Mountain Wheels: Buick’s smaller Verano appeals to a frugal, global market |

Mountain Wheels: Buick’s smaller Verano appeals to a frugal, global market

Special to the Daily 2012 Buick Verano

So it turns out that the future is indeed all about working with China, despite their awkward mix of totalitarianism and egregious capitalism.

And given that the newly mobile Chinese love both fancy European cars and old-school American brands, plus the fact that they may eventually need to embrace fuel efficiency once someone starts carpet-bombing Iran – it all conspires to mean good news for American automakers, oddly.

Hence, the new Buick Verano might work, from a global perspective, as well as appealing to a certain segment of domestic drivers looking for a fuel-efficient, affordable compact luxury car.

Verano, which is based off the new Chevy Cruze and Opel Astra J platform, was indeed launched with the Chinese market in mind, the Chinese version being named the Buick Excelle GT, for whatever reason.

It’s a pleasant vehicle whose most obvious nod to European design, for better or worse, is a set of chrome eyelids over the rear taillights that looks exactly like it came from a Bangles-era BMW’s rear end. Spooky.

That’s odd as the rest of the Verano is wholly Buick-but-modern in its scope, from the waterfall grille to the swoopy, engaging-but-still conservative body lines (small aircraft-styled windows in front of the side mirrors are a nice touch).

It also enjoys a solid and thoroughly modern, almost robotic ride, with its frugal 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder and a burpy six-speed automatic teaming up to get you about 32 mpg on the highway.

On the inside, Verano also bridges the gap between contemporary and angular and being beige enough (in my tester’s cashmere color scheme, literally) to still appeal to Buick’s once very, very old domestic demographic.

That Euro-plainness to the ride – a bit hollow sounding but not stiff enough to be bumpy – plus some generic-looking albeit blue-lit instruments and brown, contoured plastic, all blend together to bring the prestige of the LaCrosse to a machine that’s about $10,000 less than the bigger model.

Your rear-seat passengers might disagree with the value statement there as, with two normal-sized folks in the front, the rear foot room becomes pretty minimal.

Verano’s single engine choice is also pretty understated, despite being rated at 180 horsepower, with a 2.0-liter turbo on the horizon.

You’ve got to get pretty seriously into the pedal to make much happen with the 2.4L (0-60 takes 8.6 seconds), and once you do, you’ll find that the automatic transmission makes some odd and lurchy choices.

My most disconcerting moment (and I’m waiting for the online crowd to call me an inbred communist for saying this) was using the transmission to slow myself down while heading downslope from the tunnel.

Shifting to a lower gear temporarily throws the Verano into neutral and it will speed up considerably before settling into the lower, higher-revving gear – a feature not particularly noticed in other vehicles.

But the brakes are good, the electric steering decently responsive and overall ride quite Buick-specifically sound-deadened.

The cabin’s comfortable but not huge, with broad, leather-appointed seating – sans any lumbar adjustability – which held me best when I raised the front of the seat bottom and slid in. There’s ample head room and good rear visibility.

The interior aesthetic is in keeping with everyone else’s mix of design, highlighted with some aluminum-esque and woodgrainy bits and pieces.

You don’t get a European or Japanese car’s wall of controls, and despite the simplicity, you might also miss the oddly tiny buttons for the push-button ignition and the electronic parking brake, hidden on the top of the stack. A remote starter is also included.

Buick’s IntelliLink has also found an odd compromise for navigation, much like the non-touchscreen versions of Ford’s Sync system: There is no navigation system, though there is a large screen.

Instead, you call OnStar and those computers send you detailed turn-by-turn directions which appear both on the large center screen and in a smaller screen between the instruments, good for those times you might actually need to ask where you’re going.

The screen itself then provides the industry’s most detailed and impressive song title displays and links to a good Bluetooth system and Bose audio; you can also set up your smartphone to stream Pandora stations, should you chose to do so.

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