What I'm Driving At: Regalia Redux

"It's no longer OK just to be good enough for everybody," said Randy Fior to a group of journalists awaiting their first test drives of the new 1997.5 Buick Regal GS. "Today, you've got to be important to somebody." An innocent revelation like that, coming from a member of General Motors' "new generation" of bright, young executives, speaks volumes about the recent history of the world's largest corporation. In particular, it suggests how long it takes a lumbering giant to respond to an urgent wake-up call from the marketplace.In Buick's case, it has taken quite a while. Once an icon of affluence for the generations coming of age in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, Buick is now waging a war of relevance against ranks of nimble, global competitors who are upstarts by comparison. The distinctive Buick logo of three heraldic shields aptly symbolizes the inability of pedigree to withstand the assaults of price and performance. Today, reputations are for scrapbooks. Today, car customers are asking, "What have you done for me lately?"With its latest Regal GS sedan, Buick seems to be saying, "Boy, am I glad you asked that question." Even the date of the model year is hair-splittingly au courant: 1997.5. How's that for lately, by gum! This is an all-new car, reflecting an all-new mind-set, catering to an all-new audience (for Buick, at any rate). This is Buick's bid for the hearts and minds and middle-incomes of upwardly mobile young families chock-full 'o children and maxed-out on hectic schedules. As Fior more than intimated, it's vitally important to Buick that the revamped Regal GS become vitally important to this kind of customer. To make it so, the company is putting performance and price at the forefront.For its most dramatic gesture, Buick has stuffed the Regal GS with a 3.8-liter supercharged V6 that heretofore only existed in the larger Park Avenue Ultra and Riviera models. According to powertrain engineer Katy Wilds, the Regal's MS2000 platform (which Buick must share with Pontiac's Grand Prix and Oldsmobile's forthcoming Intrigue) is GM's lightest to get the supercharger treatment. And when you combine big horsepower with little weight, fun things happen.Specifically, instead of last year's scant 195 horsepower (now relegated to the base model Regal LS), the GS kicks out 240 horses of the most delicious kind. That's because with supercharging, the extra dose of acceleration is instantaneous--there's none of that indecisive hesitancy that makes turbocharging such a maddening alternative. What sets Buick's Series II supercharger even further apart, moreover, is a waste-gate induction system that idles the blower during cruising, then kicks it in again instantly when boost is required for sudden acceleration. The effect of "going off-line," so to speak, keeps fuel efficiency high and wear-and-tear low.Nevertheless, the ability of the Regal GS to muster more than one horsepower per cubic inch--a traditional performance benchmark--whisks this sedan into a fast crowd where straight-line acceleration is taken for granted but rarely emphasized. Although surrounded in price by the likes of Chevy's Lumina LTZ, Ford's Taurus, Chrysler's Intrepid ES, Toyota's Camry V6, and Honda's Accord V6, the Regal expresses grander aspirations. Under its faintly Euro sheet metal, with its interior trimmed in standard leather, the Regal GS stickers out at about $25,500 and tucks in well under Audi's A4, Mercedes' C230, and the Lexus ES300 by as much as $10,000.There's an inescapable "GM-ishness" about the Regal GS that belies a pure comparison with cars in this mid-$30,000 category, but it comes by its pretensions honestly. Buick has tossed in as standard equipment a number of upscale amenities, including full-range traction control, dual HVAC thermostats for driver and front passenger, and an automatic system for monitoring tire inflation. The driver and front passenger sit in six-way-adjustable semi-buckets, and raised "theater seating" in back gives rear passengers a better, less claustrophobic view. With all that fun power underhood, the Regal GS encourages sporty speculations about its potential on winding back roads. Suspension is fully independent, although based on less sophisticated coil-over struts. Just the same, the damping action of the shocks features relatively fancy "blow-off" valving that, in short, absorbs abrupt bumps gently without imparting an overall feeling of "floatiness" to the ride. In pure sporting terms, the ride is on the soft side, but body roll isn't excessive, so cornering feels relatively crisp. One important reason is Buick's magnetically variable power steering: It is meticulously speed-sensitive, and it responds directly to driver input without delay and without any loss of road feel. But psychology plays a role as well. The car is appreciably quiet inside, and the lack of noisy distraction contributes to a feeling of aplomb. Moreover, this quiet is a byproduct of the car's increased structural rigidity, which in its own right is a fundamental ingredient for good handling. Buick is packaging its new Regal GS as a "family performance sedan" for the "supercharged family." There's a lot of cute wordplay going on here, but at its core the marketing message doesn't lie. Performance is one of this car's chief attributes--particularly in comparison with its class rivals. And engine supercharging is chiefly responsible for the distinction. On a figurative level too, Buick is counting on the new Regal GS to "supercharge" the division's flagging fortunes by offering refurbished and updated prestige at an attractive, even compelling, low price. Ultimately, this will be the performance that matters more.

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