"Big as a Buick" is a phrase that rolls easily off the tongue, and for good reason. For decades, one of this stalwart brand's consistent deliverables was sheetmetal and lots of it. That started becoming a problem, however, round about the days of the first gas crisis. Buick, like other GM divisions, rushed out a series of smaller entries, most of them called Skylark -- although a Skyhawk also snuck in there. And most of them were forgettably, or regrettably, restyled versions of cheap Chevrolets.
Those baby Buicks never were very good at distilling the brand's strengths into a smaller package; their only selling point was their smaller package.
A different baby Buick
For its latest attempt at a smaller offering, Buick shot down the Skylark nameplate -- wisely, in my opinion -- and went with something new. The Verano is hatched from the same egg (GM's Delta II architecture) as the Chevrolet Cruze and the Opel Astra. But whereas previous baby Buicks often had too much family resemblance to their GM siblings, this time not only do the Buick and the Chevrolet have unique body panels, but even the greenhouse is different. One might stop short of calling the Verano handsome -- Buick still seems to be searching for a cohesive design language that extends beyond the "waterfall grille" -- but the Verano looks nothing like a Cruze.
That's also true of the interior. The top-spec version features rich-feeling leather and contrast stitching, well-padded door panels, and plenty of wood and dark-metal trim. The front bucket seats are deeply pocketed and the steering wheel feels good. Buick's IntelliLink touch-screen interface is on hand, and it works pretty well. There's a 7-inch touch-screen (standard on all models) but also separate audio knobs and buttons. Speaking of buttons, the center stack has too many and they're too similar -- a situation that's common to most General Motors cars. And while we're picking nits, some of the interior fits were not very good.
Although the cabin is upscale, it is not large. The steeply raked windshield makes for a somewhat closed-in feeling up front, but the real issue is in the rear, where back seat space is tight. A six-foot adult can fit back there, but only just; headroom and legroom are at a premium. The Lexus HS250h is much better in this regard; so too is the only slightly bigger Acura TSX.
Bigger engine, bigger thirst
The Verano's 2.4-liter engine is larger than either of the two available powerplants in the Chevy Cruze. It delivers 180 hp and 171 pound-feet of torque, fed to the front wheels through a well-programmed six-speed automatic. That's a lot more spunk than you get in either of the Cruze engines, both of which are 138-hp. The Verano accelerates smartly, and the normally aspirated four makes for throttle response that's nicely linear.
All of that befits a compact that is more upscale than a workaday Cruze. The problem, though, is that the larger engine takes a toll in fuel economy. The Verano's 21/32 mpg doesn't befit a compact car; in fact, it would be only middling for a mid-size.
Buick's own mid-size Regal gets 25/36 mpg, with the eAssist powertrain, as does the even larger LaCrosse. The Verano does beat the Regal with the base engine and an automatic (19/31 mpg), but not by much. And several mid-size sedans do better than the Verano, most notably the Toyota Camry (25/35 mpg) and the Hyundai Sonata (24/35 mpg). The Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and Nissan Altima also all beat the Verano figures.
Smaller car, smaller price
Without great gas mileage as a calling card, a smaller Buick has to be a less-expensive Buick, and it is. Prices start at $23,470, which is more than $4000 under a Regal. My test car was the highest of the three trim levels, and included the aforementioned leather, heated seats and steering wheel, passive keyless entry, and rear park assist (but no camera). Add navigation and a sunroof, and you're still under $30k.
A Verano or...?
At the end of our data panel, we're supposed to identify some competitor cars. With the Verano, that was a bit of a head-scratcher. There are the two little Lexus models, the CT200h and the HS250h, but they're hybrids -- so they get significantly better fuel economy but they also cost a lot more. The Audi A3 is a premium compact but it's also a hatchback and it, too, is more expensive. The closest competitor may be the new Acura ILX; it's not out yet but will be soon.
The premium compact category is in its infancy in the U.S. car market. Credit Buick for getting there early. That doesn't mean, however, that its entry will be an easy sell. Buick's baby may be a bargain, but in America, it's hard to make a case for a small car unless it gets significantly better fuel economy than a bigger one.