First Drive: 2014 Buick Regal GS

Driving the Buick Regal GS AWD won’t have you conjuring images of grandma; it’ll have you thinking about trading in your Audi.

It wasn’t long ago that the Regal was symbolic of everything wrong with the Buick brand.

When the Regal left American showrooms in 2004, it was a perceived as an unattractive cut-rate car that only appealed to half-blind retirees. Since its return to our fair shores in 2011, the Regal, despite my initial misgivings, shows everything the American brand can do right. Now with sports car power and an astounding all-wheel drive system, it is even better.

When I was invited to drive the 2014 Buick Regal GS in snowy Quebec, Canada, not far from where the car is produced in Oshawa Ontario, I have to admit I was a bit puzzled.

The Regal marque has not traditionally been associated with all weather performance, so why would I soon be driving one all out on a snow-covered autocross track?

AWD drive and then some

As soon as I hopped in the Regal and headed out onto the snow and ice-covered roads of Montreal, I understood. Then again, the big Brembo front brakes should have been a clue.

This is not just a front-wheel drive car with a smidgen of power routed to the rear wheels to bail you out on a patch of ice; it’s the real deal. The system comes from Haldex, one of the best in the business.

Don’t believe me? The Bugatti Veyron’s all-wheel drive system is from Haldex. Thankfully, Buick’s engineers didn’t half-ass the implementation of the infamous Haldex system either; they used their whole ass, plus some borrowed cheeks to get the most out of the system.

Torque is split front to rear with something called a “Torque Transfer Device” that uses hydraulically controlled dual clutches to send up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. The clutches themselves are controlled and monitored by a sinister robot brain, which looks at over 200 parameters to give the drive optimal grip. Better still, the Regal has a true electronically-controlled limited slip diff, or “eLSD” in Buick parlance.

As AWD engineer Jim Walter patiently explained to me, this isn’t like the phony “torque vectoring” systems found on other AWD cars, where the brakes are used to bring slipping wheels in line. Instead of burning off power, the eLSD makes use of a clutch to engage and disengage the differential, splitting power between the wheels.” Not only does this split allow the car to keep traction when one wheel starts to slip, it also means that you can put 100 percent of your power down in the bends.

Ice bridges are frozen ferry crossings, where average citizens can drive their cars across a river on several feet of ice.

But does that make a difference? In a word: yes.

One of the stops during our drive that first day was on an ice bridge. This bad sounding idea is actually a piece of government-regulated awesomeness. Ice bridges are frozen ferry crossings, where average citizens can drive their cars across a river on several feet of ice.

Buick reserved the ice bridge for us, providing a big, icy playground. Given the rare opportunity, I decided to put the AWD through its paces. At around 40 mph I hit the gas and threw the wheel over and, well basically, nothing happened.

The car tracked true, helped along by the stability control, and accelerated forward. Given that Regal GS is powered by 2.0-liters of turbocharged high explosives, 259 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque to be exact, this level of composure and traction was a bit alarming.

In throwing it around a bit more, it became apparent that the car, at least with the electronic nannies on, was not about to let me slide into the icy river and kill myself. I was going to have to find another venue to test the limits of the Regal’s grip. Virtually no other car I’ve ever driven instilled the same level of confidence in those conditions as the Regal.

Performance befitting the GS name

When you bring the GS name to a car like the Regal, it can’t just be about practical, all-weather grip. There has to be performance, too. That helps explain why I found myself on the ICAR driving circuit the next day, putting this car – and my driving talents – through their paces.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD back angle 1

As I headed out onto the ICAR racing facility, built on an abandoned airfield, I begun to wonder just what I had gotten myself into.

I have driven in the snow and ice, but hailing from Portland, I rarely get an opportunity to practice these skills. My apprehension was heightened when the driver ahead of me, doing figure eights on the icy skidpad, slammed into a snow bank. The collision was so severe that I wondered if the snow bank owed him money. At this point, I casually leaned over and turned the stability control back on.

By the time my turn came, I had learned a few things; the French Canadian instructors may have been inscrutable, but they were damn good. I am not destined to be a rally driver. And that that’s okay because the Regal – despite its novice driver – seemed to be born for the sport.

I would love to take the Regal GS on a dry track and see just what kind of speed it’s Haldex system would allow for.

On an autocross circuit, where the snow was the grippiest surface available, the Regal was composed and aggressive. With the traction control shut off, it was very, very good fun. With the computers keeping me in line just the right amount, I was able to kick the rear end out for a little drifting, and still snap the car back in a straight line when I wanted.

With the stability control off, though, things got a bit hairy, particularly going through ice coated hairpins. That, however, says more about my skill levels than the car’s capabilities. Even so, that fantastic all-wheel drive allowed for quick momentum changes and acceleration.

I would love to take the Regal GS on a dry track and see just what kind of speed it’s Haldex system would allow for.

Putting it all together

If every day involved snow-covered track driving, I could end the review here, with the Regal GS riding off into an icy sunset. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. And for most people the Regal needs to be a daily-driver. Fortunately, the Regal has some things going for it in that regard.

For starters, it is one of the best-looking, mid-size sedans on the market, though it took me seeing it in person to really believe that. The subtle styling updates for this year, like the trunk spoiler and chrome trim, really turn the Regal into something unique. People actually stopped and pointed at this car as it drove by. Don’t expect to get that in your Acura.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the interior. It is a long way from bad, the fit and finish is good, and there are some great touches. The very sporty steering wheel, for example, is quite nice. But the total effect is disappointing.

The styling is a bit dull. Where it isn’t dull, it seems a little confused. The touchscreen climate control seems like a good idea, but, when juxtaposed against a somewhat outdated center console, it just didn’t quite work for me. These complaints are minor, but they matter because of the price.

At close to $44,000 the top-spec Regal GS is not a cheap car. In that price range, you can get cars that need no introduction, like the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. Even the outsiders like the Volvo S60 or the amazing Cadillac ATS are damn impressive. Even though the Regal is cheaper than its direct competition, it can’t just be “good enough.” To take on the big boys, it has to be great.

The Regal GS may not be quite there yet, but it deserves to be in the conversation. And, given the quality of the product Buick has delivered, the American brand has absolutely earned the right to charge over $40k.

I like this fiery outsider a lot. While it may not be head-and-shoulders above the competition, I will say is this: If you want a mid-size sports sedan with all-wheel drive, take the Regal GS for a test drive. Before you make the cliché choice of driving a dump truck of money to the Audi dealership, give the Buick a chance. The Regal GS just might surprise you; it surprised the hell out of me.

Highs

  • Amazing all-weather performance
  • Class-leading all-wheel drive technology
  • Great exterior styling
  • Fun, and powerful turbocharged engine

Lows

  • Price puts it in stiff competition
  • Bland interior styling
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