Buick recently launched the Verano as its entry into the newly-burgeoning compact-luxury field, and I declared it at the top of its class -- not anything to get excited about, since the competition is limited to the aging Audi A3 and the overpriced Acura ILX. I liked the Verano's mini-LaCrosse personality, but I didn't care for the 2.4 liter engine -- both acceleration and fuel economy are mediocre, which I blame on the Verano's portly curb weight.
Enter the Turbo
For 2013, Buick has added a turbocharged 2.0 liter engine rated at 250 horsepower. For those who are counting, that's 70 more horses than the 2.4 liter Verano and 30 more than the 2-liter turbo in Buick's bigger Regal. And the fuel economy numbers aren't far off the non-turbo engine -- 20 MPG city/31 MPG highway for the manual (yep, you read that right) and 21/30 for the automatic, compared to 21/32for the 2.4 liter Verano.
Needless to say, the turbo Verano is a lot quicker than the 2.4 liter car. The engine can sustain 90% of its 260 lb-ft of torque between 1,700 and 5,500 RPM, so merging and passing are effortless, even if the transmission (or, in the case of the manual, you) hasn't/haven't quite picked the right gear.
What really impressed me is how well the engine is integrated into the car. Remember, the Verano is not meant to be a sports sedan; it's supposed to be a quiet luxury cruiser, a mission for which turbo fours aren't exactly the best qualified. But Buick's boffins have pulled it off -- the engine is smooth and well muted, with just a hint of exhaust bark under full throttle. (A member of the Verano team told me they went through a lot of exhaust systems trying to get the sound just right.) Even the manual transmission (a no-cost option) gets in on the act -- it's got a gentle, progressive clutch and light (if slightly long) shift throws. Impolite behavior such as torque steer and turbo lag have been all but eliminated.
The same unflappable demeanor applies to the handling. The suspension was stiffened slightly -- around 20%, says Buick -- with the all-season Continental tires identical to those on the 2.4 liter car. The Verano Turbo's ride is unfailingly smooth and serene; engineering efforts aimed at keeping the noise down extend all the way to flocked plastic in the glove compartment to keep your pens from rattling around. And yet the steering precision and grip in the curves is remarkable -- toss the Verano Turbo into a corner and it clings to the road as if it had magnets in the tires. It's a dual personality that reminds me a lot of the Cadillac XTS -- and that's a good thing.
A question that nobody asked
No question, Buick did an excellent job of adapting the turbo engine to the Verano. Still, after a half-day of driving, I found myself asking the same question I did when I reviewed the regular Verano: Who is going to buy it?
The whole compact-luxury segment is relatively new (although it might be more proper to say that it's been dead since the late '80s -- anyone remember the Buick Skyhawk?), so the market mindset is still emerging, but as with the regular Verano, I don't see a compelling argument in favor of the Turbo. People generally buy a smaller car because they want better fuel economy, and the Verano Turbo isn't exactly a mileage champ. We buy turbocharged cars because we want sportier performance, and while the VT certainly goes, turns and stops pretty well, it isn't exactly a thrill-packed ride.
Compounding the problem is the price. The turbo engine comes in the new top-of-the-line Verano Premium, priced at -- are you sitting down? -- $29,990. Granted, that includes ten airbags, heated leather, a Bose stereo and a blind-zone detection system (but no sunroof or nav; those are extra-cost options), but it's a $2,3,50 premium over the similarly-equipped-but-turbo-free Verano Leather (a description that, much to my chagrin, describes only the upholstery and not the whole car). It's also only about fifteen hundred bucks less than the Regal Turbo, which has less horsepower (220) and fewer airbags (six) but is a lot more thrilling to drive.
Competition is weak... for now
The Verano Turbo's saving grace is that the competition isn't exactly hitting it out of the park. Newest among them is the Acura ILX, which is overpriced and doesn't offer an automatic transmission or navigation in the hot-rod version. The Volvo C30 gets turbo power for under $27k, but it isn't avaialble with back doors. The Lexus CT 200h is pricier and concentrates on mileage rather than performance. And then there's the rapidly-aging Audi A3. Its two-liter turbo engine produces only 200 hp and its $28,000 price tag can swell to well over $40k with options, although it does offer a frugal diesel option, so it least it does the small-car thing better than the Verano. But this situation is soon to change -- Audi's new A3 is waiting in the wings and Mercedes and Infiniti both have compact front-wheel-drive cars on the way.
Still, the Verano Turbo does (for the moment) occupy its own little sweet spot: Bigger and nicer luxury cars like the Lexus ES, Infiniti G, and Cadillac ATS are priced at $35k on up, and while non-luxury branded cars like the Ford Focus Titanium offer high-end features, they don't have the Verano's luxury cachet. The turbo engine definitely adds to the Verano's appeal, and I think that as gas prices continue to climb, cars like the Verano will become more and more appealing. Still, I just can't help but feel that the Buick Verano Turbo isn't quite the solution we need. It's a very good car, but I don't think I'd spend my own money on one. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Buick Verano Turbo:
- Strong acceleration with little fuel economy penalty
- Quiet ride with better-than-expected handling
- Comfy front seats, big trunk
What I didn't like about the Buick Verano Turbo:
- Complex secondary controls
- Not particularly thrilling or thrifty
- New turbocharged version of compact Verano
- Price range: $29,990 - $32,730
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 MPG city/31 MPG highway (manual), 21/30 (automatic)
- Where built: United States
- Best rivals: Acura ILX 2.4, Volvo C30, Audi A3