Despite its name, the new Buick Regal Sportback is not particularly sporty. It’s sleek, with a low and sloped rear-cargo door that its manufacturer refuses to call a hatchback, but the 250 horsepower of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine does not give it much cred in the fast lane.
So now, just a couple of months after the refreshed model’s introduction, Buick is releasing the Regal GS, a more powerful edition of the mid-sized sedan. It has a 3.6-litre V-6 under the hood that’s adapted from the larger Buick LaCrosse, as well as an adaptable suspension, performance Brembo brakes and a sport-tuned exhaust.
That bigger engine now makes 310 hp and 282 lbs.-ft. of torque, which is plenty of get-up-and-go for most situations. Driving across Vancouver Island in both the Sportback and the GS, the sportier car clearly was the better for the twists and bumps of the road to Tofino.
It’s not a sports car though, nor even really a performance sedan. For one thing, there are no paddle shifters on the steering wheel. These little flippers have become common in recent years and make all the difference when you want to set up properly for a corner, blipping down a gear or three to pull strongly through and out of the curve. You can do it by taking a hand from the wheel and jogging the transmission shifter on the central console back and forth, but I’ve grown used to leaving my hands on the wheel, thank you.
It’s perhaps more of an issue because the GS comes standard with all-wheel drive (an option on the Sportback), and all AWD Regals have a nine-speed automatic transmission. (FWD Sportbacks have an eight-speed transmission.) The top three gears are basically overdrives, to help save fuel, but a suggested 40 km/h corner needs the car to be in fourth gear at most. That’s a lot of automatic downshifting and missed engine braking.
Of course, this is a modern problem, but once you’ve gotten used to performance cars having such features, it’s tough to take a step back. An American Buick marketer said last year that the choice had come down to having a steering wheel with paddle shifters or a steering wheel with heat, and heat won. Back then, he was optimistic the GS would be released with paddle shifters, but no such luck.
It does, at least, have an active suspension system. The Sportback held the road here well, but rolled and pitched around corners like a yacht in a gentle swell – or any other regular mid-sized sedan. There was far less rolling from the GS, even when it struck unexpected dips on the other side of blind corners. It’s equipped with what Buick calls continuous damping control, adjusting the damping up to 500 times a second, and this also allows the suspension to be firmed up for a sportier performance.
There are two settings on the GS – “Sport” and, er, “GS” – with the second setting translating to “more sport.” Press the buttons and the steering tightens, the gears hold for longer and the shocks stiffen up for a flatter drive through tightly twisting curves. No such adjustment is possible with the regular Sportback.
This is not a performance car, however. The turbocharged Sportback has a zero-to-60 mph (96 km/h) acceleration time of 5.8 seconds and the naturally aspirated GS is a bit quicker than that, despite actually making a little less torque than the 295 lbs.-ft. of the smaller engine with the same AWD system. As well, the peak torque doesn’t kick in until 5,200 rpm – compare that to a BMW 5 Series reaching its peak torque at 1,800 rpm and holding it through the rev range.
General Motors would love the Regal to be compared to any BMW, calling the Buick brand “attainable luxury” that’s firmly in the Premium sphere, closer to Cadillac than Chevrolet. It’s less expensive, but it’s still a costly purchase: The Regal GS starts at $43,845, which is a big jump up from the $37,345 of the AWD Sportback Essence and an even bigger jump from the $31,845 of the basic FWD Sportback Preferred.
The GS is well equipped with fully digital instrumentation as standard, including an eight-inch central touchscreen and an eight-inch instrument cluster display. There are more apps than you know what to do with. Its front seats are heated and cooled and include an effective massager for your lower back. They’re a welcome premium feature, but if Buick wants to truly call its Regal “premium,” it should include an option for heated rear seats. As well, it should have a powered rear-cargo door that closes with the touch of a button, not a hefty tug on the inside handle. And it should have more than three USB ports.
These are little niggles – the kinds of things that Premium owners fuss over. At least now there’s an engine under the Regal’s hood that gives it the power you’d expect from such a sleek vehicle, and a chassis beneath it all that takes care of everything when you do switch that button to “GS.”
- Base price/As tested: $43,845
- Engine: 3.6-litre V-6 DOHC
- Transmission/drive: Nine-speed automatic/all-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.4 city, 8.7 highway
- Alternatives: Acura TLX A-Spec, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS 350
All the new Regals are dynamic looking vehicles, being low and wide and elegant, but the sportier GS has some subtle additions to suggest better performance: red Brembo brakes lurking behind the wheels, and a rear spoiler and sport-oriented fascias at front and back. It doesn’t quite say grrrrrr!, but it certainly doesn’t say boring.
The seats are very comfortable and adjust their bolsters for a snugger fit. In the front, the standard massage system pushes little thumbs into your lower back with an effective pummeling motion, though it’s not adjustable in any way – just on or off. In the back, there’s plenty of head and legroom and two USB slots, but no option to heat the rear seats. The leather will be pretty frosty in a Canadian winter.
Better than the regular 2.0-litre Sportback, but not that exciting. The Regal GS provides the kind of power and handling that you’d expect from a car like this, but that should really be the role of the smaller-engined car, with the GS taking it all up a notch for something special. To use the analogy from Spinal Tap, the 2.0-litre car’s performance should go to 10 while the GS goes to 11; instead, it goes to 7 or 8 while the GS hits 10.
Lots of clever stuff going on here, with a 4G LTE wi-fi hotspot that kept my phone connected even when it couldn’t find a cell tower on its own. The truly trick stuff is in the AWD drivetrain, which pushes power between the rear wheels when needed similar to a true torque-vectoring system. This is also available in the less expensive (and less powerful) Regal, however.
Definitely a selling point for the Regal over other sedans, the “sportback” rear door offers the practicality of a hatchback over a regular sedan. There’s 892 litres of cargo space behind the rear seats, which is roughly double that of most sedans with conventional trunks; fold the seats flat and there’s a cavernous 1,718 litres available – enough for a bicycle.
The verdict: 8
The Regal GS is what the Regal should be: good-looking, practical, comfortable and sporty when you want to press the button to dial it all up. Is that extra performance really worth a $6,000 bump in price, though? For $43,000, there are plenty of other contenders looking to take your money.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.