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Buick downsizes luxury in Verano

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When General Motors jettisoned Oldsmobile, Saturn and Pontiac, it left Buick sandwiched alone between Chevrolet and Cadillac.

Chevy traditionally was the entry-level division, while Caddy occupied the uppermost rung of the corporate ladder.

And Buick? That was the car bankers and doctors drove, a sober, near-luxury line that spoke of the owner’s financial success without too much overt ostentation.

2012 Buick Verano
VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door, five-passenger, compact sedan
BASE PRICE: $25,965
PRICE AS TESTED: $26,850 (incl. delivery fees)
POWERTRAIN: 2.4-liter, DOHC four-cylinder; 180 horsepower; 171 lb.-ft. torque; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
WHEELBASE/LENGTH: 105.7″/183.9″
CURB WEIGHT: 3,300 pounds
EPA FUEL RATING: 21 mpg city/32 highway (regular grade)

And that’s pretty much where the division remains today, with the addition of a couple of sporty variants.

The latest addition to the lineup is the Verano sedan, a compact that packs a pretty fair punch when it comes to value and likability. But GM may be aiming a bit too high with its perceived competition for its new entry.

The General sees Lexus’ IS 250 and and Acura’s TSX as opponents in the compact luxury segment. While both those vehicles carry higher price tags, they also provide greater performance and a sportier demeanor.

Where the Verano really shines is inside, where the interior’s comfort and materials easily match, and in some regards, outclass the purported competitors.

Soft-touch surfaces abound, with classy, two-tone treatments and (fake) wood and satin metallic accents. The big, leather-clad buckets in our top-line tester are among the most comfortable seats ever installed in an American car, with a perfect blend of support and plushness.

Buick engineers have installed numerous noise-reducing and noise-canceling technologies for increased cabin isolation – time well spent, as this is one quiet compact.

Power is just shy of generous, but 180 horses simply can’t deliver the sort of easy response this car deserves, burdened as it is by Verano’s pudgy 3,300 pounds. More power is on the way for 2013.

The six-speed automatic transmission, though, is a paragon of smoothness and responsiveness.

The Verano handles corners quite well – not sport-sedan, but not luxo-plush either.

The most surprising thing about the Verano is how much luxury it offers for the price. Several people wildly overestimated the car’s cost at above $30 grand.

Can this be the car that launches a new generation of Buick owners?