In the reorganization following the bankruptcy of General Motors in 2009, Buick was retained while Hummer, Saturn, Saab and Pontiac were jettisoned. Purists were particularly miffed that GM let go of Pontiac, a nameplate with serious performance credentials, while Buick, a brand more closely aligned with Sansabelt slacks and white loafers, survived.
In North America, the brand just seems a touch out of touch, as illustrated by the 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD. As I spent six hours driving this new entry in diabolically wintry weather in Quebec, it became clear that the Buick is one of the most technologically advanced cars in its segment. But it also became apparent that one of its main competitors is another offering from General Motors, the Cadillac ATS. They are fighting over the same territory as relative newcomers attempting to gain ground on the established sport sedan competitors from Japan and Germany.
The Regal GS shares the same engine as one of the ATS models, a new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. This engine is paired with all-wheel drive on the Regal and rear-wheel drive on the Cadillac. (Another ATS is fitted with a V-6 engine and a different all-wheel drive system). Also, while the cars are built on different platforms, they are relatively close in size. The Regal is longer, wider and taller and is considered a mid-size sedan, while the ATS has a longer wheelbase and is classified as a compact sedan.
On the slick public streets, the car's AWD system proved capable and confident – but it really surprised at Circuit ICAR, an icy closed course at Mirabel airport. A number of these purpose-built facilities feature something called a traction circle or a friction circle. This is a circular piece of tarmac covered in ice (in the winter). The goal is to measure how a car responds when driving around the circle and using the throttle to induce a skid. I've driven a range of vehicles in such tests, including formula race cars – none of them surprised me as much as the Buick.
Normally, it takes some degree of skill to maintain a perfect drift around a circle for lap after lap. With the Buick, it was a case of just switching off the traction control, disabling the stability control, burying the throttle and making minor steering adjustments along the way – I've never seen anything like it.
The secret is the car's on-demand AWD system that shuttles torque from the front wheels to the back when needed (expected), features true torque vectoring between one rear wheel and the other (less common) and is managed by an electronic limited-slip rear differential with, as the GM engineers like to say, its own internal brain (uncommon).
After the drifting session, we took to the icy road course at ICAR and the Buick proved to be a good amount of fun. It wasn't as entertaining as a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan. That internal brain also takes less than 100 milliseconds to react when slip is detected, which is quick no matter how you slice the snow bank.
Speaking of quick, the engine offers no small amount of performance, either; this new one delivers more punch than the previous four-cylinder turbo (39 more horsepower) and better fuel efficiency to boot (an 11-per-cent gain in city driving; 15 per cent on the highway).
The only transmission offered is a six-speed automatic … not fitted with paddle shifters. This is an odd call to make when marketing a modern sport sedan, one that served to dampen spirits behind the wheel. However, the Regal GS does come equipped with other standard features that will meet with approval: front brake discs from the acknowledged experts at Brembo, 19-inch wheels and a drive-mode selector with three settings to adjust the variable damping suspension system, steering weight, gearshift speed and AWD calibration.
For all the positives, we reach the bottom line – value.
With a base price of $42,925, the Regal GS is a few thousand more than it should be. One of the versions tested, a fully loaded example, rang in at more than $50,000. For that money, there are many options in the sport-sedan segment with far less to prove.
I like the 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD. I really do. It's a surprisingly well-engineered, handsome sport sedan. And if it were a bit less expensive, it would be an overall class leader.
2014 Buick Regal GS AWD
Type: Mid-size sport sedan
Base price: $42,925
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 259 hp/295 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: All-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): n/a
Alternatives: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS 250, Mercedes-Benz C-Class
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