Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Buick Regal GS.
The Regal GS, which has cycled through three different types of engine in the last two decades, is suffering from something of a powertrain identity crisis. Back in the late Nineties, an era when Chevy and Ford's eight-cylinder muscle cars were cranking out an average of 250 horsepower, the Buick squeezed a shockingly-competitive 240 horses and 280 pound-feet from a supercharged 3.8-liter V6. Yet while modern-day V8 Mustangs and Camaros now crank out 450 ponies on their worst day, this newest Regal GS—fresh as a daisy for the 2018 model year—comes with a naturally-aspirated six-cylinder that delivers just 310 horses and 282 pound-feet of torque, the latter just two more than that GS of the Clinton era.
Perhaps more to the point, these days, 310 horsepower is the sort of output commonly found in high-end family sedans of the banal class below Buick on the socioeconomic ladder. In 1997, a V6 Camry made 194 hp; today, it pounds out 301. A Ford Contour SHO of 20 years back made 195 horses; nowadays, the Fusion Sport blasts out 325. Rendering this new GS's engine choice even more odd: Its direct predecessor from several years back was an early adopter of the downsize-and-turbocharge trend found across the automotive world today. That oddly-endearing bulb of a Buick made 270 horses and 295 pound feet, and, perhaps more notably, offered not just a choice between manual and automatic gearboxes, but the option of either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. (Sadly, the Subie-baiting combo of stick shift and AWD was verboten.)
The 2018 Regal GS, however, comes only one way: packing the aforementioned V6, an active twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system, and General Motors's new nine-speed automatic, developed specifically for front-drive platforms. Its new fastback body certainly makes it more attractive than its predecessor...but does this car still have the same unexpected pizzazz that made the old GS an unexpected treat?
- As mentioned about half a sentence ago, the 2018 Regal GS is way sexier than the last-gen Regal. The fastback body looks wide, long, and low, a swoopy piece of sheetmetal that'll have you begrudgingly admitting GM may have had a point with those obnoxious "That's a Buick?" ads. The new corporate front end still bears more than a whiff of European design—unsurprising, considering the car's Vauxhall roots—and while your humble reviewer may not entirely buy it as the New Face of Buick just yet, it's hard to dispute the fact that it's a handsome take on the sedan.
- The ride and handling balance is on-point, for an entry-level sport-slash-luxury sedan. The GS stays even-keeled during even the feistiest lane-change maneuvers, with quick steering and active dampers that can adjust every two milliseconds to properly soak up the bumps without turning the ride to oatmeal. Tragically, the most excitement I was able to pull out of it was during a couple spurts of aggressive driving between our Brooklyn office and the Chelsea garage where I had to drop the car off, but based even on those short blasts, it's safe to say this Buick would be a good time on a winding two-lane.
- The front buckets for driver and passenger are, shall we say, zealous in terms of flank-hugging ability. The side bolsters are power-adjustable, so you can dial in more or less support as your own frame desires. Be warned, though: The seats are clearly designed more towards those who are lean of frame. GS buyers may frequently find themselves reconsidering that second piece of pie.
- The nine-speed automatic transmission feels grossly unsuited to this sporty application. The 3.6-liter V6 isn't a bad engine, but it needs to be wrung out like a wet dishtowel to make the most of it; sadly, the gearbox wants to upshift as early as possible, leaving acceleration many, many levels of kickdown away. (This could well be in part due to the short gears in the lower end of the 'box; in sixth gear, the engine is turning at around 2,000 rpm at just 40 miles per hour.) Taking manual control of the transmission would seem an easy end-run around this—but for some reason, Buick doesn't offer paddle shifters on the GS, just a Tiptronic-style sequential gate off to the side of the floppy gear stick's normal travel. It's not hard to see why Ford took a pass on this gearbox upon further review.
- Or, alternately, outfitting this car with a turbocharged or supercharged engine—like the ones its predecessors had—would probably solve the problem, too.
- For a sport sedan, the drive mode options aren't very sporty. Drivers can choose from Normal, Sport, or GS modes...but it needs to be in max-attack GS mode to actually feel lively. If I owned one of these, I'd make sure pressing that button would be the first thing I'd do every time I turned the car on.
- The interior feels a touch cheap for a car at this price point. There's a startling amount of hard plastic trim scattered about, the steering wheel controls feel like an afterthought, and the half-digital-half-analog instrument panel seems like a compromise between the future-facing designers and the bean counters. A top-trim Chevy Traverse Premier has materials that feel far nicer for a similar price, and that's just to choose an example from within the GM family; the likes of a Honda Accord Touring or Mazda6 Signature are far, far nicer sedans of similar size that sell for a significant chunk less.
- WHY NO OFF BUTTON FOR THE STOP-START SYSTEM, BUICK. WHY.
The 2018 Buick Regal GS, Ranked:
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 4/5
Curb appeal: 4/5
“Wow” factor: 3/5
The Bottom Line:
Buick admittedly deserves kudos for keeping the idea of the Regal GS alive. It'd be all too easy for the brand to say "Screw it, let's just lean into this and strictly build crossovers and land yachts for the Chinese market and American baby boomers." Instead, Buick doubled down on interesting, visually compelling Regals, delivering not one but three variants—this model, the basic Regal fastback, and the TourX soft-road wagon—in the span of a year. But even as a brand-new model, this GS feels like a compromised proposition—a sport sedan saddled with the heart of a LaCrosse Avenir. (God help any Buick dealerships located within sight of an Acura showroom, because the Acura TLX SH-AWD A-Spec—packing similar power from a sweetly-revving VTEC six, a superior take on the nine-speed slushbox concept, and its own torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, while also bringing Honda fit and finish to the mix—couldn't be better designed to steal away potential GS buyers if the Japanese carmaker's product planners had been intending to do so.)
All in all, this Buick feels like a missed opportunity. Admittedly, one that could be corrected fairly easily; give the transmission a far more aggressive shift map, spend a bit more on the interior, and this Buick could be a corner-carver extraordinaire capable of holding its own against any sedan in the sub-$50K class. Or, better yet: Instead of just amending the GS's flaws, throw the twin-turbo V6 from the Cadillac ATS-V (along with its superior transmission choices) under the hood and build the 21st Century Buick GNX car nerds have been craving since January 1st, 2001. (The 20th Century ended in 2000. Look
up.) With horsepower and torque figures both sitting around the 450 mark and standard AWD to put the power down, GNX 2.0 would all but certainly wind up being the quickest-accelerating sedan in the GM lineup, and stir up a bit of excitement for a brand whose reputation remains a bit frumpy in the United States, in spite of the company's best efforts to change that. (I point you, once again, to those "That's a Buick?" ads.)
For now, though, the Regal GS will have to stand on its laurels as a sleek-looking sedan that values sweet handling over speedy acceleration. But if you're already soliciting advice for the mid-cycle refresh, Buick...two words: Paddle. Shifters.
The 2018 Buick Regal GS, By the Numbers:
Base Price (Price as Tested): $40,030 ($44,115)
Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6, 310 horsepower, 282 pound-feet of torque; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 19 city, 27 highway (EPA figures)
0-60 MPH: Believe it or not, there don't seem to be any figures out there, but 5.5–6.0 seconds feels about right
Number of golf balls you could fit in the 31.5-cubic foot cargo area: 21,772