with 2 sets of LATCH anchors, one being adjustable in terms of width. That’s a neat touch.

Headroom isn’t great in the back, due to the sloping roofline. Leg and foot room is reasonable, and the backs of the front seats are scalloped to allow for a bit more space. It does feel a bit snug, but it’s not bad.

There are air vents and a very handy 120V household plug at the back of the center console, 2 seatback map pockets and great door bins. The middle seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders and a nice storage bin under the lid.

In the front there’s a decent glove compartment, passable door bins, a small lidded bin with a 12V plug at the bottom of the center stack, a sliding retractable cover over two cupholders in the console, and a small lidded bin in the armrest, which contains auxiliary, USB and 12V plugs. There’s a surprisingly deep pop-out bin on the left underside of the dash too.

The trunk is decent – not huge, but the space is quite long and very usable. The hinges are completely hidden and shrouded, and everything is nice and clean. The rear seats fold down (but not flat) in a 60/40 split if you need more space. There’s a mesh side pocket as well as a mesh cargo net.

 

The Drive

Here’s where I came away somewhat disappointed. But let’s focus on some of the good stuff first.

The ride, while quite firm, is still compliant enough to be comfortable. It’s well controlled and the payoff is the handling. I can say that this is one of the best handling front-wheel drive cars I’ve driven. I was mightily impressed by the GS’ ability to carve into corners, and although you’re aware that you’re carrying quite a bit of mass into that corner, the car doesn’t hesitate to fly into it, and out of it. The ride is nearly perfect for highway/freeway cruising. The steering is more numb than I’d like, but it’s not horrible. And as you’ll see, you can improve things.

There are two dash-mounted buttons – a “Sport” one and a “GS” one. The Sport button stiffens up the suspension a bit, and lets you take corners with even more confidence – in turn, the ride suffers a bit. Hit the GS button, and you can’t help but feel like boy racer. Especially at night. The cool-blue lit gauges immediately switch to red. And you’ll notice the even-stiffer-than-Sport-mode suspension and tightened steering response right away. Although I loved what the car could do around corners in GS mode and how the steering feel improved, I thought the ride got too skittery and firm. My perfect compromise would be the steering from GS mode, the handling from Sport mode and the ride from the normal driving mode. Apparently the exhaust sound is supposed to get throatier in GS mode, but I’ll get to that.

The engine’s power is routed through the front wheels. That’s a bit of a letdown in a number of ways. Obviously, a rear wheel drive sports sedan is where it’s at. That would be my preference. But another bummer is that this platform is readily available in all-wheel drive in Europe. Hello?! Why not make the GS all-wheel drive?

With 290 lb.ft of torque on tap, Buick is looking at all kinds of squirrely behaviour in a front-wheel driver. I’m not sure what they did, but it’s actually very well controlled in terms of torque steer. BUT, whatever they did, makes the Regal GS feel like it’s about 75-100 lb.ft of torque shy of its rating. Seriously. It’s surprisingly soft off the line, and that was something that I couldn’t get over. I always wanted more from a standing start. Which leads me to one of the GS’ strengths. Hit the highway with one of these, and you’ll feel the power that you paid for. One of my friends, who also reviewed this car, told me: “Get on the highway and punch it at 80 km/h. It pulls hard.” He wasn’t kidding. It feels stronger at 70 or 80 km/h than it does off the line. It has tremendous ability to pull strongly at mid-range and high speeds, and it’s very satisfying. Even half-way into second, if you’re standing on it, this bad boy goes! With that said, I’d happily trade some of that highway oomph for more from-a-red-light get up and go zing any day. I always use the VW/Audi 2.0-Liter turbos as the benchmark and although this one is significantly up on horsepower and torque, it never feels as punchy as they do while driving around town.

All that torque does want to put up its hand and be counted, and when exiting out of corners and punching it, you’ll feel things get unsettled as the traction control kicks in. Turn the traction control off, and step on it coming out of a corner, and the inside tire will spin. And spin.

Oh yes, the sound. When I first fired it up, I absolutely loved that I could hear the 4-cylinder’s burble at idle. I gave my friend a ride in it, and he even commented on its “purr” as he walked up behind it. Yet, when you’re on the gas, there isn’t as much sound as I had hoped for. There is a nice 4-cylinder growl, but I wanted more. It’s a very quiet interior (isn’t a Buick supposed to be?), and other than the road noise coming through on certain rougher surfaces, it’s super silent. Even in GS mode, the supposedly throatier exhaust note never intruded enough to get my blood going. Open your window, and you do get to hear the turbo whistle occasionally, but even that was quite muted. One thing I noticed is, because it’s so quiet in most situations, I found myself driving quite fast quite often and surprising myself when I looked at the speedometer.

The GS gets the unheard-of-in-many-years-in-a-Buick option of getting it with a manual transmission. Sounds good, right? It’s not. The transmission itself isn’t horrible, but it’s not great and more importantly, it’s not the right one for a sports sedan. Clutch take-up is pretty linear, and it’s not hard to drive, but there’s little or no sporting character to it. It’s not an engaging transmission, and it always feels soft. Add the shifter’s long throws to that, and I was left underwhelmed. And unhappy. I’d probably enjoy this car more with an automatic transmission, and that makes me sad. But if it were an automatic then I’d say not the slushy, comfortable one you CAN get. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about the automatic for this car. But it should be a proper 7 or 8 speed fast dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters. THEN it would be more congruent with what this car promises with its looks.

The GS comes with Brembo brakes, and they are very impressive. They’ll haul things down very quickly, and they are smooth and powerful.

 

Nitpicks

This made me grumpy at first, and after a while, resigned to the fact that this car needs some more work. There is a nifty lock-out trigger on the front side of the shift knob. It needs to be pulled in order to snick the lever into reverse. Great idea. Except that when I drive a manual car, I grasp the entire shift knob and row through the gears. So every time I grab the lever, there’s a goofy trigger button under my fingers. And it moves. So, so, so dumb. And irritating. It might sound trivial. But it wasn’t to me.

I hate electronic parking brakes. It’s not a Regal GS thing. They’re all over the place these days, and they’re just a big bag of suck.

 

The Verdict

I wanted to love the Regal GS so much. I do love much about it. I love the looks. I love the handling ability. I love the interior and the seats, and how it felt so very solid in every situation. I love that it’s a fantastic highway cruiser and would be at home on the autobahn any day of the week.

But I felt let down by a car that promises so much, and has the numbers to back it up, and then left me wanting so much more.

In my opinion, the GS needs to be faster off the line with those kind of numbers, and if you’re going to offer a manual transmission in a sporty Buick, it should be a bang-up gear box, not the turd they’ve served up here.

I give the Buick Regal GS a 6 out of 10. Honestly, if I rated all the components separately, and averaged things out, I’m sure it would be more like a 7.5 out of 10. But when I add in the broken promises (the looks versus where the driving experience suffered), I have to take it down a few notches.

WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was actually quite high. I thought she’d be turned off by the looks, but she thought it looks “pretty hot”. She thought the ride was a bit jiggly, and she doesn’t appreciate things like “handling”. This is a mini-van mom, people. She likes the interior, even though it was a bit dark for her. She didn’t appreciate the manual transmission, mainly because she was unable to drive the car. I told her the transmission sucks anyways, and she said all manuals do. Go figure.

I’m sad that this car left me hanging, the air reeking of disappointment. Not because the car sucks. Not at all. Not because it’s terribly slow. It’s not. But because it promises more than it delivers. If it were my money, and a Buick was where I wanted to hang my hat, I’d head right back the to Regal e-assist. It handled well, it was very comfortable, and although not as fast, it did everything it promised. I just wish it looked like the GS.

The other issue the GS has to contend with is the competition. I’m not sure if it carries enough prestige to look a rear or all-wheel drive BMW 3-series or an all-wheel drive Audi A4 squarely in the eye and not blink, and the pricing is close enough that people could be cross-shopping them.

Alternatively, you might remember that I indicated this engine’s Buick-exclusivity is temporary. Cadillac’s hot new ATS will offer this high-output engine in a small rear-wheel drive sports sedan. I think it’ll make much more sense there.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by Buick.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

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