It’s been more than four years since I last drove a Buick Regal and while it hasn’t changed all that much mechanically, the evolutionary updates to this midsize sedan have generally if not universally been a good thing. As I familiarize myself with the vehicles on the market today for my day job as an industry analyst, I got to spend several days with the performance pinnacle of the current Buick lineup, the 2015 Regal GS with all-wheel-drive and the operative word is smoothness.
For those readers not familiar with the current interpretation of Buick’s long-running nameplate, let’s start with a bit of background. The last time I spent any serious seat time in the Regal was in April 2010 when General Motors took a group of media to Germany to experience on its home turf on the back rounds and autobahns between Frankfurt and Cologne. Contemporary Buick sedans have been largely engineered by the technical types working GM’s European branch at Opel.
The sedan currently badged as the Regal in North America and China is for all intents identical to the Opel Insignia sold in Europe and that’s a good thing. Similarly, the smaller Verano is rebadged Opel Astra sedan and it’s also sold in China as the Buick Excelle. The Regal got a mild visual update last year that tweaked the traditional Buick waterfall grille and the front and rear lights. Aside from that, the almost coupe-like profile of this sedan remains as handsome as it was when Buick first revealed it five years ago.
The clean overall shape with its relatively short overhangs gives it a relatively timeless quality, avoiding the fashion of the week and allowing it to age well. The comparatively short overhangs and the way the 19-inch wheels and tires of the GS model fill out the gently swelling wheel arches gives the Regal a surprisingly athletic stance. The GS is visually distinguished from its lesser siblings by more aggressive front and rear fascias inspired by the European Insignia OPC. The GS grille is also differentiated by a black chrome finish.
The clean, contemporary design extends to the cabin where the center stack features a good balance of physical and touch controls. Rotary knobs give quick access to volume and radio tuning with switches for the all climate controls except the dual-zone temperature controls. An eight-inch touch screen gives access to navigation and the standard Buick Intellilink infotainment system.
Intellilink is one element of the car that seems to have gone backwards a bit since it was announced in spring 2011. At that time, it included the ability for drivers to control both Pandora and Stitcher running on a smartphone paired to the vehicle over USB or Bluetooth. GM also promised to add support for more apps following the launch.
Since then, GM has decided to refocus its infotainment efforts on a newer, more powerful platform that debuted on 2013 model Cadillacs as CUE. Several new Chevrolet models including the latest Corvette and Silverado already use a variant of this system and it will be spreading to other GM vehicles as they are updated.
Updates to this newer platform will include an app framework that will allow owners of Buick, Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac vehicles to get other information and entertainment apps to run in the car. Buick spokesman Nick Richards explained that “decision to delay was based on the company’s commitment to ensure all infotainment systems deliver the highest quality and best user experience to our customers” rather than try to manage multiple divergent systems. The new system will provide drivers with consistent functionality across all four brands.
Update: This section was modified to more accurately reflect GM’s strategy for commonizing its infotainment systems to provide improved functionality.
In the meantime, the Regal Intellilink no longer supports Stitcher and Pandora functionality is limited, losing features such as selecting stations or giving songs a thumbs up or thumbs down via voice commands. If you want to use Pandora now, you have to actually launch it on the phone and then control it through the touchscreen. By contrast, in a Ford vehicle with SYNC AppLink, drivers can tap the voice button and launch Pandora and 60+ other apps on connected phones with voice commands.
On the positive side, the Intellilink interface doesn’t exhibit any of the lagginess or instability of MyFord Touch. The voice recognition also works reliably for tuning the radio, making calls or playing music from USB devices. Like other 2015 GM vehicles, OnStar has also been updated with a 4G LTE cellular radio and a wifi hotspot is built in. Kids sitting in the back with a phone, tablet or laptop can now connect and listen to their own entertainment choices, post to their social networks or play online games.
The Regal GS also features a second eight-inch display in the instrument cluster that features reconfigurable gauges. Since the GS is the performance leader for the brand, drivers can pull up a variety of performance related instruments such as oil temperature or pressure, voltage, traction circle and even a lap timer. I’m not sure how many Regal drivers will ever take a GS to a weekend track day, but if they do, they can easily check lap times on the fly.
The GS gets more aggressively bolstered seats for the driver and front passenger to keep them securely planted during more spirited driving maneuvers. Another visual cue to the more sporting nature of this Regal is the flat-bottomed steering wheel, a feature originally created for low-slung racing cars with minimal clearance for legs. In a mainstream midsize sedan, the effect is a bit poseurish.
Every GS is powered by the latest edition of GM’s 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter EcoTec four-cylinder engine with 259 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Now equipped with a twin-scroll turbo and revised cylinder head, this is strong, responsive powerplant with plenty of torque across its operating range.
Despite that, in our all-wheel-drive tester, the 3,981-pounds that needs to be motivated combines with the smooth power delivery so that the Regal GS doesn’t feel especially snappy off the line. The acceleration is deceptive though in part because the automatic transmission is so seamless. Nonetheless, much to my surprise, I’m actually inclined to recommend the front-wheel drive version of the GS instead. While I’m not generally a proponent of lots of power in a front-drive car, the HiPer strut front suspension Buick installs on turbocharged Regals and the V6-powered LaCrosse actually does a great job of separating forces and largely negating torque steer.
However, with only 3,710-pounds to drag around, anyone looking for a Regal sports sedan is actually likely to be happier with the front-drive edition unless they really need the extra traction for winter driving. Personally, I’d suggest forgoing AWD and spending part of the $2,400 AWD price premium on a second set of wheels and snow tires which will provide better traction anyway. An extra bonus is that the FWD Regal GS is still available with a six-speed manual gearbox.
The example I drove did feel remarkably smooth at all times with seamless shifts from its six-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration was fluid and the only indication that the gearbox had switched ratios was change in engine note. For a car that behaves like a sports sedan in many respects, the Regal feels like it should have steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. Instead, those that want to manually manage the autobox will have to tap the shifter to the left gate and then tap forward and back.
Regardless of which drivetrain configuration you opt for, the Buick/Opel vehicle dynamics team have taken advantage of the stiff structure to provide a very composed suspension. The car never feels floaty over even the worst Michigan roads. The body stays fairly flat under all conditions and the suspension absorbs the road contours without isolating or punishing the driver and passengers.
Drivers that opt for a GS get upgraded brakes with four-piston Brembo calipers clamping larger 12.6-inch rotors up front in place of the single-piston calipers on other Regals. The difference is immediately apparent the first time you press the brake pedal. The stiff aluminum calipers immediately grab the rotors to start slowing the car and the lack of flex helps to insure excellent modulation when you back off the pedal.
The GS includes the Interactive Drive Control System that lets the drive choose between normal, sport and GS modes that adjust the steering effort and damping modes. While going to GS did increase the steering effort, it didn’t seem to impact the feedback level very much and the damping adjustments didn’t seem to affect ride quality.
Regal GS also offers plenty of driver assist features including adaptive cruise control, blind zone alert, cross-traffic alert, park assist, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and collision mitigation braking. The Regal actually has pretty respectable outward visibility, especially compared to the larger LaCrosse but having the extra sensors to help you see what’s around you is never a bad thing.
The current Regal is actually a very good car and not at all what we would have expected from a Buick just a decade ago. Unfortunately for Buick, the smaller on the outside Verano offers nearly the same interior space at a much more affordable price point. Thus the Regal has never really met sales expectations and rumor has it that production of the next generation model will shift back to Germany alongside the Insignia.
The Regal GS starts at $37,830 with front-wheel-drive or $40,195 with all-wheel-drive. The loaded example I drove stickered at $43,820 and was pretty much loaded. For anyone looking for a handsome midsize sedan with German road manners, it’s worth a look.
Disclosure: Buick loaned this car to the author for this evaluation.