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First drive: 2018 Buick Regal GS [Review] - image 1

First drive: 2018 Buick Regal GS [Review]

by Byron Hurd

The big Regal returns with a V6.

Every month for the past three, Buick has invited us out to sample one of its new Regal models. In December, it was the Sportback--the anchor model in the lineup; in January, we drove the TourX (don't call it a wagon); in February, we finally got our hands on the GS. Clockwork.

To this point, the 2018 Regal already represents a significant departure from the outgoing model. The switch to a five-door configuration and the availability of the wagon TourX are evidence enough of that. That about-face continues with the GS.

A reboot
The last-generation GS was a bit of an oddity. It was an early expression of Buick's attempt to appeal to younger buyers. It was turbocharged and could be had with a manual, but only in front-wheel-drive. Those who wanted all four wheels powered had to settle for an automatic.

This time around, the GS is the only Regal that doesn't have a turbo-four as standard equipment. The only engine available is a 3.6L, direct-injected and naturally aspirated V6. It's paired to a standard multi-clutch all-wheel-drive system and a nine-speed automatic transmission. We probably don't have to point it out, but the manual is a no-show.

This six is no slouch, either. At 310 horsepower and 282lb-ft of torque, it's not quite as aggressive as the Camaro's version of the same mill, but it's plenty punchy. The switch to V6 power is an unexpected reversal, but in a way reflective of the current industry climate. Chasing half a mile per gallon on the highway just isn't as important as it was even five years ago, and in a vehicle this heavy, smaller FI engines aren't known for killer mileage anyway.

The essence of GS
In a way, it's odd that the most European expression of the Regal comes after GM's sale of the division that spawned it. Overseas, the Regal is an Opel (the Insignia), and has been offered in various body styles before. What we have here is functionally our equivalent of the Insignia GSi sold in Europe less the V6 (their models top out with the 260-horsepower four-banger).

Basically, we get the same goodies, just with more horsepower. God bless America.

What goodies are those? Sport bucket seats, for starters. They're gussied up with faux harness pass-throughs and aggressive (and adjustable) side bolsters that can be made plenty snug. They also have built-in thigh support extensions and a massaging feature, along with heat and ventilation.

Other interior upgrades include a GS-specific, flat-bottom steering wheel (because no sporty car is complete without extra crotch clearance, we suppose) and metal finish on the pedals. The GS interior is based on a fairly loaded-up Sportback's, so you can expect all the other niceties (digital cluster, eight-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, etc.) and contrast-stitched seating and trim.

The only interior upgrade options for the GS are Buick's Driver Confidence II package (which adds adaptive cruise and some other semi-autonomous aids), a package which bundles wireless charging and LED cornering headlamps, and a navigation/audio upgrade for the infotainment system.

The essentials of GS
We've already talked about the powertrain, but there's more to GS than just a big engine. There's just one suspension configuration (thanks to the standard all-wheel-drive, the rear end is a five-link setup) and it's bundled with standard adaptive dampers. It's not MagneRide, mind you. This is the same CDC (continuous damping control) system featured in LaCrosse and Enclave.

There are other mechanical upgrades at the corners. Brembo brakes are standard up front, and the 19-inch wheels are unique to this trim. Buick is not offering its QuietTuning tires on the GS, opting instead for higher-performance rubber rather than sound-absorbing foam. Going the other direction entirely, in fact, is the GS's sport-tuned exhaust system. We can't remember the last time Buick was proud of making something sound like anything at all, let alone aggressive.

Aside from the wheels, a GS can be identified in the wild by its decklid spoiler, unique front and rear bumpers and sporty side-skirts. It's eye-catching, especially in red, and the GS front bumper treatment serves to minimize the anteater look that makes the Sportback a little dowdy from some angles.

The experience of GS
This was our third go behind the wheel of a 2018 Regal, but it's the first time one of them has made a noteworthy first impression. We weren't shocked by the performance, mind you, but by how distinctly out-of-character it is for the lineup.

With the Sportback and TourX, Buick is selling two incredibly uniform models. They're built for relatively anonymous comfort and practicality. You need only decide whether you need the added practicality offered by the TourX's wagon body.

The GS tosses that formula out the window. The sporty exterior panels, badge job and big red brakes are attention-grabbing, as we learned driving through metro Atlanta. Parking outside the downtown Hilton provided the closest to a genuine "that's a Buick?" experience we've ever known in real life, as several valets took their turns circling the car and complimenting it. In the space of just fifteen minutes, the GS was being spoken of in borderline-reverent tones. It was simply "that new Buick," and some of the (positive) descriptions weren't fit to print.

The experience goes beyond the visual aesthetic. It's loud too--considerably louder than the Envision we drove immediately afterward, in fact. From the start-up, to the top-end exhaust note and even (and especially) the road noise, it's a feel so antithetical to the Sportback and TourX's that it stands out for that reason alone.

310 horsepower isn't earth-shattering, but the switch to a V6 changes the character of the Regal so much that it too stands out. We're fans of naturally aspirated engines, and the linear power delivery is welcome; that doesn't make it any less jarring.

So it's loud and quick off the line, but is it satisfying? Yes, in fact. Remember, the Regal is just an Opel, meaning this car is German if it's anything. That character shows as much in its chassis tuning as it does in its upscale-mainstream interior design. It should come as no surprise then that the Regal GS expresses those European roots.

This is the sport sedan we'd hoped the base Sportback would be. In fact, it's the sedan we wish Volkswagen would build again. If you've been hankering for a VR6-powered Passat that is more than just a long-distance snoozefest, this right here is your car.

Like the Passat, the Regal GS can't be expected to challenge its corporate stablemates for performance supremacy. It's still a Buick, after all, and any move on that front would produce upward pressure on Cadillac--a brand already struggling to move its lower-end sedans and coupes.

But the all-wheel-drive GS is fun enough. Its two performance modes (Sport and GS) offer both fixed and individually manipulable settings for the suspension, throttle and transmission. The two suspension modes aren't night-and-day different, but the default will preserve your kidneys a bit more effectively than the sporty setting will.

In practical terms, it's fun. The V6 is willing and the transmission, while not lightning-quick, gets the job done well enough. We're puzzled by the lack of paddle shifters, but the lever's selector works well enough (it's a full pull/push setup, not just a shift button).

You'll feel the GS's heft in the corners. We're talking about a V6 with standard all-wheel-drive, so "svelte" is never going to be the word for it. At just under 3,800 pounds, it's basically the same weight as a TourX, but that weight is carried lower in the chassis. It's also well-managed by the suspension and the more performance-oriented Continentals wrapped around the wheels.

We've been looking for the "fun" Regal since we set off to drive the Sportback in December. Finally, we've found it.

But why?
We've been hoping all along that the 2018 Buick Regal lineup would surprise us, but at this point we think it's time to set that hope aside. From start to finish, every variant of the new midsizer has turned out to be exactly the sum of its parts. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. Buick is attacking niches with this lineup ("white space," as its marketing team calls it).

Sportback is conventional enough for mainstream buyers who still want sedans, and perhaps just practical enough to keep some of those with wandering eyes from defecting to cheaper compact CUVs. TourX is a cheaper alternative to Volvo and Audi's jacked-up wagons, which gives Buick some appeal in New England, the PNW and Colorado.

That leaves GS, which in turn leaves us scratching our heads. This isn't the sort of performance car that really stands on its own. Sure, there are likely some GS fans who are anxious to upgrade their older rides, but that's not really enough to sustain an offering like this. The nearest meaningful competitor would be the Acura TLX A-Spec in SH-AWD guise. Like the Buick, it too seems to be an answer to a question very few buyers are asking.

We expect the GS will be an impulse upgrade for those who want a loaded-up Regal and are easily swayed by discounts. There really are no downsides other than price, and V6 may even appeal to some of Buick's more, shall we say "traditional," buyers? Is that a large enough customer base to sustain sales? Only time will tell.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2018 Buick Regal GS is a good car with enough interesting elements to make for an engaging drive experience. It's far-and-away the most exciting car you'll find in a Buick showroom, but that bar isn't set particularly high. If you're sold on the Sportback concept and want the one that will tickle an enthusiast's fancy, then the GS is the car for you. We expect any other buyer to stumble into it pretty much by accident.

2018 Buick Regal GS base price, $39,070; as tested, $43,115
Driver Confidence II package, $1,690; Appearance package, $485; Sights and Sound package, $945; Destination, $925

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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