General Motors' sprawling Milford Proving Grounds has seen plenty of bizarre creations in its eight-plus decades of operation, from Firebird turbine concepts to a V-16 Cadillac Escalade. And now there's this: a compact Buick sedan stuffed with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission.
OK, that last one, which we just saw at the Proving Grounds, isn't quite as wild, but it is rather unusual. And it's no one-off. The 250-hp Verano Turbo goes into production at the end of this year, and, if you so desire, Buick will sell you one with a manual.
The Verano is already something of a brave endeavor for Buick. Premium compacts are still something of a novel concept in the U.S. market, and Buick doesn't exactly have a lot of equity with small-car buyers. Through five months this year, Buick has sold some 11,500 Veranos, all powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder. That's roughly how many Chevrolet Cruzes move off dealer lots in two busy weeks but is pretty impressive considering the Buick has a base price some $6000 higher than its Chevy cousin. We've found the base car, with its 180-hp engine, to be a competent performer, keeping in mind that its real selling point is the richly appointed, tomb-quiet interior.
That cabin will still be a big reason to buy the Verano Turbo. So will the list of standard features, which includes heated leather seats, push button start, a seven-inch touch screen infotainment system, eighteen-inch wheels, a backup camera, blind-zone detection, and cross-traffic detection for a base price that'll likely fall just under $30,000.
But the Turbo's most compelling attribute is a surprisingly stacked stat sheet. The Verano employs a slightly detuned version of the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder offered in the Regal GS, producing 250 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to shuttle this 3520-pound sedan from 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, Buick says. We are thus talking about one of the quicker compact cars on the market.
Despite all those bragging rights, Buick is careful -- obsessive even -- about making clear this is not a performance car like the Regal GS. "I don't think you want to play in the 'GS' space with this car," says Gary Altman, vehicle chief engineer. "Frankly, to me, it doesn't have the appearance to play in it. And I don't think the customer is looking for it," he adds. To that end, the suspension is tightened up with firmer dampers and higher-effort electric power steering, but it will still be biased toward ride comfort. Brakes, bushings, wheels, tires, and antiroll bars carry over. So does the bevy of sound-deadening materials that make the base Verano a serenely quiet vehicle -- don't expect a howling exhaust note.
Aesthetic changes are limited to dual exhaust outlets, a small "T" badge, and a decklid spoiler. Alas, the faux portholes have survived the engine swap. The interior, likewise, looks identical to that of a well-equipped 2.4-liter Verano save for a set of drilled aluminum pedals and that stick shift in the center console, if you get the manual (a no cost-option). Buick audaciously points out that it "offers more manual transmissions than Ferrari and Lamborghini combined." (Hint: Ferrari no longer offers any manual-equipped vehicle.) Most -- we'd guess nearly all -- customers will be just fine with the six-speed automatic.
Buick has not yet announced fuel economy but promises better than 30 mpg on the highway. We'd guess the Verano Turbo will fall about 1 mpg short of the 2.4-liter Verano, which achieves 21 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Those are hardly stellar figures by modern compact car standards, but they do compare pretty closely with sporty competitors like the Jetta GLI (22/33 mpg), the soon-to-be-redesigned Audi A3 (21/30 mpg), and the new Acura ILX (22/31 in 200-hp form). And the Verano has a significant power advantage over any of those offerings.
Will anyone care? Despite the availability of a manual transmission, we doubt many sport compact enthusiasts will pony up nearly $30,000 for a four-door sedan that looks like a downsized LaCrosse. Buick thinks the Turbo will instead attract customers downsizing from V-6-powered luxury sedans like the Lexus IS and the Infiniti G25 but concedes there's not an established customer base here. "We sort of perform in a space that's unique to ourselves," says Altman.
That space won't be empty for long. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, among others, are readying compact, front-wheel-drive offerings. Credit Buick for getting there so quickly, and with such a quick car at that.
Base Price: $29,500 (Est)
Engine: 2.0L four-cylinder, 250 hp, 260 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual
Fuel economy: 21/31 mpg est
On sale: Late 2012