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2014 Buick Regal GS, playing it safe: Motoramic Drives

October 4, 2013

The Buick Regal’s temperament has fluctuated more wildly than Kanye West’s. What began as a mildly reworked version of the Buick Century, turned into the NASCAR-esque Grand National and the McLaren-tuned, snarling GNX. But by 1988, Buick reverted to luxury, ditching its edgier looks and rear-wheel drive, in favor of an uninspiring, front-wheel drive rig for aging golfers with back pain.

As time progressed, superchargers replaced turbos, and Regals and Centurys once again became one. After a brief sabbatical, the Regal returned in 2009 (now with a turbo -- again) with the GS model debuting a few years later. Attempting to re-adopt that edgier approach, Buick sought a younger demographic to kick-start a brand grown stale.

For 2014, the Regal GS arrives with a European-made manual transmission, a 2.0-liter turbo like in the acclaimed Cadillac ATS, adaptive dampers, and an optional all-wheel drive system that electronically drives torque rearwards. Could the new Regal GS be Buick’s answer to boring?

On paper, it could. Aesthetically, it still bears the same purposeful stance; the number one reason buyers purchase the GS is its looks. It presents haunches, vents and swoops. It portrays a vague meanness, and a subtle attitude like a German on antibiotics during Oktoberfest.

Step inside the cabin and the center stack has been de-cluttered; the seats offer a bear hug worthy of Scott Van Duzer, and a new flat-bottomed steering wheel appears as racy as a Buick has in decades. As a result, Buick claims the average GS customer has fallen to 44 years old – far lower than in its other models.

While the presentation given by the automaker's marketing folk in Cincinnati, where I awaited the first drive of the 2014 Regal GS, entailed a lot of statistics on how Buick is drawing in customers from other brands, and how the GS embodied “fun” and “sportiness,” there was also a lot of gibber about remaining true to the Buick brand – “beautiful, quiet and comfortable.”

I began getting worried.

Then we were informed that the manual transmission, developed by Opel for the one percent of buyers who option such a thing, was only available in the front-wheel-drive model. (I shouldn’t have been worried about that.)

The engine, too, is down 11 hp to 259 hp. While torque remains unchanged at 295 lb.-ft., for 2014, the torque curve has been enlarged, with 90 percent arriving between 1,700 rpm and 5,500 rpm (vs. 2,300 and 4,900 in the outgoing GS). This enables an identical 0-60 mph sprint of 6.5 seconds, when driving the FWD model. The benefit, notwithstanding the smoother power delivery, is increased fuel efficiency – up 11 percent to an EPA-estimated 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

When firing the 2.0-liter turbo four, the noise is, well, non-existent: “A Buick should be QUIET…” rang through my head. “We don’t want the car to smack you in the face,” I was later told.

I had been given a manual GS, featuring six notchy gears. I’m a true lover of the manual transmission in cars with limited power. It’s a way to induce engagement, enjoyment and empathy with the engineers' creation. I expected big things, but was left disappointed with shifts clunking with every rearward motion; at one point, my drive partner looked down as if I’d accidentally broken the armrest with a clumsy right elbow.

I was just changing into fourth.

With so few buyers opting for a manual, you get the impression it's available merely to accentuate the GS' sportiness. It appears little effort has gone into its actual application.

An AWD GS isn’t available with the foreboding manual, leaving only GM’s six-speed automatic. And it’s a good one, too, with performance settings – normal, sport, and GS – allowing for crisper shifts and a sportier demeanor. But there are no paddle-shifters. The reason? Buick drivers find them annoying. They cannot simply pretend they aren't there; rather they send angry letters to complain. So Buick left them off, because old people are stubborn.

Isn’t the GS supposed to be for younger folk who desire such things?

While the GS rolls on supple springs and a floaty foundation – not unlike the LaCrosse – its handing feels well-tuned. It’s got a heap of grip, even on all-seasons, and its bigger Brembo brakes stop with confidence. The steering, while not the best electric system on the market, has reasonable feel, and in GS mode (its sportiest setting), it boasts just the right amount of weight. But flicking to each performance mode reveals subtle changes. It doesn’t liven the car exponentially.

And that remains my biggest issue with the Regal GS: Buick didn’t go far enough. While it shouldn’t be a screaming racer, to truly add some pazazz to a brand seeking to rediscover its tracks, it needs to be different.

But it has adaptive dampers, constantly optimizing its settings based on road conditions, I hear you say.

GM’s Magnetic Ride Control is indeed magical, and does wonders for the Camaro ZL1 and Cadillac CTS-V. But Buick doesn’t get that system. It gets one called Computer Damping Control. It basically does the same thing, but achieves its results in a different way. It enables GM to hedge its bets, developing both systems simultaneously to keep ahead of the trend. Only this system appears far more subdued. It certainly doesn’t drastically alter the car’s behavior, like with Magnetic Ride Control.

What about the addition of AWD? That would probably be your next question, right?

Well, it adds 220 lbs., and feels more cumbersome and lethargic around the twisties. It’s also 0.3 seconds slower to 60 mph. However, the electronic limited-slip differential does do a good job optimizing rear-wheel power during harder cornering. But with limited seat time, and narrow roads featuring blind crests necessitating restraint, it was impossible to truly extrapolate the benefits I'm sure it holds.

Simply, the Regal GS, starting at $37,830 (FWD) and $40,195 (AWD), doesn’t offer enough to bring a new dimension to the Buick brand. It’s well-priced, looks good and corners with poise, but it doesn’t make you excited. Buick's revival has succeeded in fits; its SUVs and Verano small car sell well, but sales of the LaCrosse and Regal have plunged this year despite a strong market. Buick must fully commit to building a car for those without hearing impairments and metal hips. To truly reestablish itself amongst the GM family, it needs to find its niche.

And that’s something it hasn’t done since the fabulous GNX.