January 3, 2011 at 1:00 am

Buick

The 2012 Buick Regal GS midsize sport sedan with 0-60 mph performance of under seven seconds, is powered by an exclusive GS-only high-output version of the Ecotec 2.0L turbo engine with 255 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. The Regal GS goes on sale in the second half of 2011. (Steve Fecht / Buick)

Biggest splash

The 2012 Verano sedan, a Delta platform mate of the Chevrolet Cruze, is Buick's new compact sedan. While the Verano is proportioned like the larger LaCrosse, executive director of design Dave Lyon said, "We're not building Russian dolls."

The character lines have "romance and beauty," Lyons said. "Calligraphic brush strokes of chrome" accentuate the body. The projector-style headlights have blue halo rings like the Enclave.

He called the interior "kind of the Godiva interior," with notes of chocolate and coffee. There's rich leather, warm wood and brushed nickel.

A big effort went into making the seats as comfortable as possible, he said.

Under the hood is the 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine, which produces 180 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. Chief engineer Jim Federico estimated a 0 to 60 run in 8.0 seconds and 31 highway mpg. This engine is coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission.

A turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is coming with either the automatic or a six-speed manual.

Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard and 18-inch wheels are available.

The 10 standard airbags and collapsible pedals are most notable in the long list of safety features.

When the Verano goes on sale later in 2011, Buick intends it to compete against the Lexus IS250, Audi A3 or Volvo S40.

What's new

The Buick Regal earns Car and Driver's commendation as "an absolute standout in a field of contemporary American sedans." Only one model, the CXL , was available for the 2011 model year. In December, the CXL received an optional, turbocharged version of the Ecotec direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, making 220 horsepower while still returning 29 miles per gallon on the highway. Meanwhile, the hot-looking 2012 Regal GS , introduced in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, raises the question: When was the last time a Buick was this desirable? Riding on optional 20-inch forged alloy wheels, the GS has an aggressive posture. The 2.0-liter turbo engine receives an intercooler, and thanks to higher boost pressure and a larger 3-inch exhaust, it's even more powerful than the CXL's, making 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. When it goes on sale in the latter half of the year, it will be offered exclusively with a six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic with Driver Shift Control comes later. The GS will dash from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds, according to Buick. The Regal GS has a lower ride height than the CXL, and the driver can use Interactive Drive Control to select among the suspension's three modes: normal, sport and GS. (The instrument panel glows white when the driver engages the super-sporty GS mode.) Brembo front brake calipers help to stop the car with authority. A flat-bottom steering wheel and metal pedals signify this is indeed a sport sedan. If you didn't notice the GS coming, the rear spoiler will ensure that you notice it going.

Buick modestly says the competition will be the Acura TSX and Volvo S60, but it isn't hard to imagine the GS being cross-shopped against the BMW 3-Series.

Check it out

Under a new scoring system implemented for the 2011 model year, the Enclave luxury crossover received the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's coveted five-star crash test rating. The tests were made more rigorous for front and side impacts and for rollover resistance.

Green factor

The 2012 LaCrosse will be available with the eAssist package, a so-called "mild" hybrid setup with an air-cooled, lithium-ion battery pack. The eAssist package will be included with every LaCrosse CX and CXL FWD model. Power comes from the 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. (The CXL AWD and CXS are equipped with the 3.6-liter V-6.) Adding eAssist improves fuel economy by 25 percent, letting the LaCrosse achieve 25 city and 37 highway miles per gallon, which is outstanding for a car weighing 3,835 pounds.

Augmenting the gas engine's thrust during hard acceleration, the 115-volt battery pack—which weighs just 65 pounds and is located between the trunk and back seat—sends up to 11 kilowatts of current to the 15-kilowatt motor-generator that's under the hood.

Regenerative braking captures energy to help recharge the batteries. Automatic engine shutoff occurs when the LaCrosse stops at traffic signals, further helping to reduce fuel consumption.

While the price still hadn't been set before the auto show, Buick was saying "about $30,000."

Down the road

With a lineup of appealing vehicles, Buick finds new customers coming through the doors. Sales were up 55 percent in 2010 and the division had climbed to No. 4 among luxury brands, behind Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. For Buick models like the Enclave, more than 50 percent of buyers were conquests from other makes.

So a nationwide effort is under way to update Buick showrooms. Bright metal pillars supporting an arch will be the trademark new look at the entrance. Inside the glassy showroom, customers will be able to enjoy a lounge, Wi-Fi access and a variety of services like a cafe and salon.

While Buick needs this makeover, it also needs a prestige car, a definitive styling and technological statement that truly reestablishes the brand in the luxury category.

The 2012 Buick Regal GS. (Buick)
The 2012 Buick Regal GS. (Buick)
The 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist, a new fuel-saving technology that ... (Steve Fecht / Buick)
2012 Buick LaCrosse with e-Assist Technology. (Buick)
The 2012 Buick Verano compact luxury sedan will make its debut at the ... (Buick)