Not too long ago, when Buick and Pontiac (and farther back, Oldsmobile) occupied a vague middle ground that was more premium (or sportier-flavored) than Chevrolet but not as luxurious as Cadillac, it seemed that many Buicks were merely thinly disguised, cosmetically different versions of what you might find at the Chevrolet dealership, for thousands less. And often, they were.
Now with those other brands mothballed, it seems that 'badge engineering' is truly out at GM, and Buick is again finding its focus. The all-new 2012 Buick Verano is a prime example. It stands proud with Buick badging, with big trishield Buick emblems over the grille, on the rear, and on the steering wheel. It comes with an interior—along with features and appointments—that are undeniably a step up from entry-market. And it offers a more refined experience plus better performance than you'd find in the most affordable cars its size—in the end, for what's closer to Chevy money than Cadillac money.
The Verano is the smallest Buick to come to market in a while. At about 184 inches long, it's on the cusp between compact and mid-size—and virtually the same size, in nearly every dimension, as the Chevrolet Cruze. Given GM's product history, it's easy to jump to conclusions. But first off, Buick insists that the Verano isn't just a badge-engineered Cruze. The Verano comes with a different powertrain; it shares very few parts with the Cruze; and it doesn't share any structural components with the Cruze above the floorpan. And if you need any further proof, the two sedans are even assembled at different plants altogether: The Verano is assembled at the Lake Orion, Michigan plant that used to make the Pontiac G6 (and now also makes the Sonic), while the Cruze is made at Lordstown, Ohio.
Like a big sedan, sized down
At first look, it's the long, arching roofline that helps give the Buick Verano proportions that are closer to those of the smaller LaCrosse than a larger small car. Otherwise, the look is very conservative. The Verano's flanks have clean, flowing sheetmetal, with a subtle accent beltline; and the vertically straked grille, low hood and large, detailed headlamps (with hints of blue) call it out as a Buick. Chrome has been overused as an accent in recent years, but Buick has (mostly) done it tastefully; we especially liked the light strokes of chrome that angle around the rear corners then angle downward toward the center in back. But as for the Buick 'ventiports,' which find their way again to the Verano's front fenders...we bet they're still going to be seen as a bit tacky by the younger, more affluent crowd the brand is trying to attract.
Early on in a day spent driving the Verano, we nicknamed it the incredible shrinking car—because every time we stepped out to switch drivers, it looked more compact from the outside than it felt from the inside. The Verano's interior packaging is quite conventional, but it really feels like a mid-size car inside. Front seats are supremely comfortable, and the driver's seat adjusts into such a wide range of positions that this 6'-6” driver would be comfortable on an all-day—or, for that matter, cross-country—drive. This is one of the best vehicles on the market for long-legged drivers; I didn't even need the seat back all the way. On the other hand, the 2012 Verano has a decent back seat, with enough comfort and headroom for most adults, but the need to juggle legroom between the front and back is the only compromise—and the only real reminder that this isn't quite a mid-size car. The trunk is huge, too.
Our test car, for most of the time—one of the top-level models, at $26,850—had a beautiful Choccachino leather interior; but we also took a short drive in a base model ($23,470) with light-beige combination cloth-and-leatherette and think we'd be nearly as happy with that combination. Materials, detailing, fit, and finish in our “early sale production” models were every bit as good as, if not better than, you'd find in a Lexus IS, ES, or HS.
Quiet-tuned—and they mean it
One key phrase you hear often from the Buick team when discussing this car is “quiet-tuning.” As with most of the other models from this brand, Buick is making an effort to differentiate the 2012 Verano from other models in its class by making the driving experience remarkably quiet and stress-free. And you're likely to notice before you even start the engine is that the Verano is quiet. Thanks to triple-sealed doors, laminated side glass, an acoustic laminated windshield, a woven-acoustic-material headliner, and the extensive use of other sound deadeners like foams, baffles, mats, and shredded jean denim, the Verano is very, very quiet inside. 18-inch alloy wheels are standard, too; as Buick says, they give the Verano a better ride and help cut road noise versus steel wheels.
From the outside, the four-cylinder engine makes a little direct-injection racket, but you don't hear any of it inside. Buick even went so far as to have someone walk around the car with a gasoline leaf blower, having us open and close the windows and doors to show off all the insulation. It's very impressive.
If you've wondered why we've held off on actual moving-vehicle driving impressions until this point in the story, there's a reason for it. It's nothing bad—simply that the Verano is a comfortable-riding, quiet car above a performance car. But you probably knew that...