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2012 Buick Regal GS. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Buick Regal GS. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

Buick Regal GS

Surprise! A Buick that's fun to drive Add to ...

Buick has been struggling with a seemingly unyielding perception in North America for the past quarter century: Buicks are plus-sized, comfy cruiser, land yacht sedans for folks well into their golden years.

So what’s the first thing Buick did in fall, 2009, just months after Buick ended its long-time sponsorship of Tiger Woods, with GM’s first all-new vehicle since it emerged from bankruptcy protection that summer? Introduce a second full-size Buick sedan, the LaCrosse, complete with non-functioning, hood-mounted portholes.

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The more things change…

Last year came the introduction of the Opel Insignia-based Regal, a large mid-size sedan that offered four-cylinder power only in North America, including two somewhat surprising features in a modern Buick: a turbocharged engine and a manual transmission.

Buick is now turning up the wick on that turbo in its new top sporting model, the Regal GS, giving it more power, better brakes and flatter handling than other Regals in hopes of polishing the brand’s virtually non-existent sporting credentials.

There was a time when turbo Buick Grand Nationals made enthusiast hearts flutter in the mid-1980s. The Regal GS harkens back to the era by boosting the Regal’s direct-injection, 2.0-litre, turbo four from 220 to 270 hp, with torque now up to a hefty 295 lb-ft from 258, the full oomph now available at a remarkably low 2,400 rpm.

This advanced little engine provides energetic thrust, its generous low-end torque and six-speed manual inviting the Regal GS driver to become more involved in a heart-pumping drive. The first few months of GS production will be manuals only, set to arrive later this fall, with six-speed automatics coming on stream a few months later.

Buick claims a 0-96 km/h time of 6.7 seconds with the manual, a full two seconds quicker than the independently tested 8.9-second 0-100 km/h time posted by the automatic Regal at last year’s Canadian Car of The Year testing. Are 50 more ponies and a manual transmission usually enough for that dramatic an acceleration difference? Not likely, especially in something this large. So either the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s test methods are gentler than ones used by Buick on the GS, or Buick may be reviving its former practice of under-reporting its power. The former may be more likely, as Buick often notes that its GS power figures are SAE-certified.

There are more powerful cars in this class, all of which use six-cylinder engines. But these are all rated thirstier than the Regal GS’s 11.1 L/100 km city and 7.4 highway. On the other hand, the GS is not exactly a fuel-sipper either, as various six-cylinder rivals achieve better fuel economy than the turbo four, and some on regular fuel. To fight those fuel economy battles, the gas-electric Regal eAssist is also set to arrive by the end of 2011, offering up consumption figures of 8.3 city/5.4 highway.

Chassis tuning for the Regal GS is perhaps the most impressive aspect of Buick’s new performance flagship. Its Interactive Drive Control System lets the driver electronically upgrade the excitement level, first with a Sport button, which tightens up the suspension damping with barely any ride penalty, or lashes it down further in GS mode, which also gives the steering some welcome heft and feel.

The Regal GS also benefits from GM’s HiPerStrut front suspension, which helps separate the often-conflicting “go” and “turn” commands that often result in annoying torque steer, that tugging on the steering wheel that often plagues powerful front-wheel-drive cars. Combine the above with the optional summer-only performance Pirelli tires, and the GS is one fluid handler.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to make your favourite chassis setup the default setting. I noticed this when looking for the memory seats, which also aren’t available. Putting the car into reverse, even the optional GPS system doesn’t offer a back-up camera to afford a view behind, as many less expensive cars do. And a Buick engineer reported that the GS’ upcoming automatic transmission will have a sequential shift function, but won’t offer shift paddles, a feature available even on the subcompact Honda Fit hatchback.

The interior of the Regal GS is also lacking in overall artfulness, its omnipresent black the only colour choice and overpowering theme. But the metallic accents around the shifter and on the cool flat-bottom steering wheel do help reinforce its sporting persona.

But at about 45 large as tested, it seems like Buick poured the vast majority of development dollars into the drivetrain and chassis, then ran out of funds or time to properly upgrade the interior to Buick standards.

As well put together and fun as the Oshawa-built Regal GS seems after a half day of scooting around lovely twisties in northern Michigan cottage country, its interior is what keeps Buick’s entry luxury sport sedan a notable step below established but pricier luxury players like Audi’s A4 – plus there’s a fair helping of extra aspirational brand appeal stemming from Audi’s flagship R8 supercar.

But the 2012 Regal GS is the most fun Buick to drive in a generation – proof that Buick can indeed change.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Buick Regal GS

Type: Mid-size luxury sport sedan

Base price: $42,345; as tested, $45,795 (estimated)

Engine: 2.0-litre, turbocharged, direct injection, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 270 hp/295 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/7.4 highway; premium recommended

Alternatives: Acura TSX, Hyundai Sonata Turbo, Kia Optima Turbo, Lexus ES/IS, Volvo S60

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