GM Seeks To Define Compact Luxury Very, Very Quietly
Every six months or so, we drive a car that exceeds our expectations. Such is the case with the all-new 2012 Buick Verano, the American automaker's fresh new entrant into the $25,000 compact luxury segment.
Wait a minute – what's this so-called "$25,000 compact luxury" segment?
Buick explains that there is a window of opportunity for a small luxury sedan priced below the Audi A3, Lexus IS 250 and Acura TSX sedan, but above the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze. After identifying the void, Buick's objective was to develop a vehicle that was quieter, more luxurious and better equipped than anything close to its $23,470 cost of entry. Even loaded with every option, the Verano won't exceed $29,000, a figure which cleanly undercuts all of the aforementioned luxury imports by several thousand dollars.
Buick flew us up to Portland, Oregon, last week for an opportunity to put more than 250 miles on its new Verano in the spectacularly scenic Northwest. We arrived intrigued, and left very impressed.
Buick's third new model in as many years debuted at this year's Detroit Auto Show. Its first compact since the Buick Skylark was dropped in 1999, the Verano (Spanish for "summer") is built on General Motors' Delta II platform, an architecture shared with the Chevrolet Cruze. But don't be mistaken that this is just another one of GM's ill-advised exercises in badge engineering – it isn't. The Verano shares some suspension underpinnings with its economy-oriented cousin, but the powertrain and cabin appointments scream upmarket Regal - or even baby LaCrosse.
Let's peel back the sheetmetal and take a closer look inside.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder model will arrive sometime in 2012.
Set behind the signature waterfall grille and beneath the silly do-nothing portholes on the hood is GM's Ecotech 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant that's shared with the Regal. A larger engine than the Cruze's 1.4-liter turbo and 1.8-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder choices, this all-aluminum engine features direct injection and continuous variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust to deliver 180 horsepower at 6,700 rpm and 171 pound-feet of torque at 4,900 rpm on regular fuel. The naturally aspirated, E85-capable engine is mated to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission (Hydra-Matic 6T45) sending power to the front wheels. With a curb weight of 3,300 pounds, Buick says the Verano will hit 60 mph from a standstill in 8.6 seconds – respectable for a vehicle promising an EPA rating of 21 mpg city and 31 mpg on the highway. If you are seeking a bit more punch, you'll want to wait for the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder model that Buick says will arrive sometime in 2012.
The front suspension is independent with MacPherson struts, while the rear is configured with a torsion beam augmented by a Watts Z-link design to keep things in check. There are disc brakes at all four corners, with single-piston steel calipers clamping down on 11.8-inch ventilated rotors up front and 11.5-inch solid discs in the rear. Standard wheels are 18-inch cast aluminum alloy, wearing 235/45R18 all-season tires at all four corners (there is also a compact temporary spare under the carpet in the trunk).
Buick has gone the extra mile, or two, to isolate the mechanical underpinnings and their associated operating noises from those within the cabin. Before sound makes its way to the ears of people riding in the Verano's cabin, it must figure out a way to permeate two damping mats on the firewall, nylon and foam baffles strategically located within hollow parts of the chassis, five layers of acoustic headliner, sound deadener on the underbody sheetmetal and trunk, triple-seal doors, 5.4-mm acoustic laminated windshield and 4.85-mm acoustic-laminated side glass. Even the brake and fuel lines have been isolated to prevent vibrations from entering the cabin. We've talked before about how hushed this car's more plebeian Bowtie cousin is, and the Verano's Quiet Tuning checklist muffles things even further.
In a luxury car, noise abatement is frivolous without a rich interior, and Buick has addressed this as well. For a base price of just $23,470 (including destination charge), passengers inside the Verano are treated to standard leatherette/fabric seating surfaces, cloth-wrapped A-pillars, dual-zone automatic climate control, a sliding center armrest, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, Bluetooth, remote engine start and full power accessories. A high-resolution seven-inch LED backlit touchscreen with GM's Intellilink technology (complete with voice control, integrated Pandora Internet radio and Stitcher application) is also standard on entry-level models.
Verano models equipped with the Convenience Group are fitted with rear park assist, heated side mirrors and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The Leather Group adds natural hides (the same high-grade skins are used in the LaCrosse), a power-operated driver's seat, push-button keyless start and an upgraded Bose audio system. Navigation and a heated steering wheel are about the only options. Even fully loaded, the new compact luxury car will not surpass $29,000.
We put more than 250 miles on the new Verano last week in Oregon. The scenery was spectacular, the weather was semi-cooperative and the other traffic on the forest roads was simply frightening; nothing is more stimulating than an 80,000-pound logging truck coming the opposite direction on a wet two-lane road at 65 mph (the Verano has ten standard airbags and GM says it should be an IIHS Top Safety Pick, but we didn't want to run any tests for them).
With such luxurious accommodations up front, it's easy to forget that the Verano is a compact car.
Strapped into the front left seat, the driver is presented with an instrument cluster that would be immediately familiar to a Regal owner. Two large analog dials (an 8,000 rpm tachometer and a seriously optimistic 170 mph speedometer) are visible directly through the steering wheel, with smaller coolant temperature and fuel level dials situated above. In the middle is a monochrome multifunction display with trip computer, odometer, and other engine information. The center stack houses the IntelliLink touchscreen at the top, audio/navigation controls in the middle and climate controls at the bottom. A traditional automatic transmission shift lever (PRND +/-) takes front billing on the center console, followed by the electronic parking brake and twin cupholders rimmed in chrome. With the exception of the oddly located start/stop button just below the touchscreen (leaving a strange growth on the side of the steering column on vehicles without it), everything seems logically placed.
We found both front chairs to be very comfortable. The driver's seat on our leather-equipped model was partially power-operated (just the lower cushion), while the front passenger's seat was purely manual in operation, but still adjustable for height (oddly, we genuinely liked it better than the driver's seat for overall comfort). Rear seating was tight for adults, requiring front occupants to slide forward a couple inches to fit everyone agreeably. Yet with such luxurious accommodations up front, it's easy to forget that the Verano is a compact car.
The view outward was good, but the steeply raked windshield means the jutting A-pillar takes some time to get used to as it sits very far forward. Buick has thoughtfully put fixed quarter light windows at the base of the A- and C-pillars to improve cabin light and peripheral vision, while others in this class just plug them with black plastic panels. They work well.
The all-season tires, low displacement engine and soft suspension all seem to throw in the towel together at about seven-tenths.
On the road, Buick's obsession with noise reduction became immediately evident. From the muted hum of the four-cylinder spinning under the steel hood to the barely discernible slapping of all-season rubber on the pavement, the Verano is one quiet little vault. Low interior noise meant conversation was easy and driving became much less tiresome. Even after 250-plus miles with only a few short stops, we weren't the least bit mentally drained and the supportive seats meant our vertebrae emerged unscathed.
The power from the 2.4-liter was adequate, but much of its steam was lost above legal speeds when attempting two-lane passing maneuvers. We did try a few slower twisty sections with the transmission held in manual mode, running it up to the 7,000 rpm fuel cutoff just to see what happened (it bounces madly on the limiter while dire warnings flash on the center multifunction screen). When pushed to the limit, the all-season tires, low-displacement engine and soft suspension all seem to throw in the towel together at about seven-tenths. It performed better than we expected, but it still won't run with the more expensive Acura TSX, Lexus IS250 or Audi A3 with any of us behind the wheel. Of course, those cars all cost more, and Buick offers the Regal GS for those who prefer performance over pampering.
Admittedly, we initially questioned the need for a compact luxury sedan from Buick (after all, don't centenarians generally prefer larger vehicles?). But after spending some time with the Verano, all joking aside, Buick's strategy appears quite solid.
The new Verano is a remarkable entry-level luxury effort. Its long list of standard features and upscale cabin make other compacts in this bracket look cheap and overvalued, and its tranquil cabin will appeal to anyone who has driven noisy cars costing many thousands more. Its sweeping electronics suite, including standard OnStar technology with crash response, will do its best to tempt younger buyers while Buick's comprehensive warranty with free courtesy transportation serves to sweeten the deal. Driving enthusiasts need not apply, but from just about every other angle, the 2012 Buick Verano makes a pretty compelling argument for itself.
New Car Test Drive
Sometimes when you least expect it, a star is born.
Buick compares the new Buick Verano to the Lexus IS 250 and Audi A3, and you'll get no dubious looks from us. When you consider the Verano costs thousands less, it looks even better. There's a healthy warranty of 4 years and 50,000 miles.
The Verano is a great looking car, with sleek stocky lines. Beautiful in black (Black Onyx), maybe better in chocolate (Mocha Bronze Metallic). It totally pulls off the wedge look, with a short nose, steeply raked windshield, and good character lines. It will be an impressive car to drive around. That's what Buicks have always been, and what they're supposed to be. What's especially impressive about Verano is that it's a compact car. It's six inches longer than the Mazda3, and three inches longer than the Lexus IS 250.
The interior is classy, with a rugged cloth upholstery in the base model and excellent leather especially in a rich brown. Interior shapes are smooth and the trim elegant, especially in satin bronze with brown leather. The center stack is powerful and graceful, bucket seats exceptional, and gauges beautiful.
We were impressed with the sporty character of the Verano. Cornering, transmission, suspension and engine, all aces.
The 2.4-liter Ecotec engine with direct injection and variable valve timing makes 180 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque, and that's enough for most situations. It's notably smooth and exceptionally quiet. A new 6-speed automatic transmission reacts appropriately whether you're driving casually or hard on the gas.
The Verano finds that sweet spot between good cornering and comfortable ride, a benefit of its Z-link rear suspension. We found the handling crisp and responsive. The brakes were firm, also.
The 2012 Buick Verano lineup is simple but confusing, with three models that don't exactly have names, more like codes: 1SD (D for base model), 1SG (G for Convenience), and 1SL (L for Leather). They all use the 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder Ecotec engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Verano ($22,585) comes standard with fabric seats with leatherette trim, dual auto climate control, 7-inch display screen with Bluetooth, OnStar remote keyless entry, foglamps, and 18-inch alloy wheels. Verano Convenience ($23,785) adds 6-way power driver's seat, heated mirrors, and rear park assist. Options include the Bose sound system and leather upholstery.
Verano Leather ($26,000) upgrades to leather upholstery, heated leatherette steering wheel, pushbutton start, Bose sound system, and IntelliLink, which integrates portable devices with a smart phone.
Navigation, sunroof and premium paint are options for all three models.
Safety equipment includes 10 airbags, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, tire pressure monitor, and OnStar.
The Buick Verano is a great looking car, with especially great lines. Beautiful in black. It totally pulls off the wedge look, short-nosed but still sleek. It will be an impressive car to drive around. That's what Buicks have always been, and what they're supposed to be. What's especially impressive about Verano is that it's a compact car.
Hooray! at last General Motors is paying attention to wheels. The new aluminum wheels are graceful 10-spokes, either standard or upgrade.
The trademark portholes appear, never mind that they're not holes. They couldn't go on the side of the fender basically because it's too shapely, so now they're almost horizontal, showing better to tall people.
The headlights are nice, clean, not overdone on the angularity. Even the grille looks okay, unmistakably Buick, not scaled down much. Except never mind again that it too is faux. Just solid black plastic, grooved and coated to make shiny silver vertical slats, not a single peek through to the radiator. Air comes in through invisible black mesh (black or chocolate paint) under the bumper. Grilles are no longer grilles, they've turned into emblems.
The long chrome eyebrows extending way past the taillights, a creative use of chrome, gives the rear end a face, a character, with those mean eyes. The rear fascia is clean, and doesn't detract, though one tester found it bland. One small understated tailpipe. A dark color, like the elegant chocolate (Mocha Bronze Metallic), enhances the lines. In lighter shades, such as the pearlescent White Diamond Tricoat, it looks a bit dated from the rear.
Chrome trim around the window line. Behind the short C pillar there's a small rear quarter-window, more visible from the inside than the outside, on account of being blacked out. It has chrome door handles rather than clean body-colored, but that might be expecting too much. It's a Buick, make no apologies.
The seats offer the kind of bolstering that the cornering ability (we'll get to that) demands. There isn't anything old-man-like about them. The seats were designed from scratch for the Verano, after about 1000 hours of seat time by testers, from large men to small women. Even with all that input and compromise, we'll be darned, they came up with something that's way comfortable and supportive and sporty.
The leather in the Verano Leather model looks real classy in brown, although it's not the richest leather we've ever felt, but what do you want for a $26,000 car that gives you so much else, including a Bose sound system? In the lighter shades it didn't look rich but it didn't look bad.
The cloth seats that come standard are rugged, nothing old-lady-like about them. In fact the cloth is so rugged it's a bit coarse, and over long distances you might wish for leather.
The interior of the base cloth Verano is as nice as the Leather one, for the most part. Graceful grab handles come in a sweet satin bronze with the brown leather interior, so does trim on the doors and center stack; otherwise it's satin aluminum or wood. All the shapes inside are right, especially the center stack with its powerful arc like a big wave, toward the dashboard. The interior materials used for the dash, steering wheel, and some of the door trim is mediocre, average for the class, and looks like hard plastic in places.
The tachometer and speedometer are gorgeous, elegant in ice blue and easy to read. Digital info between them, easy to read but less easy to scroll through, on the left stalk with push-and-twist movements and access tricks like menus and stuff. The center stack has good buttons and dials, no problem to manipulate or understand. Nice armrests including center armrest that slides forward, but the door pockets might be bigger. The start button is just another button on the center stack but we had no trouble finding it.
Rear legroom is scarce; a tall guy behind a tall guy won't work. The specs say 33.9 inches of rear-seat legroom, which is 2.3 inches less than the Mazda3 but 2.3 inches more than the Lexus IS 250. The back seats are good only for occasional use.
The trunk is a decent 15.2 cubic feet in the lesser model with a space-saving spare, but only 14.0 cubic feet in the upper model with a full-size spare and the Bose sound system, two features we would want on our Verano.
We didn't get a chance to test IntelliLink, but we got off on the wrong foot with the navigation system. Biggest street in town, North Springbrook, the nav wouldn't show us. Not under 'springbrook,' not under 'north,' only under 'n springbrook,' third try, back to scratch each time. It makes you learn its language, and if you're lucky you won't keep coming up against these things.
OnStar is standard, so you can always press the OnStar button if you get lost and a real operator will offer to provide directions. More important, if you crash and set your airbag off, the OnStar operator will ask whether you're okay and will direct the rescue squad to your location if you don't respond.
We're pretty much blown away by the great cornering. We drove 250 miles over some great driving roads in the Tillamook Forest, just inland of the Oregon coast. The Verano loved it all and so did we.
One engine, one transmission, and for this kind of money it's great stuff, especially as it delivers 27.5 miles per gallon with the kind of spirited driving we did. The 2.4-liter Ecotec engine with direct injection and variable valve timing makes 180 horsepower and 171pound-feet of torque, and that's enough for lots of fun. It never frustrated us with lack of acceleration, and impressed us with how smooth and quiet quiet quiet it was.
Don't count on a lot of torque at 3000 rpm. Indeed, we found the response sluggish when merging from around a tight onramp into flying Jersey traffic. But the power comes on good once at 4000 rpm and willingly pulls to 6000. Redline is a screaming 6700 rpm.
Fun can't happen without the right transmission, and the new 6-speed automatic complements the package nicely, being smooth and intelligent. It upshifts sharply at 6000 rpm and beyond.
The rear suspension uses an uncommon Z-link, to center the rear axle in turns and help the car achieve balance. Bolted to a frame crossmember, the Z-link consists of a pivoting center link attached via joints at its ends, to links that go to the wheels. It works for us. We found a secret spot with 16 miles of relentless rhythmic curves (and no traffic!), and this Buick put a big smile on our face. The turn-in was so crisp and responsive! We used the firm brakes pretty hard, and they felt good. The upward motion of the suspension was too sharp at times, however.
The Buick Verano gets top scores for styling, transmission, cornering, comfort, engine and interior. Price and fuel economy make it a winner. We recommend considering it when shopping for a premium compact, such as a Lexus IS or Volvo S40.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive near Portland, Oregon.
Buick Verano 1SD ($22,585), Verano 1SG ($23,785), and 1SL ($26,000).
Options As Tested
Buick Verano 1SL ($26,000).
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