Is the Buick Regal GS the Best Cadillac You Can Buy?

Critics’ Notebook for Jan. 15, 2016.

Three years ago, with the newly introduced Cadillac ATS being heralded as a “3 Series Killer” by nearly every car magazine not published in Europe, another General Motors sedan was graciously letting the arriviste soak up the admiration. That car, the Buick Regal GS, was a badge-engineered Opel/Vauxhall Insignia brought to North America in 2012 to bolster Buick’s anemic portfolio and—such chutzpah—turbocharge the moribund brand. In the intervening three years the Regal GS remains an outlier, but also perhaps the ultimate sleeper on the American road: a 259-horsepower sport-luxury sedan that actually lives up to the billing—and crucially, doesn’t extract a pound of flesh for the privilege. The all-wheel-drive model provides a placebo of inner peace for roughly $2,000 over the front-drive GS.

Think of it as an ATS AWD with a $10,000 discount. And if the ATS AWD is—at least dynamically—a credible alternative to the BMW 3 Series, then the Regal GS may be the best Cadillac you can buy. Never mind that it's not a Cadillac.

The fully kitted GS AWD was heading north on Christmas Day through New England. Still shod with Pirelli P-Zero summer tires on kaleidoscope-like 20-inch aluminum wheels (yes, a Buick with P-Zeroes. Oh, and Brembo front stoppers), the Regal wanted nothing more than to play cat-and-mouse with a mid-Seventies Porsche 911 Carrera. The Porsche’s driver, to his credit, believed his car should be driven like a Porsche, so cat-and-mouse they played over 30 miles of Connecticut’s wending, largely abandoned Merritt Parkway. Speedometer aside, the only indication of the velocities reached was a wind whoosh that would have grown tiresome on the Buick-via-Opel’s native autobahns.

Outright speed is not the story with the GS, though. The doors shut with a lovely whomp. The cross-stitched black leather seats are more supportive and look richer than any GM throne outside of a V-branded Cadillac. The damping actually feels best in its natural state—no need to press that faraway “GS” button atop the drab, monolithic center stack, which theoretically stiffens the suspension and steering but really just subtracts refinement.

There’s no spec’ing the sweet six-speed manual transmission in the GS AWD, the biggest ding against the car; GM’s ubiquitous six-speed automatic belongs in the Traverses and Malibus of the world, not in sedans with 295 pound-feet of torque to mete out in a hurry.

Rare is the four-year-old car that pleasantly surprises you, rarer still the Buick. Toss in the generous equipment packages and the American badge, and you have what Cadillac could be—if its pricing minders ever got a clue.

2016 Buick Regal GS AWD

Price (as tested): $39,110
Powertrain: 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 259 hp, 295 lb-ft torque; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
MPG: 19 city / 27 highway
Superiority Over Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD: Damn near total.