First Drive: 2012 Buick Verano [Review]

Buick enters (mostly) new territory with its sub-Regal compact sedan. Does it stand out from the crowd? We find out.

One of the largest selling nameplates in China, Buick is also among the most historic brands in the General Motors portfolio.

This in-beteweener hasn't dabbled too much in the compact car segment over the years, but those few efforts that have gone before have not faired so well. Buick hopes that their new baby, the 2012 Buick Verano, breaks out and becomes a hit.

Venture with us to Portland, Oregon, to see if the new Verano has got what it takes.

This time is different
The last time Buick had a compact offering was with the wedge-shaped Skylark in 1997. Itself a compact powered by an economical 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder, it was a stopgap and not a means to an end. This new model is built on the General Motors Delta II platform, which is shared with the Chevrolet Cruze and the Chinese-built Buick Excelle GT. But don't get the idea that GM is back to their old badge engineering tricks of the past. Each of the new models is built in different factories and each features its own unique styling cues.

The Verano will be built in General Motors' Orion Assembly Plant in Orion, Michigan.

How big is big?
We like the overall size of the Verano, which translates to "adventure" in Italian and "summer" in Spanish. Roughly the same dimensions as the Chevrolet Cruze, it has an interior that feels anything but small, and in the case of this Buick, anything but bland.

Designed to compete against the likes of the Lexus IS 250 and the Audi A3 at the bottom of the luxury car market, it is the Buick brand's first foray into entry-luxury-compact vehicles. The arched greenhouse may appear similar to other cars in the segment, but the Buick-specific design cues then take over. Starting with the now familiar waterfall grille adorned in the center by a tri-shield crest, there's no mistaking these Buick roots. And to paraphrase the brand's old marketing mantra, "this ain't the old man's ride, either."

The Verano still manages to show off a touch of bling. But it's a Buick and we would expect nothing less. Starting with blue translucent projector beam headlights to the portholes located atop the hood, to the other flashes of chrome around the body, it tastefully applies just the right amount of shine to a pleasant shape. Our only criticism would be the chrome rear "eyebrows" that are placed directly above the red tail lamp lenses. We think they are longer than they have to be, and would offer more correct proportions if they were only as lengthy as the actual taillights.

Details matter
The inner trapings of the Verano go a long way toward hitting the mark on interior design. Starting with its driver-centric cockpit, Verano designers went to lengths to differentiate their vehicle from those offerings of the competition.

They still used the T-shaped dashboard layout that is separated by a center stack, but our test model featured two-tone beige leather and gray paneling with soft touch throughout, accented by light blue illumination on most of the gauges. The seats offered great support, even though they could stand deeper bolstering. The leather wrapped steering wheel with available heating elements offers control for most interior functions including voice recognition audio volume and channel selection and switches for the odometer and trip meter. By itself, the gauge layout is simplistic, offering speedometer, tachometer, fuel and water temperature gauges.

A seven-inch color-coupled monitor offers touchscreen control for everything from Pandora to Stitcher to SiriusXM satellite radio to Bluetooth streaming audio from smart phones thanks to Buick's IntelliLink infotainment system, Bose speakers and OnStar. The OnStar turn-by-turn navigation feature proved to us that it was no longer necessary to have a visual cue to follow the voice that tells us to "prepare to turn right in 300 yards."

We even had a chance to try out the OnStar emergency response system when a wayward farmer tried backing up his fifth-wheel trailer into the grille of our test car. While talking to OnStar to get the procedures for reporting an accident of a GM-owned vehicle, one of Newberg, Oregon's bravest showed up automatically to render aid, even though it wasn't necessary.

Buick's "Quiet Tuning" was another highly touted feature that managed to keep outside audibles at bay. NVH engineers used techniques and materials such as acoustically-laminated glass and structural adhesives as well as five layer fabric insulation in the headliner and injected foam in unibody gaps. The Verano managed a quiet ride except when we mashed the accelerator, when the engine became a very vocal participant, and over the coarse aggregate highway surfaces on the logging back roads of Oregon that would make a Bentley seem unbearable. Quiet Tuning even features reclaimed denim for sound insulation in the rear body structure, yet another creative way the auto industry is saving materials and money.

The Ecotec lives
We hate to say it, but wish that GM's marketing department were as good as its engine designers. If such was the case, the Ecotec brand name would have been more well known than Ford's similarly sounding Ecoboost moniker. In fact, since Ecotec existed way before the Ecoboost name was introduced, the Ford product might be called something else entirely.

Turning off the rant mode, we have driven this 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine before. Found in the Chevrolet Malibu and Equinox, among others,, it is back, stronger than ever. The dual-overhead cam engine now makes 180 horsepower, and 172 lb-ft of torque. To assist with more quiet operations, each cylinder has an oil jet that cools the piston sleeve, as well as offer additional lubrication and quieter performance. There is that q-word again, even though we still think it could use a little more capital Q. Direct injection enables it to make more power while burning less fuel. According to GM, this 2.4 Ecotec is also E85 compatible, but that is hardly one of the reasons we like it.

The Verano's drivetrain is equipped with GM's Hydr-Matic 6T45 six-speed automatic transmission. A refined version of the Equinox transmission, it offers row-it-yourself abilities by switching the shift lever to a +/- gate. It works fine enough and offers faster shift points then the transmission it replaces. We wish that in this case they offered paddle shift levers instead, so the driver's hands never needed to leave the steering wheel. While EPA ratings are being finalized, GM claims estimated mileage in the range of 21 city/31 highway.

The 3,300 lbs. Verano rides on 18-inch forged alloy twin spoke wheels and tires, with a pair of MacPherson struts in front, and a torsion beam axle with Watts-linkage in back. Jounces are handled in a lateral motion rather than an up down motion as seen in other vehicles. The added benefit of such a system, according to GM, is extra cargo room in the trunk. Steering comes from a rack-mounted ZF-sourced electric power system, which offered some of the best road feel that we've had in this segment.

Leftlane's bottom line
We found the 2012 Buick Verano offered extreme quiet on all but the worst roads, and good acceleration for a relatively modest price of entry. The way we see it, if the road noise gets unbearable, you can always mask it by increasing the dBs from the Bose system.

As for how Verano fits in the Buick portfolio; well, that's hard to guess. Priced below most rivals, it might very well find a previously unoccupied niche thanks to a generally premium feel throughout.

2012 Buick Verano base price, $23,470.