Who here recalls a time when driving a Buick Regal meant you had officially gone over to “The Dark Side?” An era when the Grand National was still a thing, cassette decks were beginning to give way to compact laserdiscs and the dreaded 8-track slowly burned in the seventh level of hell. While the average American remains quick to associate the Buick Regal with senior-citizens, frumpy styling, and bland performance, those in the know understand the performance pedigree affiliated with this badge.
First seen sweeping suburbia by storm in the early 1970s, the basic Regal badge was a coupe with modest intentions and the sort of “velour and vinyl” interior that reminds you of a classic Ron Jeremy porn flick.
There also was the notorious 1970 Buick GSX fitted with 455 cubic-inches of malicious posh playboy posing, complete with 510 lb.-ft. of torque and a reputation for being called “The Velvet Hammer” in the bedroom. But the once virile GSX disappeared, never to return. A long-lost demi-god for GM engineers to argue and ogle over in the breakroom.
By the time the 1980s came about, turbocharged V6 engines and stealthy appearance packages had become the next “thing,” and with enthusiast interest in the Grand National at an all-time high, the future looked bright for the performance Regal lineup.
After releasing the ultra-rare, over-engineered Regal GNX, GM did away with the platform, along with its boosted V6, rear-wheel drive layout, and high-performance internals. What followed was the quintessential grannie-mobile; a front-wheel-drive atrocity that lacked both sportiness and style, while packing the performance equivalent to a Lawrence Welk rerun beneath the bonnet.
As 1996 was about to give way to 1997, something magical happened. The third generation Buick was officially put out to pasture, and in its place sat a brand-new performance package: the Buick Regal GS.
Sporting a supercharged V6 that produced a respectable 240-horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels, the 1997 Buick Regal GS took critics and buyers alike by surprise. Sporting stiffer shocks and springs, yet held together by softer bushings and Pontiac Grand Prix underpinnings, GM’s sleeper sedan seemed tailor-made around geriatrics looking to spice things up a bit.
Flash-forward a generation and the Regal GS had changed a lot, and not just in appearance.
After disappearing from 2004-2008, Buick’s supercharged sofa on wheels had been resurrected as a mid-size Euro sedan. The GS badge returned for the 2012 model year with a turbocharged four-banger under the hood.
Two years later a Haldex all-wheel-drive system became an option, which paired beautifully with the car’s 295 pound-foot torque curve, Pirelli P-Zero summer tires, and damn near perfect GS performance setting. Toss in adaptive dampers with adjustable Yaw damping, an electronic limited-slip differential, H-Arm style suspension, and Brembo brakes up front, and the Regal’s performance aspirations became laudable, to say the least.
Jump to 2018, and the unassuming sport sedan had transformed yet again, this time with a European-inspired “Sportback” motif. Starting at just $39,070, and fully-loaded with semi-autonomous driving and safety tech at $44,100, the all-new Regal GS offers outstanding value when compared to its European competition.
Still branded as Buick’s “performance machine,” the latest GS ditches its boosted four-banger in favor of a 3.6-liter V6, and focuses more on packaging and style than turbo antics and negating torque steer. Being that younger buyers bumped geriatrics out of Buick’s Regal GS crosshairs years ago, the badge has also become more tech-connected and utilitarian than ever before.
Despite lacking the boosted blast found within the previous model, the new Regal’s V6 provides a healthy 310-horsepower and 282 lb.-ft. of torque, both of which are produced fluidly under pressure. There’s also a sport-tuned dual exhaust system that comes standard, and the brand’s intelligent AWD system now utilizes an active twin-clutch setup that can torque-vector between the two rear wheels for more agile cornering.
Cylinder deactivation also makes an appearance, allowing you to cruise on four pistons instead of six when maximum efficiency is deemed necessary.
This latest generation of GS also features a new nine-speed automatic transmission, which can be manually controlled via the shiny black shifter in the center console. However, performance buyers will be quick to note that Buick has yet to install paddle shifters in the Regal GS, something that I kept reaching for when in manual mode and missing, both literally and figuratively.
Mapped for efficiency and smoothness over sport sedan sharpness, the combination of this slushbox and the absence of a more exciting motor are without question the Achilles heel for the new Regal GS.
Building upon what worked well in the previous generation, Buick’s engineers have given the latest Regal GS second-generation Continuous Damping Control (CDC) suspension. This allows the car’s onboard computers to adjust suspension damping up to 500 times per second, making both handling and comfort a priority no matter what the situation.
This brilliant self-adjusting shock setup comes attached to the automaker’s latest “Interactive Drive Control” software, a system that allows drivers to fine-tune how the car behaves. There’s a standard setting for efficiency and comfort, a Sport mode for heavier steering feedback and re-mapped transmission shifts, and a third, GS setting for even more generous servings of steering, suspension, and powertrain responsiveness. Individualized tuning while in Sport mode also makes an appearance.
Brembo high-performance brakes make a triumphant return up front, which feel just as balanced and bite-worthy as what I encountered in the previous generation.
Encapsulated by standard 19-inch wheels, and clad in all-season 245/40R-19 Continental ProContact TX tires, the shoes on this new model are notably less aggressive than the outgoing model’s optional 20-inch rollers and sticky Pirelli P-Zero summer tires. Granted, Cincinnati winter weather would have negated any benefits summer rubber would have provided, but it remains disappointing to see that this performance perk has been rescinded.
Proportionally the new Regal GS has a 3.6-inch-longer wheelbase than the model it replaces, translating to 2.7-inches of additional length, a roofline that is 0.7-inches lower, and a stance that is 0.2-inches wider. This doesn’t just convert to more balanced handling, but also allows the Regal to don a brand-new “sportback” suit. And what a suit it is…
Pitting itself squarely against cars like the Audi A5, the Buick Regal GS features stylish European slope-back lines and comes highlighted by sharp LED lighting both front and rear. With a front fascia that is equal parts aggressive and stylish, the nose of the Regal GS is accented by an air dam, optional LED headlamps, Euro-style fender markers, and grille-matching air duct sconces on each side.
Profile views reveal a sleek outline finished with aggressively carved lower rocker panels, crisp beltline folds, a shark fin antenna, and tastefully sculpted side skirts. Outback a flush mount spoiler comes affixed to a duckbilled decklid, integrated dual port exhaust tips ensconced in grille-matching accents, piped LED lamps, and a stealthy smoked brake lamp is resting atop the upper portion of the rear glass.
Pop the hatch by mashing the rear Buick badge, and you will be greeted by a cavernous cabin filled with tech and leather. Numbers show a respectable 32-cubic-feet of space within the cargo hold, with a total of 61 cubes of space materializing once the rear bench is folded flat. Speaking of which, kudos to Buick for utilizing a 40/20/40 split-folding backseat configuration, as it permits more storage solutions while still allowing safe buckling for rear passengers.
Head-space is generous, leg and hip room in every seat are commendable, and those GS-exclusive seats feature generous bolstering, and come with heated, ventilated, and massaging settings, as well as power adjustability for things like thigh support.
Sportback interior packaging perks aside, this car’s interior also comes loaded with practical tech smarts, is sharply styled, and even packs some fun performance touches.
The heated D-cut steering wheel is gorgeously crafted and perfectly proportioned, sticky metal performance pedals lurk beneath, and an available heads-up display resides above. A full dash promotes an open cockpit feel and fluidly integrates the 8-inch touchscreen, while hard plastic accents forego faux carbon fiber weaves in favor of a slick matrix design print.
Tech snobs will appreciate that the Regal GS offers multiple USB ports both front and rear, on-board 4G LTE Wi-Fi, and Marketplace, the industry’s first in-vehicle commerce platform for making purchases and reservations via the integrated touchscreen. As expected, a plethora of apps come pre-installed within the infotainment stack as well, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come standard, and being a GM product, buyers get 3D navigation mapping that is both detailed and easy to use. There’s also the myBuick phone app, which allows drivers to locate and check their vehicle’s status, remotely start and unlock the car, and adjust temp controls for preemptive cabin comfort.
Hit the highway in Touring mode, and the Regal GS offers a comfortable, calming interstate drive experience, especially when both adaptive cruise control and those 14-way adjustable, AGR certified massaging seats are engaged. Speaking of which, apparently Germany’s Aktion Gesunder Rücken, or Campaign for Healthier Backs, awards AGR seals of approval for automotive seats only to those that have passed independent testing by medical experts. They may look tough, what with their bright red GS emblems, raised bolstering, and grille-matching plastic accents, but these are some of the comfiest sport seats I have encountered in a car that costs under $50,000.
Even though cheaper cabin materials make an appearance here and there (carried over from the previous model), the new Regal GS has an attractive, and for the most part, extremely practical interior. While it would have been nice to see the use of higher-quality plastics in certain areas along with more color package options, it’s hard to ding this car’s comfortable, quiet, and cleverly designed cabin.
Back on the road, GM’s Continuous Damping Control (CDC) shocks are forgiving, cabin noise is modest, and harsh road feedback is heavily muted. Push the Sport button and the suspension firms up a fuzz, while steering gets 15-percent less assist for a firmer feel. Take things a step beyond by mashing the GS switch, and the steering gets 25-percent heavier, CDC tightens-up even further, and transmission shifts focus on building revs closer to redline.
Part of me really likes how the new Regal GS performs under pressure, what with its tricky, re-tuned Focus RS torque vectoring rear end, and confidence inspiring suspension. It may not feel as sporty off the line than its turbocharged predecessor, but the confidence exuding from this more substantial, more grown-up Regal is undeniable.
Another part of me despises how this generation does away with many of the key features that made the previous model so surprisingly good, while failing to add components to help it compete in the performance luxury segment. Long gone is the manual gearbox and rush of turbo boost down low, taking with it Buick’s old HiPer strut front suspension, which helped counteract torque-steer. The car doesn’t come with summer tires and 20-inch rollers anymore either, and for as attractive as this model may be, I kind of miss the more prominent, swooping duckbill found on the old decklid.
The new Regal GS also seems to focus heavily upon comfort, looks, and undercutting the luxury market, instead of honing in on being a real performance Buick. This is perhaps the biggest issue with the vehicle. Aspiring to be more than just another commuter car, yet suffering from an identity crisis, the GS can’t decide whether it wants to be Euro-inspired luxury sportback or budget-friendly performance alternative.
Buyers are supposed to be receiving Buick’s premier performance vehicle, yet it can only be had with a ho-hum 3.6-liter V6 and a 9-speed automatic, a powertrain that favors keeping things in control over snapping necks. Without boosted V6 veracity, a manual gearbox option, or even something as simple as paddle shifters, the fifth-gen Regal GS misses the opportunity to foster the same sort of excitement one gets when driving say the twin-turbo Cadillac ATS-V.
Tech glitches are another concern with this vehicle. During my week with the Buick Regal GS, the backup camera would appear pixelated and laggy during cold weather, and the customizable digital gauge cluster felt uninspiring and lacked in detail when compared to Audi’s “Virtual Cockpit” or the latest from Cadillac. There also was an issue with the forward collision system, which would occasionally target a parallel parked car on the street, and falsely fire-off a collision warning. Buick also made the mistake of doing away with the auto stop/start toggle switch, turning a quick errand into a major annoyance.
Tallied and added up, the all-new Buick Regal GS still has enough practicality, styling, and value points to earn it a thumbs-up, but only if easy commuting and controlled cornering while looking good is your primary objective.
To call it the premier performance vehicle for the brand would be a misrepresentation, especially since Buick remains unwilling to bestow basics like paddle shifters, summer tires, and turbocharged tenacity upon the chassis. This leaves me to wonder whether or not the Regal GS will ever obtain an “X” toward the end of its title, along with all of the performance perks associated with being a bona fide Buick GSX. Only then will I be able to say, is that a Buick?
Vehicle Type: Five passenger sports sedan, all-wheel drive
Base Price: $39,070 Price as Tested: $44,110
Engine: Naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6
Transmission: 9-speed automatic with manual shift controls
Overall Length/Width/Height: 192.9 L x 73.3 W x 57.3 H
Curb Weight: 4,270 lbs
Tire Size: P245/40R19
EPA Mileage Estimates: 19 city / 27 highway / 22 combined
Assembled In: Ruesselsheim, Germany