In 1982, General Motors became awash with a family of vehicles known as the J-Cars. Numerous versions of the front wheel drive compact debuted but one of them, found a unique home in the quiet luxury brand, Buick. That little car was given the name Skyhawk and it shared a number of components with the likes of the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza and Cadillac Cimarron. Of those cars, the only one to make it out of the 1980s was the Chevy but that hasn’t stopped General Motors from once again looking for future inspiration in their own history books. The Skyhawk may not have been a success, but doors that house compact, inexpensive, efficient and luxury all together shouldn’t be closed so suddenly. The philosophy that created that little Buick 30 years ago has once again be revisited as the 2012 Verano looks, on paper at least, rather similar to its much older, Skyhawk sibling.

Just as three decades ago, the current littlest Buick shares quite a bit with the other General Motors compact sedan, the Chevrolet Cruze. Unlike the Cavailer and Skyhawk, the Verano’s underpinnings are rather stout as it uses the globally proven Delta II platform. Not only does the front wheel drive chassis support the Cruze, Verano and upcoming Cadillac ELR, it also supplies structure for the utterly surprising Chevrolet Volt. In Buick form, the car rides on the same 105.7 inch wheelbase found on the Cruze but its width and length are both slightly greater. Due to its size, the Verano has a rather diverse grouping of rivals to pick from but some the highest on Buick’s “hit list” are the Acura TSX, Audi A3 and Volvo S40.

To find out if the latest quiet American has what it takes to compete head-to-head with the best of Japan, Germany and Sweden, we got behind the wheel of a 2012 Verano 1SG. Known secondly as the “Convince Group 2” package, our tester is the middle child to the Verano lineup. Base pricing for the entry-level car is $22,585 while our sedan starts at $23,785. To get the top-tier Leather Group, an extra $2,180 must be shelled out compared to the 1SG. Included in our Quicksilver Metallic tester were standard items such as Rear Park Assist, heated side view mirrors, auto dimming rear view mirror, a six way power adjustable driver seat, dual zone climate control, tilt and telescoping leather wrapped steering wheel, satellite radio, a 7 inch media display, 18 inch wheels and fog lights. There may not be much of a difference between the base and 1SG when it comes to standard features but our tester does allow for a $795 navigation system to be added. Unfortunately, our Verano came equipped without the device and thus, rolled out of the Lake Orion, Michigan assembly plant with no options and a final MSRP of $24,670 with destination charge.

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The baby Buick may be similar in a mechanical sense to the Cruze, but its aesthetics are true to the brand’s vision. For its debut year, the Verano took numerous design cues from its bigger Regal brother as from a distance, you’d be hard pressed to tell a difference between the two. The signature big mouth grille fits nice and snug between the shapely projector headlamps. Every angle is so smooth and clean that each fender appears to blend together as if the car is out of focus. Unlike other premium makes, harsh lines and deep cuts are not present on the Verano making the sedan seem mature and even larger than it actually is. The front may lack the hutzpa and aggression of the Acura TSX, but the Buick’s rear end is a model of class and elegance. Subtle chrome strips drap over the angled tail lights to give the back a personality unique to the Verano.

Inside, the elegance continues as the Verano is more than just a Cruze with some nice trim. The lay out and ergonomics of the front are dead on and with each touch and feel, a sense that Buick actually took their time with the car is raised. Little touches such as quarter windows and blue interior lighting add to the magic that can only come from an American sedan. Sitting right next to “retro-tastic” luxury is legitimate technology as our Verano came standard with bluetooth pairing that allows devices to be “seen” and controlled via the seven inch LCD screen. Once a connection is easily made, options such as phone calls and music playback can be operated by the screen, steering wheel mounted buttons or voice activation. Unlike GM’s display’s from just a couple of years prior, the Verano’s looks slick, up-to-date and advanced. It was unfortunate to see our tester without the navigation system, especially given its low cost. Considering other rivals offer navs in the four figures, it is nice to see a luxury car asking so little for premium options.

For motivation, the Buick takes another big stept away from its Cruze brother as one powertrain is currently available. Not found under the Verano’s hood is either the Chevy’s turbocharged 1.4 liter or naturally aspirated 1.8 liter but instead, a GM 2.4 liter staple is used. This dual overhead cam with variable valve timing mill uses direct injection to pump out 180 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque. All Veranos are front wheel drive and all use a six speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. With nearly 3,500 lbs of curb weight to haul around, the Verano should be at the bottom of a drag racer’s list of cars as 60 mph can be observed from a standstill in the mid 8 second range. Low end grunt is the biggest issue as the Buick simply doesn’t feel fast or powerful. The car is clearly meant to brought up to a steady speed and left there as its EPA estimates prove: 32 mpg on the highway and 21 mpg in the city. The little Buick could easily benefit from more power which would be easily had from the Regal’s 2.0 liter, 220 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder. If Buick went ahead with the engine swap, their gateway offering would stand a better chance up against the speedy Acura and Volvo.

Like the Skyhawk of the 1980s, the Verano is a fancier version of a pre-existing corporate compact. Unlike the J-Cars from 30 years ago, General Motors has had plenty of time to properly develop and get to know the small car and it is no longer trailblazing with an oddity. The Verano has a solid base and added to that is legitimate luxury and class. It may lack power and straight line excitement, but a lively and light steering rack combined with a tout suspension can induce smiles when the road gets twisty. It’s no apex carving machine like the TSX, but the Verano’s maturity is so much greater than that of its Japanese rival. On top of that, it carries such a high level of elegance for such a low price that the Buick has become the luxury bargain of the year. No other rival can match its class-t0-money factor and that alone could be strong enough to make up for its short comings. As an entry into the premium segment, the Verano is a solid pick as it’s efficient, comfortable, quiet, stylish, cool and inexpensive. Stoplight drag racing may not be its “thing”, but the Verano doesn’t carry a hooligan spirit. Instead, it’s a new kind of luxury that doesn’t need to be rushed as its plenty content with taking things easy. When that kind of personality is combined with actual quality, a success story is usually in store for the future. Anyone looking for rolling relaxation at a low price should put the 2012 Buick Verano high on their list.

Photos: © Copyright 2012 Ossamah Shabbir