Driver's Seat: Verano offers Buick luxury on a budget

The Buick Verano gets up to freeway speeds fairly briskly while coddling its occupants, all for $26,850.

2012 Buick Verano 1SL front-wheel drive: A baby Buick.

Price: $26,850 (no options).

Marketer's pitch: "You shouldn't have to upsize to upgrade."

Conventional wisdom: says it has a "quiet and luxurious cabin; comfortable ride." But it is "underpowered compared to competitors." But people who know GM ask, "Is Verano to Cruze as Cimarron was to Cavalier?"

Reality: This is not a baubled-up Cruze. And I didn't find power that lackluster, either.

First drive: Back in the winter, I tested the Buick Verano for a short stint at the Philadelphia International Auto Show. During a couple blocks of the city, it gave the impression of being fairly Buicky: Smooth, comfortable, nice enough. But ho-hum.

On the road: With that short jaunt, General Motors was kind of shooting itself in the foot, mostly the right foot, the one that operates the accelerator pedal.

The Verano needs to get onto highways and winding roads to show that it is no Chevy Cruze. Its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine isn't neck-snapping, but it rushes to 60 m.p.h., and it whips around curves with enough sportiness to bring the driver back to life. It was kind of a surprise, actually, how its personality could change.

Nice growl: And while drivers are giving the Verano a workout, they'll thank General Motors for its tradition of giving pleasant exhaust notes to the most unlikely cars.

Inside: The leather seats were comfortable and well-proportioned, and they hug you on those fun curves - not in a lecherous-old-man kind of way, but in a welcome one. The dashboard and seat-stitching also help convince buyers they're in something that offers Lexus a bit of competition.

Power seats (sort of): The power seat moves up and down and forward and back. But drivers are left with a lever to recline. That seems cheap.

Outside: The lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat would disappoint the Buick marketers, though, with her statement that "it looks like it's for old people." But she's just not a fan of sedans. I found the outside attractive enough.

Getting started: Before I ever sat inside, I asked Sturgis Kid 3.0 to move the car around the driveway for me. After about five minutes, she came back, reporting that she couldn't figure out how to start it.

It took me a bit of hunting around, as well, as the start button is matched to an array of buttons above the sound system.

Bevy of buttons: And thus the Verano suffers from a problem common to American brands: too many buttons for the entertainment and heating-cooling systems.

For instance, a "home" button turns the touch-screen menu to a choice of radio, satellite, or CD. A touch-screen button also gives a similar menu, but laid out in a different format.

A source button ("SRCE") under the "home" button on the dash toggles through radio, satellite, and CD. An "SRC" button on the steering wheel changes the song or the station. Confusing.

But the sound system is well-done and brings out all the parts of your favorite tunes.

Shifty: The shift control on the automatic transmission is a delight to use. It's no Volkswagen or Mazda for giving that Zen, one-with-the-road feel, but it's distinct and smooth.

Stuck in traffic: The only shortcoming in the Verano was a tendency to give a bit of a jolt when crawling along at low speeds. I kept seeking out gridlock and the problem repeated itself, but it was really just a minor nuisance.

Night shift: The gauges are a cool blue, a la Buick. The interior lights shine bright, and are only a touch too diffuse, interfering slightly with the view of the road.

Friends and stuff: I've seen sedan rear seats come in all kinds of slants. I found the Verano's to be in about the best position for sitting up and paying attention. Rear legroom was snug but headroom was nice. Sturgis Kids 1.0 and 4.0 rode back there and didn't complain.

Trunk space is generous, and the rear seat splits and folds.

Two cubbies up front store cellphone and key fob. The armrest holds CDs and slides fore and aft for perfect elbow positioning.

Fuel economy: The Verano was getting 25.5 m.p.g. when I picked it up, and it stayed right at 25.5 m.p.g. through the testing, in a highway-heavy mix of driving. Sadly, an eAssist version is not in the offing.

Where it's built: Lake Orion, Mich.

How it's built: The Verano is new for 2012. But the Enclave and Regal are both below average in Consumer Reports reliability surveys.

In the end: I found the Buick Verano has a lot to offer from a $25,000 sedan. Look for a turbocharged model for 2013 to add even more zip.

Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or