GLEN ARBOR, MI – At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a sprawling U.S. nature preserve tucked into the northwest tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, visitors strain to climb a famous 260-ft. (79-m) sand dune, a vestige of Michigan’s last Ice Age.

Their reward for scrambling up the 20-degree pitch is an unrivaled view of crystal lakes and rolling forests.

Buick completes a climb of its own with the new-for-’12 Regal GS, a rollicking sport sedan with a punchy 270-hp engine and drum-tight handling sure to make tonier competitors in the segment take notice.

Buick is indeed back.

In the U.S., where executives believed recession-weary consumers hung over from binging on over-the-top luxury would embrace an upscale brand without the bling, sales so far this year are up 25.1%, WardsAuto data shows.

Buick also is gaining ground in historically weak markets for the brand, such as the U.S. West and Southeast, General Motors says.

In China, where GM has built the brand into a premium powerhouse, Buick sales have exceeded 3 million units from a 13-year-old joint venture and since 2008 have risen by 100,000 units annually.

However, the road back has not been easy for Buick. Many industry experts thought the 108-year-old brand should have been scrapped alongside Pontiac and Saturn during GM’s 2009 bankruptcy.

Instead, the auto maker has sunk billions of dollars into Buick, starting about five years ago with the Enclave large cross/utility vehicle. The oldest product in the portfolio continues to bring new customers to GM hand over fist, luring 41% of buyers from other brands.

The LaCrosse rolled out as a redesigned-for-’10 model in late 2009 and so far this year has accounted for more than 5,000 deliveries a month, or twice as many vehicles as its key competitors. A super-efficient LaCrosse variant with GM’s eAssist mild-hybrid technology is arriving now.

Regal sales are seeing monthly gains now that dealers have had almost a full year of the one-two punch of naturally aspirated and turbocharged models on the floor. Next year, a Regal with eAssist arrives just after the new-for-’12 Buick Verano compact sedan hits showrooms.

But for now, the stage belongs to the Regal GS, currently arriving at dealers and bringing with it a number of firsts for GM and the Buick brand.

’12 Buick Regal GS
Vehicle type front-engine, 4-door, FWD 5-passenger sports sedan
Engine 2.0L DOHC DI Ecotec all-aluminum I-4 turbo
Power (SAE net) 270 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Torque 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 2,400 rpm
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 107.8 ins. (273.8 cm)
Overall length 190.2 ins. (483.1 cm)
Overall width 73.1 ins. (185.7 cm)
Overall height 58.0 ins. (147.3 cm)
Curb weight 3,710 (1,683 kg)
Base price $35,310
Fuel economy 19/27 mpg (12.4-8.7 L/100 km) est.
Competition Acura TSX, Audi A4, Volkswagen CC, Lexus IS250, Volvo S60 T, Infiniti G25
Pros Cons
Torquey 2.0L turbo Snug seats a bit bulky
Adjustable suspension No dead pedal
No-doubt styling Understated exhaust note

At an SAE-certified 270 hp, the Regal GS 2.0L turbocharged direct-injection 4-cyl. engine represents the highest specific output ever to come out of GM Powertrain.

It’s the same engine used in the Regal Turbo. But a GS-specific 3-in. (7.6 cm) tailpipe with reduced back pressure provides a bump of 50 hp and a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time of 6.7 seconds. GM recommends premium fuel.

But as specifications go, horsepower is just a headline-grabber. The knockout number from this juicy little I-4 is its 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque. Near-peak torque arrives at just 2,300 rpm and remains available to 4,900 rpm.

A 6-speed manual transmission comes standard, and GM engineers did a superb job tuning the clutch for excellent take-up feel.

The combination makes the Regal GS a user-friendly premium sports sedan, arguably its greatest attribute. Models with an automatic transmission arrive next year.

We find ourselves alternating with ease between stints of rewarding performance driving as the roads rise and dip along the many small lakes here and a relaxing, Sunday-afternoon-cruising feel along stretches of uninterrupted state highway.

The turbo sings quietly under a heavy foot, and the exhaust note remains understated. You’d expect a little more rumble, but that’s not consistent with a 21st century Buick.

A pair of GM-exclusive technologies helps make the Regal GS accessible to a wider audience. By adding a high-performance front strut technology to the car, which the auto maker originally showed with all-wheel drive, engineers have all but erased the disconcerting torque steer suffered by many high-output, front-wheel-drive vehicles.

With no torque-steer risk, buyers confidently can add the bigger 20-in. wheel option skinned with Pirelli P-Zero tires. Big tires tend to accentuate torque steer, but not on the Regal GS, and they look as good as they perform.

Four-piston Brembo calipers appear inside the front wheel, adding another element of style on top of excellent stopping power.

GM adds its no-lift-shift technology to the manual transmission, which allows the driver to keep the accelerator mashed while going through the gears.

It’s an awkward bit of technology for the stick-shift veteran, but the first-time performance-car buyer might find it easier to keep boost levels high while going through the gears without lifting the accelerator.

The Regal GS also takes advantage of what GM calls Interactive Driver Control System chassis technology, where drivers can choose between three modes – standard, sport and GS. Think of it as low, medium and high settings for the suspension and steering sensitivity.

We like how GM leaves no doubt between the modes, with the GS offering generous helpings of useful feedback. Yet even in GS mode, the car never feels at its edge, pushing it as far as we dare through the sleepy resort towns, imparting a cool confidence normally reserved for German makes.

There’s no need to bounce between settings, either. With continuous computer damping control for the front and rear suspensions, the Regal GS delivers the right levels of comfort and performance depending on the driver’s aggressiveness and road conditions.

In a nifty bit of mood lighting, instrument panel gauges switch from ice blue to white in GS mode.

Other interior touches include specially designed seats to keep front passengers snug, although the seats are a bit bulky and steal rear knee room. GS logos adorn the IP and floor mats. A flat-bottom steering wheel and metal sport pedals enhance the car’s athletic character. Unfortunately, there is no dead pedal.

The exterior of the Regal GS adds exclusive items such as a pair of vertical air intake slots that look like fangs on the front fascia, while two trapezoidal exhaust outlets bookend the rear.

The Regal GS further distinguishes itself with rocker-panel extensions, rear spoiler and a discernibly lower ride height. Designers removed the side-marker lamps and placed them under the side mirrors for a cleaner, more American look.

Shoppers in the sport sedan segment will find the Regal GS sticker relatively approachable. It starts at $35,310, including $860 in delivery charges, and tops out at $39,000 fully loaded.

That’s a bargain compared with optioned-out, lower-luxury competitors such as the BMW 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It’s also less-pricey than a Volvo S60 T6 and on par with other perceived rivals such as the Acura TSX, Audi A4, Volkswagen CC and Lexus IS 250.

The Buick Regal GS caps a comeback for the ages, and its wide-ranging appeal ensures no one gets left out of the celebration.

jamend@wardsauto.com