It was Halloween of last year, and neither a trick nor treat for fans of GM’s “Driving Excitement” brand, Pontiac. You can’t have excitement without risk, and risk was something GM just couldn’t afford. That’s why they killed Pontiac on that fateful All Saints’ Eve, letting almost all traces of fun drain out of their brand. Yes, they had the immortal Corvette, and yes, the Camaro was still transforming into a giant robot and blowing up entire metropolitan counties, but if you wanted a practical, four seat car that didn’t cost a kidney, GM couldn’t help you.
Today, a visit to the Pontiac website will reveal a sad and desolate place, an abandoned amusement park, silent and overgrown. But at its foot is an ad for another brand, one that seems an unlikely protagonist to take up Pontiac’s fallen mantle of Excitement- an octogenarian by the name of Buick.
When I was in high school, I knew Buicks as troublesome road hogs. They were driven either by geriatrics who didn’t seem to understand the concept of a minimum speed limit, or by their adolescent grandchildren, who didn’t seem to understand the concept of a turn signal. Usually the former sat at the head of a 50 mph traffic jam on the highway.
But this wasn’t always the case. There was a year called 1970, and there was a Buick called the GSX Stage 1. Its 455 V8 put down 360 hp, and it had a sharky hood-mounted tachometer. Motor Trend claimed it was the fastest muscle car they’d tested yet, and this was at the height of the muscle car era. And the latter half of the next decade saw the turbocharged Grand National and the GNX, the final iteration of which occurred for 1987 and sported “276” hp. (This was an under-rating, and the actual figure is known to be much higher.) Since this power came from a boosted V6, the weight was relatively low. It has since become a popular drag car.
As the ‘90s rolled in, Oldsmobile began to roll out, foisting their aging customer base on Buick. Thus tamed, Buick churned out cars like the 6th generation Century, named for the memory span of its buyers.
But now that Pontiac is dead, and GM is riding on the federal government on their feet again, Buick seems to have remembered its roots as a brand.
I first saw the new Regal on TV. I happened to be at Buffalo Wild Wings and looked up at one of the 867 flat screens on the walls to see a rather attractive sedan carving down a country road. Its driver was throwing around an actual stick shift (yes, they still exist), and it had a turbo. At the end of the spot, the Triple Shield flashed across the screen, and I about dropped my parmesan garlic. Buick was marketing excitement?
The car in question was the Regal CXL Turbo. It has a little 2 liter straight 4 turbocharged to a beautiful 220 hp. And you can get it with a six speed, which promises to be more engaging than dinner with Blake Lively.
That was last year. This year, there’s the Regal GS. It first appeared as a concept at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Basically a rebadge of GM’s awesomely awesome Euro-spec Opel Insignia, it came fitted with all-wheel-drive and 255 hp. The production version, sadly, has lost the AWD along the way, but has gained an extra 15 hp. And, since Opel Insignia wagons with Buick badges have been spotted tooling around Detroit as lately as last week, a wagon version is heavily rumored. AWD can’t be far behind if GM aims it at the Acura TSX Sport Wagon, which still doesn’t offer the feature. We can only hope Buick realizes that wagon people are also manual people. Make it a stick, guys. The GS goes on sale later this year.
Somehow, when we were all eating our wings and lamenting the loss of Pontiac, Buick got exciting. In my opinion, this is exactly what GM needs. Seen too long as a boring, pragmatic, government agency that happens to produce two sports cars, they’re finally building rides for the mom and dad who like to drive. Who would have thought they would come from Grandpa’s brand?