By Roger Boylan
Do you like American compact cars? Have you ever desired an Escort, or yearned for a Chevette? I thought not. Many, if not most, of our homegrown compacts have been duds. I still shudder when I think of the Dodge Neon I once briefly owned. Not that there haven’t been some bright spots here and there: The Ford Focus has always been a pretty good car, and the Chevrolet Corvair made automotive history—the wrong kind, but hey. These days, the Cruze and Sonic look promising, as do the Fiesta and revamped Focus. Still, by and large, the best part of the compact-car market in this country has been dominated by imports, whose dimensions are dictated by the price of fuel and the exigencies of urban geography in their home countries, and engineered accordingly. My guess is that most American compacts have been bought for want of anything better, by college kids and the chronically hard-up (I fell into the latter category when I signed on the dotted line for my Neon).
It’s nice, then, to announce that we finally have a domestic compact worthy of being coveted. Meet the Verano (Spanish for “summer”), Buick’s first compact since the very unlamented Skylark, which expired in 1997. The Verano starts at $22K and, depending on how extensively you load it up, can command as much as $30K. These are reasonable prices for what you get: a premium domestic compact ready to take on the Acuras and Lexi on their own turf. Actually, the Verano’s not entirely domestic, and it’s not that compact, either: It shares its “Global Compact Vehicle” (ex-Delta II) platform with the Cruze and the Volt and their British and German cousins, the Vauxhall and Opel Astras, all on the small side but hovering on the brink of midsize. The Verano, at 109 in. long, is almost there, according to EPA specs.
Still, by Buick’s traditional standards, the Verano’s a shrimp, and in a smallish car any trace of European DNA is welcome. Result: That once-unthinkable oxymoron, a fun-to-drive Buick. Indeed, it felt more European than American to me, so much so that I found myself using the manual mode on the 6-speed automatic transmission more often than not. The gear lever, wrapped in a fetching leather sleeve, just felt more natural being shifted by hand. Not that the auto tranny was a disappointment; quite the opposite. It shifted smoothly and accurately, with no hesitation, right up to rev limits. The car responded well, too. It was fun to run through the winding back roads of the Texas Hill Country, that gorgeous patch of real estate that sprawls on my doorstep. The Verano’s steering was responsive and precise, thanks to the tuning of the rack-mounted electrically assisted power steering (EPS). It’s one of the reasons for the Germanic feel. Also, the steering wheel, fat and leather-wrapped, fits nicely in the hands, and gives a sporting impression.
The front seats, leather-bound and heated in my upscale tester, are as plush and comfortable as those in larger Buicks or other premium brands, but if you push them back all the way for maximum legroom, aft seating space is seriously compromised, rendering the rear seats fit mainly for amputees or leprechauns—or small kids. With the front seats pulled forward part of the way, however, you can fit an adult or two in the back, or a couple of kids with a little room to spare, but it’s best to regard the Verano as essentially a four-passenger car. The rest of the interior is elegantly laid out, with muted light and dark gray accents, “wood” inserts that are unmistakably faux but attractive nonetheless, and, below the easy-to-read 7-in. touchscreen, a relatively unfussy center stack with just a few enigmatic buttons to puzzle over. But it’s all pretty intuitive, and you’re soon clued in. In addition to standard OnStar, my Verano came with push-button start, dual-zone climate control, and a heated steering wheel. Buick’s IntelliLink multimedia system, standard on the Verano, is similar to the Sync and Entune systems from Ford and Toyota, respectively. It can stream Internet radio to the stereo from applications like Pandora and Stitcher, and displays all kinds of info on the touchscreen: it’s distracting, so ration yourself.
Voice commands and audio functions are controlled by touch, voice, or buttons on the steering wheel. Up front, the speedometer and its companion gauges are backlit in a soothing aqua blue, the ensemble bestowing a real touch of class on the car. Storage is adequate, and hideaways are numerous. Anything you can’t fit into the passenger cab will probably go into the trunk; the Verano boasts 15.2 cu. ft. of space back there. That doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but the trunk is open and well-designed, without intrusive hinges or humps, and its low (29-in.) lift-over height makes loading a full week’s family grocery shopping an easy task.
Other reviewers have griped about the 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine being underpowered, with 180 horses (and 171 lb.-ft. of torque), and that’s their privilege, but, while more power is always welcome, I–sunny Jim that I am–thought the little 4 did the job more than adequately. Of course, I cut my teeth on cars with around 30 hp under the hood, so 180 is a figure I can live with. The Verano certainly feels anything but sluggish on the road. I got it to do a 0-60 scoot in a tick over 8.5 sec.: not Grand Prix material, but from behind the wheel the car somehow feels faster than that. Anyway, a 250-hp turbo 4 is on its way.
All this forward motion happens in a tomb-like hush. This is without question the quietest small car I’ve ever driven, and it should be, stuffed as it is with sound-deadening material. The dash is insulated from end to end, the windows are all laminated, and soundproofing underneath muffles road noise. Fuel economy, one of the traditional advantages of smaller engines, was another plus. Even with an unstinting lead foot, I got an average of 25.9 mpg, according to the driver info center—let’s exaggerate wildly and say 26, shall we? That’s the EPA estimate of the Verano’s average mileage, splitting the difference between 22 city and 31 highway. I easily equaled that in mixed driving, and all on good old 87-octane; the Verano’s direct competitors, the Lexus IS and Acura TSX, require premium fuel. Safety–ten airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability system, etc.–is tops, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which declared the Verano to be a Top Safety Pick.
Although mine was the sole Verano on the roads around here, it didn’t attract much attention. For one thing, it was silver, the most invisible (boring?) color. For another, although the car’s lines are trim and crisp, overall it’s discreet to a fault. From a distance it looks like any number of other up-to-date small cars, but if you look hard, and few will, you’ll spot the Buick cues: the waterfall grille, the prominent tri-shield badge, the fake hood louvers. Good-looking 18-in. alloy wheels are standard, with six slender spokes. There’s a tad too much chrome for my taste, especially around the tail lights, but overall it looks sufficiently different not to be confused with the Cruze.
The Verano is the third new or redesigned Buick in as many years, enabling GM’s distinguished old brand to offer entry luxury at a price affordable to the hoi polloi. It’s elegant, nimble and fun to drive. Reliability is unknown, but according to Consumer Reports there are ominous signs in the dismal track record so far of its cousin, the Chevy Cruze. [The CR data reflects problematic early-production cars. Overall, fresher data from TrueDelta.com shows the 2011 Cruze a know be above-average in reliability.] However, the premium elements in its construction and engineering that distinguish the Verano from the Cruze might work in its favor in terms of durability. Buicks have generally had to be pretty reliable, because of their target market: You don’t want Grandpa to find himself stranded in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night. But the new Buick has a different demographic in its sights. Only time will tell.