Road Test: Luxury in a small package

Verano shows Buick is keeping up with the times

December 12, 2012
by Tony Whitney

From the November-December 2012 Fleet Management print edition

Buick has made surprising progress in recent years to spruce up its sedan range and shed once and for all its ‘old guy’s car’ image which marked it as the kind of sedan your prosperous uncle drove years ago. Today’s Buicks—Verano, Regal and LaCrosse, in ascending order of size—feature sophisticated, contemporary styling, snappy performance, outstanding build quality and the kind of luxury you’d expect in a car just one step down from a Cadillac.

Specs at a glance…
Body Style: 4-door sedan
Engine: 2.4-litre, 180-horsepower 4-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: Zero to 100 km/h in approx
Fuel economy: 9.9-litres/100 km city;
6.2-litres/100 km hwy. (base car)
Price: $22,895 – $28,695

The Verano is the latest product in Buick’s product renaissance that began some years back with the Enclave crossover, which has been a major factor in the automaker’s turnaround. It’s an excellent example of what Buick has been able to do with the vast resources of General Motors behind it. This compact sedan is based on a platform also used for the award-winning Chevrolet Cruze in North America and the popular Opel Astra in Europe. It’s also the basis for the Buick Excelle GT, which is produced in a GM plant in China for that market.

All models use Ecotec four-cylinder engines, very much in step with today’s powerplant trends. The aim with this engine design was to create a power unit with on-demand response comparable to a V-6 and combine it with the economy of a four-cylinder.

According to GM, Verano is targeting products like the Acura CSX, but small luxury-nameplate cars are still pretty thin on the ground in North America and when you’ve listed a couple more like the Audi A3 and the Lexus CT 200h, you’re just about out of contenders. As a Buick, the Verano can be classified as one of the few cars that fall into this neglected compact luxury vehicle class. The more products we are able to buy in this class, the sooner we’ll shed those old attitudes about bigger is better. There’s absolutely no reason a luxury sedan has to sprawl all over the road to fulfill its role in life and the Verano is a good example of what can be achieved with a little creativity.

Of course, Buicks of the past were often huge vehicles more than 17 feet long—the kind associated with Chicago gangsters or 1930s Hollywood movie stars. In the early 1990s, Buick tried to revive its historic Roadmaster by introducing a very large sedan and wagon with the same name, but it was not a great success, even then.

Even so, Buick’s distinguished history is worth celebrating, as the GM division is the oldest still-active automotive producer in America. The origins of Buick go way back to the final years of the 19th century, though Buick himself, an expat Scot, sold his holdings early in the company’s life. Incidentally, GM was developed around highly successful Buick, rather than by acquiring the brand.

Smooth styling
Current Buicks use a styling theme that’s a clever combination of elegance and aerodynamic efficiency. There are none of the razor-edge lines you’ll see on Cadillacs. The design approach was based on smooth, flowing, curves and it works well. This theme is carried over to the Verano, which is clean and tidy. One of any Buick’s instant recognition features is its “waterfall” grille and even with the compact Verano, it’s a striking feature. Buick has tackled this “brand recognition” factor with the grille rather more successfully that some other automakers.

Chrome is used as accenting around the bodywork, but not in the quantities that characterized Buicks of the past. There’s a hint of Buick heritage in the stylized portholes where hood meets windshield. For decades (1948 and onwards), most Buicks were instantly recognizable by their row of portholes.

Spacious interior
The Verano is chunky rather than svelte and that’s good news as far as passenger and cargo spaces goes. It’s a handsome sedan, but the practical faction on the design team clearly won out over the styling purists. Consequently, the car is easy to get into and out of for both front and rear occupants. The trunk is very generous and there’s room back there for four sets of luggage, though few owners demand this from a compact sedan. As a business hauler, it’s as good as they get in this size range.

There are two trim versions available: Verano and Verano Leather. Both use 2.4-litre four-cylinder engines, providing 180-horsepower. Transmission is a six-speed automatic. Buick plans to offer a 2.0-litre turbo version of the car with an optional six-speed manual transmission, but this is sporty variant that will probably not attract too many fleet buyers.

The Leather is a slightly upscale version of the basic car and comes with leather upholstery, plus a small list of other upgrades, including dual-zone climate control and a nine-speaker sound system.

All Verano models come with air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, all-round ventilated disc brakes with ABS and a full suite of 10 air bags. The available Buick IntelliLink Bluetooth/USB interface provides hands-free mobile phone capability—a must for any business user. This system uses a full-colour touch screen, which is also installed if a Navigation system is ordered up. Also available is a heated steering wheel.

The Verano’s suspension is of fairly sophisticated design and was developed to offer a “more-balanced driving experience”, Buick says. Our tests certainly indicated an excellent mix of comfort and handling stability. Steering inputs are executed by an electric power steering system, which is said to save fuel as well as provide good “feel” for the driver. The car is easy to place correctly in corners without too much steering input, so the engineers did a good job with this aspect of the car.

As with so many automobiles these days, the Verano comes with a lengthy roster of electronic stability and braking aids. Perhaps even more reassuring is the fact that the car’s unitized body is fabricated to a large extent of high-strength steel in key areas.

Luxurious layout
The cabin of the Verano looks quite plush and luxurious and certainly nothing like a low-rent version of one of the larger Buicks. The automaker did a good job here, using lots of soft-touch materials around the cockpit and laying out the controls with intelligence and practicality. The car uses a commendable mixture of tones in the cabin materials, with the light and dark tan option looking especially elegant. Many controls are located on the steering wheel, according to how the car is specified, and those on the dash are nicely grouped together.

We’ve only driven 2012 models, but as a new product, the Verano will stay much the same for 2013, except for the addition of the 250-horsepower turbo engine variant, which comes with a list of cosmetic and performance upgrades to bring it to the attention of the enthusiast market. Even so, Buick has enhanced the car with a few interesting upgrades, including a rearview camera as standard on several models (expect this to become an industry norm in the years ahead), a blind zone alert system, minor changes to the OnStar emergency response buttons and a couple new exterior colours.

The Verano is great fun to drive, reasonably economical, and manages to carry a luxurious image well despite it being a derivative of somewhat less illustrious relatives in the GM lineup. It’s comfortable, peppy, agile and very well put together and should have considerable appeal for fleets preferring to stick to domestic nameplates.

It can also be had for the very reasonable price of under $23,000 MSRP at the lower end of the range. Buick has been highly rated by the various quality evaluation polls in recent years and we can confirm that none of the Veranos we drove had the slightest creak or rattle in them and body panel fit was just about as good as it gets.

The Verano should confirm that Buick is very much back in the thick of things with products to match just about any competitor.
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