Baby Buick Makes Quiet Case As An Almost-Luxury Car

2012 Buick Verano

It's no secret that Buick is one of the most prominent automakers in China, but the vehicle that's leading the charge in the People's Republic may come as a surprise. The top-selling car in the world's largest auto market last year was the Buick Excelle, a C-segment sedan that just so happens also to be a version of the 2012 Buick Verano that's now on sale here in the United States.

The Verano has only been on sale here for a few months, but as you might expect, U.S. buyers aren't quite as excited about the latest Buick offering as our Chinese counterparts, at least not in the early going. March sales came in at a modest 2,497 units (the Excelle family scored 23,179 April sales in China), making the Verano the least-purchased Buick for that month, while April's 2,989 units were just enough to beat the Regal in Buick's sales portfolio. Do Chinese buyers know something that we don't, or does the littlest Buick just need time to win us over?

Former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz once stated that Buick, not Cadillac, was The General's true Lexus competitor, and since that time, the brand has dropped old-school rides like the Lucerne in favor of the much more modern LaCrosse, Regal, and now, the Verano. These vehicles aren't as likely to churn the butter of traditional Buick buyers, but then again, cataracts and Father Time have conspired to remove most Tri-Shield buyers from the road altogether.

2012 Buick Verano side view2012 Buick Verano front view2012 Buick Verano rear view

The trick with the Verano is to nail down exactly which vehicles this near-luxury ride competes against. The Germans are almost completely out of this discussion, since the Verano's MSRP tops out shy of where the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 start, though one could make a bit of an argument for the smaller, less-expensive A3 hatchback. Lexus doesn't have anything that starts at $23,000, though the $29,000 CT 200h hybrid is certainly similar in size. On the other hand, the Verano's price tag is clearly a step beyond that of the Chevrolet Cruze (with which the Verano shares a platform), Ford Focus, and other sub-$20K C-segment offerings. The clearest competitor is the recently introduced Acura ILX – a more luxurious example of the Honda Civic that joins the Verano in the purgatory of near-luxury white space.

Our test car, painted in White Diamond Tricoat (a $495 option) arrived with an as-tested price of $28,245, including $885 for destination. This Verano came equipped with the top-tier Leather Package that adds hide-clad seats (the fronts being heated), a heated steering wheel and a nine-speaker Bose sound system, as well as an optional sunroof ($900). That's a lot of kit for a reasonable price tag, and it's important to note that even the most affordable Verano comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, a USB audio input, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant controls and a brightly lit, seven-inch touchscreen LCD audio system.

2012 Buick Verano headlight2012 Buick Verano hood vent2012 Buick Verano wheel2012 Buick Verano taillight

From the outside, the Verano is virtually indistinguishable when parked next to a Chinese-market Excelle GT, and it is an Opel badge away from being a dead ringer for Europe's Astra sedan. Of course, the Verano also looks like a smaller iteration of the midsize Regal. We're big fans of the signature Buick blue hue within the headlamps, which add a more upscale touch to either side of the waterfall grille. The Verano features crisp, flowing lines throughout the body side panels that taper off at the rear wheel wells. And those wells are filled quite nicely by upscale 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in Continental 235/45-series all-season tires.

The Verano passes the exterior test with few markdowns (say what you will about Ventiports... at least Buick can lay claim to popularizing them), but the most impressive aesthetic bits are reserved for its well-executed cabin. Our tester featured beautiful two-tone brown accents that really stood out even compared with pricier Buick models. The dash was especially pleasing to the touch, with terrific contrast and nicely finished materials. Another strong point comes courtesy of the expensive-looking and comfortable Choccachino leather seating surfaces that appeared to be more of a delicious caramel color than anything derived from the cocoa bean.

2012 Buick Verano gauges2012 Buick Verano audio system display2012 Buick Verano shifter2012 Buick Verano door speaker

The LCD touchscreen, which features Buick's IntelliLink infotainment interface, was brilliantly lit and easy to navigate, giving us more time to enjoy the rich experience that is the Verano's well-executed interior rather than simply trying to learn where all of the buttons are. In-dash navigation is available for an additional $750, and we had a very good experience with the intuitive, easy-to-setup Bluetooth phone pairing.

Dimensionally, the Verano's cabin was a bit tight for our tastes, especially when it comes to the backseat. The kids weren't at all pleased with the 33.9 inches of rear legroom, though it's worth mentioning that you don't really get any more space in an Acura ILX.

The Verano is actually very close in size to the more expensive Buick Regal, the latter of which is seven inches longer overall but rides on a two-inch longer wheelbase. The Regal does have three more inches of legroom for backseat passengers, but lateral hip space is identical for rear occupants. The trunks are also essentially the same size, with the Regal offering 14.2 cubic feet of storage and the Verano boasting 14.0. In short, the Verano costs over $4,000 less, features the same base powertrain, looks similar and weighs 300 pounds less. Sounds like the Verano could steal some sales away from the Regal, doesn't it?

2012 Buick Verano interior2012 Buick Verano front seats2012 Buick Verano rear seats2012 Buick Verano trunk

It may be lighter than the Regal, but the Verano still weighs in at a robust 3,300 pounds, or 300 pounds more than the most luxurious Ford Focus. Luckily for Verano owners, this hefty sedan comes with more power than most compact offerings, with a base 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 180 horsepower at 6,700 RPM and 171 pound-feet of torque at 4,900 RPM. This engine is mated exclusively to a well-programmed six-speed automatic that goes about its duties without any harshness or cause for complaint.

The Verano offers adequate grunt around town, and it's not too sluggish off the line – estimates say 60 mph will arrive in a respectable 7.7 seconds. However, the naturally aspirated 2.4 let us down a bit when we asked it to dig deep and supply sprightly highway passing power, making the Verano feel every bit of its 3,300-pound curb weight at speed. We'd like a bit more power, and our wish will be granted later this year when Buick's turbocharged 2.0-liter four makes its way into the Verano. The 2.0T should boast at least 220 horsepower, matching what's offered in the Regal Turbo.

2012 Buick Verano engine

It doesn't take long to realize that Buick engineers have once again prioritized a hushed, plush ride above all. And when we say hushed, we mean whisper-quiet. Stifled backseat dialogues came in crystal clear even at highway speeds, and when we closed the sunroof, the cabin felt like a sarcophagus being sealed off with a form-fitting granite door. On the road, the Verano feels very solid and composed, offering a refined driving experience.

But that doesn't mean the Verano can't display a bit of agility when it's called for. The front MacPherson suspension and rear Z-link setup help the Verano feel stable when cornering, as long as you aren't pushing too hard. The electrically assisted power steering setup was a bit of a surprise as well, with appropriate weight and precise feel, offering credible amounts of feedback from the road. But once we tried to kick up the fun a notch, the chassis was willing to write checks that the engine simply couldn't cash. We got the impression that the Verano was ready for a lot more than 180 horsepower, and so were we. Just consider it another reason to be excited about the upcoming 2.0-liter turbo model.

2012 Buick Verano

The best case for more power comes courtesy of current-state fuel economy. The Verano boasts an EPA estimated 32 miles per gallon highway and 21 mpg around town, which lags behind the economy compacts but is nearly dead-on with the 2.4-liter Acura ILX. We averaged a not-so-exciting 25.6 mpg during a week with the Verano, which is closer to what we'd expect with a smaller but more potent turbo four.

The North American Verano may not sell nearly as well as its Excelle GT twin overseas, but it is clear that this Buick is ready to scrap in the near-luxury space head-on. The Verano manages to deliver upscale looks and a killer interior while at the same time offering a price tag that is competitive with the likes of the Ford Focus Titanium and thousands less than the Acura ILX or Audi A3. It only helps that the Verano comes standard with hordes of tech features, all of the most desired add-ons and a heated steering wheel to go along with its price point that won't break the bank. In fact, a fully loaded Verano still hovers beneath the $30,000 ceiling, giving buyers a premium option that doesn't saddle them with premium payments. There is little doubt that the Verano will bring a whole new buyer into the Buick showroom, but we enthusiasts will likely remain on the sidelines until the turbo model becomes available later this year.