By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The “key facts” press release that came with the 2013 Buick Verano I test-drove this week states that target competition is primarily the Lexus IS 250 and Acura TSX, which are entry-luxury (and compact-sized) sport sedans.
Ok, sure — especially when Verano is equipped with the new-for-’13 2.0 liter, 250 hp turbo engine and (yes!) six-speed manual transmission.
In that case, it kills them both on price — and matches or beats them on straight-line performance (especially the slow-mo and way overpriced $35,065 to start Lexus, which tops out at just 204 hp and needs 8 embarrassingly long seconds to creep to 60… 8.3 if your order it with AWD).
But I think Buick is missing a marketing opportunity. While the Verano stacks up well against those relatively low-volume (and fairly high-priced) entry-luxury sport sedans, it could do some real damage if the nearly half-million people annually who buy a new Toyota Camry took the time to cross shop Verano.
Which they ought to.
They’re priced about the same ($23,080-$29,105 for the Buick vs. $22,055-$30,115 for the Toyota) and though the technically mid-sized Camry is slightly larger on the outside than the technically compact Verano, the Buick actually has almost as much interior space (more space, in at least one key area) with appreciably less space in only one area (backseat legroom).
And both cars are soft cars — Gentle Bens, with one-finger steering and ultra-cush rides. Only the Buick is cusher — and nicer.
But without being — and this is key — an old fogey’s car.
This Buick is a lot like Buicks used to be, ages ago. When they were classy, stylish, sporty — and cush. But not geezermobiles, either.
Which let’s face it, the Camry has become.
WHAT IT IS
The Verano is Buick’s smallest model, but it actually checks out not-too-far from being mid-size if you compare its length, width and several interior measurements to the best-selling mid-size sedan on the market, Toyota’s Camry.
The models Buick mentions as target competition — the Lexus IS 250 and Acura TSX — are about the same size as the Verano — but they’re also several things the Verano’s not. For openers — and most obviously — they’re both a lot more expensive: $30,065 to start for the TSX and $35,065 to start for the Lexus.
The Verano starts at $23,080.
And for just under $30k ($29,105) you can buy a top-of-the-line turbo Verano.
That sum wouldn’t get you into the base trim versions of either the TSX or the IS250. It’s also less coin than Toyota asks for a top-line Camry V-6, which though fairly powerful is also fairly boring — and can’t be had with a stick.
So, you might consider the Verano a more youthful alternative to the dowager queen of mid-sized comfort cars (the Camry) or a steal of a deal compared with same-size entry-luxury sport sedans like the Lexus IS and Acura TSX.
Buick added Verano to the lineup in 2012 as an all-new model.
The big news for 2013 is the addition of a sporty Turbo trim to the lineup. It includes a 250 hp 2.0 liter turbo four and — wait for it — your choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Competitors like the IS 250 and Camry are automatic-only. And the Acura TSX offers a manual only with its base (low-powered) engine.
Soft and quiet in a world of harsh and loud.
Not too soft — or too old.
Immediately comprehensible, easy-to-operate controls.
A clutch! In a Buick!
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base-engined Verano’s on the slow side.
It has an absurdly tiny center console storage compartment.
The push-button start for the ignition might be made larger — and set apart from the other buttons.
Backseat’s a little tight, legroom-wise.
UNDER THE HOOD
Last year, the Verano came with just one engine/transmission combo: A 2.4 liter four (180 hp) and six-speed automatic. It was — and still is … ok. It gets you from A to B. Not quickly — it takes about 9 seconds, which is slow in view of today’s typical average of 8-ish seconds or less — but reasonably efficiently: 21 city, 32 highway.
Still, nothing to write home about. Much less brag about.
This year, there is something to write home about: Not only has Buick put a 250 hp 2.0 liter turbo four into the mix, you can get this engine with a manual transmission — a feature not even offered in several competitors, as mentioned above.
So equipped, the Verano’s zero to 60 time drops to about 6.6 seconds, which is more than just ok.
In fact, it’s exactly as quick as the V-6 equipped Camry — and nearly as quick as the much more expensive Acura TSX with its optional 3.5 liter V-6 (6.4 seconds).
And it’s much quicker than the slo-mo and even more expensive Lexus IS250, which comes only with a 204 hp 2.5 liter V-6 and automatic — which makes it feel even slower than it is.
Interestingly, the turbo Verano is also a lot quicker than its own sibling, the Regal GS — which is heavier and only gets a 220 hp version of the 2.0 turbo four. The turbo Regal GS also costs about $5k more: $34,980 to start. Just food for thought — if you can deal with a bit less backseat legroom (more on this below).
Best part? The Verano’s turbo engine nearly matches the fuel-efficiency of the underpowered 2.4 liter non-turbo base engine: 20 city, 31 highway.
That’s also dead heat with the Camry V-6 (21 city, 30 highway), the underpowered (and $35k to start) IS250 — also 21 city, 30 highway — and slightly better than the $39k V-6/automatic Acura TSX (19 city, 28 highway).
All Veranos are FWD. Ditto the Camry and TSX.
The Lexus IS250 is based on a RWD layout and is available with AWD — but as mentioned above, when so equipped it’s only slightly less slow than the base-engined Verano, while costing literally almost $15k more.
One caveat: An all-new IS is on deck for 2014. It may — or may not — offer more power/value for the dollar. We’ll know more by late summer 2013.
Prospects who don’t mind The Slows might also want to check out the new Acura ILX. At $25,900 to start, it’s more affordable than the TSX — but also needs 9 seconds to reach 60. A version is available with a larger, more powerful 2.4 liter (201 hp) engine and six-speed stick, but it’s still not nearly as quick. The big draw of the ILX is its available 1.5 liter/hybrid powertrain — which can get close to 40 MPG. But at the price of 10.4 seconds to 60 — best case.
ON THE ROAD
The most distinctive — the exceptional — thing about this car is that it’s both sporty and a softie. If that sounds oxymoronic, bear with me and I’ll try to explain. Buy the turbo 2.0 engine and the thing will go. The fact that you can go manual only adds to the sporty feel. But in contrast to common practice — especially when a higher-performance engine is ordered — the Verano turbo’s ride quality is still exceptionally smooth, quiet and comfortable. Buick hasn’t forgotten how a Buick ought to behave. The best comparison I could come up with to convey the sensation is memory foam. The way the car conforms to less than perfect roads — absorbs dips and other defects such that you hardly know you just traversed them. And it does so without the usual affliction of bounciness.
These are driving qualities not often encountered in a modern car — especially a modern turbo car. It brought memories of the early ’70s Buicks, like the old GSX — which had the muscle of the Chevy SS Chevelle, but without the Chevelle’s roughness. Also, the mid-late 1980s Regal GNs. Those also had turbos — and were fierce in a straight line. But also plush and civilized the rest of the time.
The Verano is a lot like that.
Perhaps because it — like its ancestors — is gifted with seats more befitting a luxury car than a sports car (or sport sedan). They are not the cinch-you-in heavily bolstered buckets that are typical equipment in current-era sport sedans. These have give. Like the suspension, though, they’re not too soft. I think they’re dead-on perfect for on-street driving. This business of putting race-track seats in street-driven cars is (mostly) silly. An SS 396 Chevelle was a beast in the quarter-mile. As it was on the street. The GSX 455 was also a beast in the quarter — but it didn’t beat you up the rest of the time. Again, same here as regards this modern incarnation of Buick-style performance and everyday liveability.
Another example: The steering. It is electrically-assisted and feather light. This is how steering used to be set up in luxury-touring cars — and even some (Buick) performance cars. The upside? It’s easy to steer — and easy is another way of saying comfortable. Which is another way — the old school way — of saying luxurious.
The whole point of owning a luxury car, once upon a time, was that it coddled you, relaxed you. This the Verano does perhaps better than any car within $20k of its maxxed-out price.
Not only is it supremely composed, it is also supremely quiet — courtesy of features such as acoustically laminated glass. This is an exceedingly rare feature to find in a car whose MSRP doesn’t exceed $30k. (I had a Jaguar a few months back that had acoustic laminated glass. It also had a six figure sticker.)
I also want to mention — because it’s very much worth mentioning- the ease of use of all the Verano’s controls. Knobs and buttons — just the right size (not too small or too big) and whose functions are immediately comprehensible as well as effortlessly, immediately functional. Last week, I reviewed the Cadillac ATS. It’s a nice car, but it has the now-typical electrified whatzit controls that make luxury cars harder-to-operate cars than they ought to be. In the ATS, you have to repeatedly finger-swipe a narrow band of touch-sensitive metal — or repeatedly push a microwave oven-like flat panel — to get stuff done. In Verano, if you want to increase the volume of the stereo, you… turn a knob to the right. To reduce volume, turn it to the left. It can be done by feel, without thinking about it. Likewise changing the station or activating any other function. So… easy… effortless… calming… relaxing… .
Just one small beef: The push-button for the keyless ignition is kind of small — and mounted too close to other controls on the center stack. Usually, the Start/Stop button is off by itself someplace — for the obvious reason. You may inadvertently push the Buick’s button while the car is moving. The good news is the Buick will ask you first before actually turning off the engine while you’re running 70 MPH.
AT THE CURB
The Verano’s a slick piece of work here as well. And I don’t mean just its looks.
Rather, look at its measurements. At 183.9 inches long overall, it is just over five inches shorter, bumper to bumper, than a Camry (189.2 inches). But the Buick gives you 42 inches of front-seat legroom — vs. 41.6 inches in Camry. Trunk space is close, too: 14.3 cubic feet for the Verano vs. 15.4 for Camry.
To be fair to the poor Toyota, you would get an extra 4.6 inches of backseat legroom (38.9 inches vs. 34.3 inches) and that’s no small thing. But if you don’t routinely carry a pair of full-size adults in the back seats, backseat legroom might be a third or fourth tier issue. Front seat space, on the other hand, is something the driver and his primary passenger must live with every time, all the time.
Incidentally, the Lexus IS has virtually nonexistent backseat legroom: 30.6 inches.
The Acura TSX does better, with a very impressive (given the size of the overall package) 42.4 inches of front seat legroom and 34.3 inches of backseat legroom. But, again, it’s hard to fairly do a direct comparison given the Acura starts out nearly $7k more than the Buick. And don’t forget: For that $30k, you get a four-cylinder (and 204 hp, 8 second to 60) TSX vs. a turbo’d four (and 250 hp and 6.6 seconds to 60) Buick… with a manual transmission.
And the base ($23k) Verano’s no Blue Lite Special, either — though it does come with cool-looking ice blue backlighting. Also standard: 18 inch wheels, six-speaker stereo with satellite radio, keyless ignition, automatic climate control, a seven inch LCD infotainment screen in the center stack, Bluetooth and Buick’s IntelliLink voice-controlled electronics interface. You can use this to stream podcasts through the car’s stereo as well as make hands-free phone calls.
For $23k, that’s a lot. Compare what the Verano gives you vs. what the $22k Camry does — or for that matter, the $35k Lexus IS (or $30k TSX).
You can order a Leather group, which (obviously) adds leather seat covers and trim — as well as heated seats and steering wheel, plus a Bose premium stereo. Also available is a Convenience group that adds heated outside mirrors, blind spot warning system, rear park sensors and six-way power driver’s seat.
Both options packages come standard in the Verano turbo.
I found myself liking this car — a lot. It is reasonably priced, outstandingly comfortable and sufficiently fun to drive on top of that.
Just being able to surprise people by showing them the clutch pedal is almost worth buying it. But it’s more than just that — though that is a pretty big deal all by itself (how ironic is it that it’s easier to get a manual transmission these days in a Buick than in an Acura or Lexus?)
The thing that sways me most is how vividly the Verano brought back memories — good memories — of what was best about luxury cars 20 or 30 years ago. But without the downsides of wallowy handling and Old Man Ambiance.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buick’s doing it right.
Which is why Buick survives.
And may just thrive.