Friday, June 13, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Buick Verano Convenience Group

See how the Buick performed against its peers in our Entry Luxury comparison test.

For the longest time, Buick held a reputation of selling cars to people who wanted a car that was plush and easy to drive. Because of what their cars were designed to do, most Buick buyers tended to be much older, or from foreign countries that idolize big, hulking, plush American cars. Prior to test driving this vehicle, my only experience with a Buick came in the form of my dad's early 90s Buick LeSaber. I remember that car being a big, spongy slow car that my dad seemed to adore.

The current Buick wants to shed its old image of sleepy and boring cars. Instead of the geriatric approved vehicles of its past, Buick has been hard at work making more modern looking vehicles that drive as well as its luxury competition. Buick's all new Verano is part of the brand's rebirth as a modern luxury car manufacturer. Positioned to compete in the entry-level luxury class (which includes vehicles like the Acura ILX, Audi A3, and Mercedes Benz CLA250), the Verano certainly has some stiff competition. While their competition is fairly well established, I think Buick's biggest challenge is not with other manufacturers, but with itself and whether or not they can truly shed their "old people" car image.

The first thing I noticed about the Verano was that it was not the most exciting looking car. It is a somewhat boring looking car and from certain angles, reminds me a lot of the seventh generation Honda Accord. In an effort to add some flair to its looks, Buick added non-functional chrome vents to the hood, and lined a lot of the exterior in chrome. There is a lot more chrome than seems necessary, and I do not quite understand the purpose of the vents other than to "stand out" (I realize that there is some tie to Buick's history). Despite the not very exciting looks, it does look significantly less boring than the Buicks I remember from the 90s.

When I stepped into the car, the first thing that came to mind was "this thing could use a bit of work." It does feel cheaper than its competition, especially with the fake wood trim. Personally, I would have left the fake wood out all together. All of the other competition seems to be much better off without it, so I am not entirely sure why Buick felt it was necessary. The mass of buttons for the radio and HVAC controls bugged far more than I expected. In an age where nearly every manufacturer is trying to move towards less buttons, the Verano's center console felt littered with buttons. That is not to say that the competition's cars do not have a lot buttons either, but the competition arranges the buttons in a way that it feels less cluttered. Button clutter and cheap trim aside though, the Verano was very comfortable. The leather felt pretty decent and I was also quite surprised at how substantial feeling the steering wheel was.

Unfortunately, the substantial feeling steering wheel did not quite match up with the Verano's driving dynamics. Though it felt nice in my hands, the steering wheel was nearly devoid of any feedback. It was nicely weighted for an electric steering rack, but that is probably the only good thing I can say about the steering feel. Thankfully though, the rest of the car's driving dynamics do make up for any lack of steering feel. Taking this car around a corner, you can definitely tell this is not your grandfather's Buick. The amount of body roll was just about what I have come to expect of a car in this class, which is to say fairly minimal, and the chassis was actually very well-sorted during cornering. Understeer was apparent, but not unexpected as this is a front-wheel drive sedan. The brakes left me feeling underwhelmed though. The brake pedal felt spongy, and initial brake bite was not very strong. Considering driving and handling dynamics as a whole though, I think Buick struck a fairly good compromise of comfort and sport, with maybe slightly more emphasis on comfort.

What left me really surprised about the Verano was actually its engine. Equipped with a 2.4 liter inline-four cylinder, making a very respectable 180 horsepower and 171 lb./ft. of torque, the Verano actually feels like it accelerates fairly quickly. I was also very impressed with how smooth the engine was, as well as the accompanying six-speed automatic transmission. Power delivery at the low end of the rev range was surprisingly good and each gear change was almost unnoticeable. My only real complaint with the engine is that it tends to sound a bit raspy, especially if you hammer on it. Because the cabin is relatively quiet though, you pretty much never notice it under normal driving conditions as long as the A/C or radio are on. Of note, the Verano does come with an optional 2.0 liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, making a very healthy 250 horsepower and 260 lb./ft. of torque. This engine definitely would have injected a lot more spunk into the Verano, but the base engine is more than adequate for daily use.

Besides some decent driving dynamics and a surprisingly good engine, the Verano also has another great feature: usable rear seats! Yes, the rear seats in the Verano are actually big enough and offer enough leg room for me to sit comfortably. Anyone taller than six feet may find the rear seats to be a bit snug, but it is still far better than what much of the competition offers. This, of course, is assuming the driver and front passenger do not need a lot of leg room to sit comfortably.

After finishing my test drive, I had one thought on my mind about the Verano: this car has potential. While the interior could use some cleaning up and better materials, and the exterior could use less chrome and a more exciting look, the overall driving dynamics of the Verano are pretty much on par with the other cars in its class. If Buick can make the necessary changes to the interior and exterior while maintaining its price, which is much less than its competition, I think Buick could have a big seller on its hands.

The one thing I can say for certain about the current Buick is that it is definitely headed in the right direction. The Verano with its optional 2.0 liter turbocharged engine, along with other performance oriented models like the Regal GS and the rumored return of the Grand National and GNX, is surely helping Buick kick the "old people's" car image with gusto. A lot of this change can be attributed to General Motor's rebirth of its other "old person" car brand, Cadillac. As long as GM continues to put out some amazing performance cars under the Cadillac name, those models will surely trickle down to Buick in some form, giving Buick the tools it needs to appeal to a whole new generation of Buick buyers. 

Special thanks to Penske Cadillac Buick GMC for the letting me spend time with the Verano.