On the face of it, Buick is in the midst of its biggest and best product renaissance ever. New nameplates like the Verano compact sedan you see here and the upcoming pint-ute Encore will inevitably reshape the brand.
But, as of press time, Buick sales are down about 5 percent compared to last year, which should lead to plenty of legitimate head-scratching in Detroit.
Is Buick fulfilling its new role as a stepping stone between a slimmed-down, post-bankruptcy General Motors' Chevrolet and Cadillac divisions? To find out, we strapped ourselves into a well-equipped Verano, the automaker's new effort into a segment that we think is about to grow very quickly.
What is it?
Closely related to the Chevrolet Cruze
, the Verano is Buick's first true compact car in years. Styled to to anchor the bottom end of a portfolio that includes the swoopy LaCrosse and Euro-chic Regal, the Verano is the result of a collaboration between GM's global design and engineering efforts in North America and Asia.
And Asia is particularly important for Buick, since buyers in the world's largest market - China - have long flocked to the brand. Although GM won't publicly confirm it, there's much speculation that Buick was saved from the chopping block that axed Pontiac and Oldsmobile because of its strength in China.
In place of the Cruze's tiny 1.4-liter turbo engine, the Verano uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 180 horsepower. Later this year, a 2.0-liter Verano Turbo
that puts out 250 ponies will arrive. Until that engine arrives with its standard six-speed stick, all Veranos have a six-speed automatic.
Veranos start at under $24,000, but our tester's optional leather trim package boosted it to $27,175. Loaded up with every factory option, no Verano 2.4 will list for over $30,000.
Regardless of option count, Verano runs about $2,500 to $3,000 more than an equivalently-optioned non-premium compact like the Cruze or the Ford Focus. That extra coin nets you more power and more upmarket accommodations, including behind-the-scenes upgrades like substantially more sound deadening, laminated glass, more extensive soft-touch and cloth-covered materials and the like, plus a longer factory warranty than most mass-market brands.
What's it up against?
For a while, Verano essentially had the 'tweener segment to itself, but the recently-released Acura ILX
promises to lure in comparison shoppers. Acura's roughly $800 more TSX seems worth the jump, although it is notably more sport-oriented.
Use your imagination and other rivals might include the Volkswagen Jetta GLI
or even the Audi A3
hatchback, but this segment is likely to grow over the next few years.
How does it look?
Head-on, the Verano is a clear member of the Buick clan, with its ovoid waterfall grille, swept-back headlamps and cheesy faux port holes clearly linking it to its siblings.
From the side, extra windows front and rear give it a tall, airy greenhouse look, while chrome details speak to its upmarket intentions. We really liked our tester's 18-inch alloy wheels, too.
At the rear, however, we think the Verano's cohesive look starts to fall apart. Chrome slats above the head lamps might not have been so goofy had their furrowed-brow look not immediately reminded us of the mobile phone app Angry Birds. We feel more enthusiastic about the exposed chrome exhaust tip, however.
Another positive: The Verano looks absolutely nothing like its Cruze platform mate, a clear indication that GM has moved well beyond its badge-engineering days.
And on the inside?
With its dual-cowl dashboard design, Verano is again obviously related to the larger Buick LaCrosse
. And that's a good thing, since GM interior design was once alarmingly haphazard. But that's the past, and the Verano shows just how nice of an interior the General is capable of putting together thanks to its impressive use of soft-touch surfaces. Every bit of the Verano feels worthy of a compact costing $5,000 more.
The center stack is heavy with buttons, but we generally didn't struggle to sort through them after a brief acclimation period. The larger of the two central control knobs is actually used to navigate Buick's standard Intellilink infotainment system; the volume knob is the smaller one.
Intellilink is a nice standard item and it's a breeze to use thanks to app-style menus. The graphics aren't as clean as we've seen from Chrysler or several European brands, but we experienced none of the confusion that still haunts us about Ford's overly-busy MyFord Touch system. We had no problem pairing a few cell phones to Intellilink and we found sound quality through the Bose speakers to be well above average.
GM's familiar, small diameter three-spoke steering wheel sits in front of a quartet of "ice blue"-lit gauges and an efficient trip computer. Our tester's optional leather seats were plush and comfortable, but the lack of a power backrest adjuster seems like an oversight at this price. We also would have appreciated adjustable lumbar support.
Rear seat space is adequate given the exterior dimensions, though we found the rear door aperture to be a bit tight. A well-finished trunk is accessed via a particularly large trunk lid, which aids cargo-hauling.
But does it go?
We didn't miss the wheezy 1.4-liter that powers most Cruzes, but we can't say that we immediately fell in love with the 2.4. Burdened with a mere additional 150 lbs. (for a total of 3,300 lbs.) over the Cruze, the 2.4-liter provided the Verano with decent get-up-and-go.
On paper, the 2.4 provides 180 horsepower at a high 6,700 rpm and 171 lb-ft. of torque at 4,900 rpm, but we found better-than-expected low-end power accessed by a fairly responsive - if not always smooth - automatic transmission. Still, the engine often needs to be revved toward the upper reaches of the tachometer when ascending steep hills or with a full load on board.
Like the Cruze, Verano's six-speed automatic occasionally delivers a curiously lunging shift quality that gives the impression that it pauses to think in between
cog changes. It's not that the transmission isn't quick to start moving into a different gear, it's that it sometimes takes a little too long to complete the task.
Quiet and smooth, the 2.4-liter is remarkably refined. And that's something we can say for the Verano's driving dynamics in general. That extensive sound deadening has easily made one of the quietest cars under $30,000, if not one of the quietest on the market.
That silence dominates the driving experience, which errs more on the side of comfort than sport. In fact, we likened the Verano to a budget-price Mercedes-Benz or Lexus in terms of its ride and handling characteristics. The steering is quick, if a little darty off center, but light on feel. Ride quality from the fully-independent suspension was stellar over all sorts of terrain, much like the similarly impressive Cruze. The Verano remained utterly composed over harsh impacts and wavy surfaces alike, a sign that Buick found an excellent ride-and-handling balance. The front-wheel-drive Verano doesn't beg to be tossed into the twisties, but it doesn't mind a little enthusiasm. We anticipate that the purportedly more buttoned-down Verano Turbo will up the fun quotient.
We didn't quite reach the EPA-estimated 32 mpg highway figure, but we didn't have much difficulty matching its 21 mpg city number.
Why you would buy it:
You appreciate the hidden refinement the Verano offers over cars like the Cruze and Focus.
Why you wouldn't:
Price is king, and even if it's very well-equipped, the Verano is an expensive small car.
Leftlane's bottom line
Smartly priced and packaged, Verano is a must-see in this recently carved entry-premium class. Boasting loads of refinement and even a slightly spunky, fun-to-drive nature, the Verano makes mincemeat out of the slower and far less interesting Acura ILX.
More importantly, we think it's an impressive enough compact sedan to warrant consideration from shoppers looking at the high end of the non-premium market and the low end of the luxury market.
2012 Buick Verano 1SL
base price, $25,965. As tested, $27,175.
Crystal Red Paint, $325; Destination, $895.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.