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First Drive: The 2018 Buick Regal GS surprises with power, practicality, and poise

Is it even a question anymore that Buick is the brand with the most product freedom in the entire General Motors portfolio?

Emboldened by enormous overseas sales, and without the flagship pressure of Cadillac or Chevrolet’s need to appeal to the every-person, Buick has been given the green light to experiment in a bid to connect with a broad range of premium-seeking shoppers. The automaker defies attempts to pigeonhole its offerings, and in the process has been able to either break new ground (the subcompact Encore) or meet unexpected rivals head-on (the Regal TourX’s Volvo-cum-Subaru glove-slap).

Such is the game plan that guides the all-new 2018 Buick Regal GS. Rather than stick to the same script that guided the denouement of the previous-generation GS – modest turbo-four power in a standard all-wheel-drive sedan package – Buick has instead elected to turn up the redesign wick both mechanically and stylistically.

The end result is perhaps the most unique performance four-door in the company’s long and storied history, and one that has the goods to make significant in-roads against its European and Japanese competition.

The biggest break from tradition for the Buick Regal GS is the decision to embrace the standard Regal Sportback’s hidden-hatch body style in place of the older model’s three-box sedan shape.

Disguised by the near fastback look of the GS in profile, the Regal’s gaping cargo opening pushes the car into the ranks of the Audi A5 Sportback, BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, and Kia Stinger in terms of premium practicality. In fact, with its maximum 60.7 cubic feet of total cargo space, the Regal nearly matches some of the most popular crossovers in America.

The Regal GS also hews close to the Sportback in terms of overall styling, relying on a few key details to tip off the casual observer that it’s hiding something special under its attractive, but modest sheet metal. These modifications include a more aggressive front bumper, grille, and rear fascia (with ducting, functional and otherwise, to match), 19-inch rims, Brembo brake calipers that were a perfect match for my test car’s bright red paint, and equally red GS badging inside and out.

A cohesive and winning formula for building a slightly stealthy sport ‘sedan’ is the result. And don’t worry. You can get the GS in other colors, including a blend-in gray should one not want to stand out too much in the corporate parking lot.

Backing up the subtle bark is a more vociferous bite than was offered by the 2017 edition.

After a democratization of turbocharged engine output across the entire Regal line-up saw the previous GS restrained to just 259 ponies, the 2018 model’s move to a 310-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 is a welcome one. Not only does the car gain the quicker throttle response associated with a large-displacement, naturally-aspirated motor, but the horsepower boost is more than enough to make up for the slight drop in peak torque (295 lb.-ft. to 282 lb.-ft.). It’s also a sizable step-up from the 250 horses found in all other versions of the Regal, which retain the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder of old.

The rural roads of northern Georgia provided the perfect proving ground for the new Regal GS formula. Consisting primarily of twisty hillside switchbacks connected by the occasional straight stretch of three-lane highway, my drive route provided plenty of opportunity to exercise not just the fresh power plant installed between the Regal’s front fenders, but also its equally-new 9-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel-drive system.

To ensure that the rest of the Buick Regal GS is able to keep up with its expanded lung capacity, the car is outfitted with an adaptive suspension system that aims to shrink the Epsilon architecture it rides on into a slightly smaller, and more nimble, package than what is found in the three-inch longer LaCrosse (with which it shares its platform). It’s an effective strategy, and one that features several different levels of comfort versus responsiveness, accessed via Buick’s ‘Interactive Drive Control’ system.

Tapping the ‘Sport’ button on the center console adds a smidge more heft to the car’s steering while also stiffening up the shock absorbers at each corner. In addition, Sport mode shifts slightly more engine output to the rear axle by default, alongside the introduction of quicker, snappier shifts from the 9-speed autobox. The real personality shift comes with the GS button activated, however, as this delivers the best body control combined with the heaviest wheel effort and most aggressive cog-swapping logic.

That last point is an important one, because while the 9-speed offers a bump-to-shift feature on the gear selector, there are no shift paddles to be found on the Regal GS’s steering wheel, a curious omission that made it somewhat more difficult to enjoy the up-and-down undulations of the mountainous topography in Chattahoochee National Forest.

Still, the GS remained responsive to the ministrations of my right foot, with the transmission’s programming often selecting the correct ratio for the task at hand. The V6’s satisfying snarl accompanied each full-throttle rush to redline, and I was surprised by just how hard the Buick continued to pull as the speedometer crept to ‘overnight stay in a local jail’ territory.

Matched with the confident road holding of its suspension and all-wheel-drive combo, as well as the stabilizing effect of the Regal’s generous wheelbase, the car felt capable of keeping up with similar luxo-hatch fare such as the Audi A5 Sportback.

If only this Regal’s winning streak continued inside its cabin. While there’s nothing to complain about when discussing the comfortable confines of the car – the rear seat is especially roomy, and of course there’s the gigantic ‘trunk’ – there’s something lacking when it comes to the materials used to trim the vehicle’s living space. The supportive heated, ventilated, and massaging sport seats are well-trimmed and quite comfortable, but that same level of finish doesn’t extend to the plastics elsewhere inside the passenger compartment, especially on the door panels and the dashboard.

It’s the only downfall of an otherwise well-arranged feature set, including an easy-to-use touchscreen infotainment system, an interactive LCD gauge cluster, a bright head-up display that floats in front of the driver, and basic but useful climate controls.

Not as quiet inside as the rest of the Buick family (due perhaps to the large and aggressive tires with which the GS is shod), the Regal nevertheless is a calm space to cruise when not sampling the virtues of GS mode. It’s also worth mentioning that the car is well-equipped right out of the box, with only a few extras such as LED headlights, a sunroof, a wireless charging system, and active safety equipment that includes lane departure assistance and adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning and automatic braking available as options.

That the 2018 Buick Regal GS is a confident, quick, and comfortable package is no surprise, as the GS has long been one of the more engaging members of GM’s four-door family. What does raise eyebrows, however, is the price tag: a mere $39,995 gets you out the door and into the super-utility, all-wheel drive, premium sportback lifestyle.

That does represent a price savings over the next-closest premium-brand hatch, but when you’re out on the road, you may lament the incremental fit, finish, and refinement that you could get by spending a little more at a dealership selling a luxury brand.

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