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AutoBlog Verano Turbo Comparo

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20 years ago, a comparison between an entry-level Buick and its Acura equivalent would have matched a Skylark against an Integra. The unfair battle would have resulted in the compact American's defeat in nearly every measurable category, as the Japanese competitor was arguably at the height of its powers.

Yet the automotive industry has flipped, twisted and merged itself through more than just a recession over the past 2 decades – it's morphed into a whole different ballgame. Pitting a Buick against an Acura makes perfect sense today, as both automakers are peddling new entry-level models designed to scoop up buyers seeking premium features, luxury appointments and fuel efficiency in a reasonably priced compact sedan package.

Today's battle is between the Verano and the ILX. Instead of wringing out the base models and setting ourselves up for a day-long yawnfest, we chose the most powerful and dynamic variants of each, configuring them with 6-speed manual transmissions to liven the pace. This unquestionably made our behind-the-wheel excursion more interesting, but we soon realized that our enthusiast-oriented decision would introduce a whole new set of headaches.

The Buick Verano was launched at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show as a new-for-2012 model. Although it shares Delta II platforms with the Chevrolet Cruze and Opel Astra, General Motors has gone the extra mile, giving the more premium Verano its own unique styling inside and out, and it's fitted the 4-door sedan with laminated glass, triple door seals and a long list of other sound-deadening upgrades to separate it from its lesser sibling. Buick calls the cabin "library quiet," and its interior features an appointment level on par with its larger LaCrosse sibling.

The Acura ILX was launched at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show as a new-for-2013 model. The 4-door sedan shares platforms with the Honda Civic, but the automaker resculpted its panels to change its proportions and imbued it with a more befitting interior complete with upscale switchgear. Signature Acura touches such as the dual arched instrument panel and a red push-button starter to the right of the steering wheel complete the transformation.

Both the Buick and Acura are built in the United States (the Verano in Orion Township, Michigan, and the ILX in Greenburg, Indiana), and each is offered in several trims with a choice of engines. While the base models of each start in the mid-$20,000 range, we chose to compare the range-topping trims, as they are similarly equipped and very closely matched in overall performance.

Our 2013 ILX, a 6-speed manual with the Premium package trim, arrived painted in Silver Moon over ebony leather carrying an as-tested price of $30,095. The only addendum to its $29,200 MSRP was the mandatory destination fee of $895. Standard equipment includes full power accessories, an 8-way power-operated driver's seat, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth and a 350-watt premium audio system. Navigation, conspicuously missing from our ILX, is not offered on this particular model (yet).

Under the Acura's hood lies a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter 4-cylinder rated at 201 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. The transverse-mounted engine, basically shared with the Honda Civic Si and Acura TSX, sends its power through a close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox to the front wheels and earns an EPA fuel economy rating of 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. The suspension is an independent MacPherson strut design up front with a multi-link setup in the rear. There are disc brakes at all corners and its 17-inch alloys are wrapped in 215/45R17 Michelin HX MXM4 all-season grand touring rubber.

Our 2013 Verano, a 6-speed manual in Premium trim, was painted in Luxo Blue Metallic over Choccachino (honest) premium leather and carried an as-tested price of $31,695. The base price ($29,105) was bumped up with the addition of a power sunroof ($900), satellite radio with navigation ($795) and a mandatory destination fee ($895). Standard equipment includes full power accessories, 6-way power-operated driver's seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, Bose premium audio and navigation bundled with Buick Intellilink connectivity.

Nestled under the hood of the Buick is a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder rated at 250 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm. The transverse-mounted engine, shared with the Buick Regal GS, sends its power through a 6-speed manual gearbox to the front wheels to earn an EPA fuel economy rating of 20 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. The suspension is independent with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam augmented by a Watts Z-link in the rear. There are disc brakes at all corners and its 18-inch alloy wheels are wrapped in 235/45R18 Continental ContiProContact all-season grand touring rubber.

Parked side-by-side, the Buick Verano is wider, taller and longer than the Acura, but only marginally. A tape measure reveals that both are within an inch of each other in wheelbase (105.7 inches to 105.1), but the Verano is about 4 inches longer overall (183.9 inches vs. 179.1). Place each on a scale, and the Buick is the heavier of the pair with a curb weight of 3,300 pounds (compared to the ILX curb weight of 2,978 pounds), That said, both carry about 61% of their weight over the front wheels – typical for a front-drive car.

To compare the Verano against the ILX, I teamed up with Translogic contributor Kyle Thibaut and Autoblog photographer extraordinaire Drew Phillips and headed out on a nice day trip that would bring our near-lux sedans from sea level up to Southern California's snow line (about 5,000 feet elevation this time of year) and back down. The route offered plenty of urban driving, wide-open mountain canyon roads and mundane freeway travel. After loading the center consoles with Red Bull, Swedish Fish and beef jerky, we filled each tank with fuel and began our comparison.

1st impressions are critical – emotional appeal is what moves most cars out of the showroom – so after a brief orientation, we parked the 2 compact luxury sedans side-by-side and took a good look at each.

Between the 2, it was the Verano's design that stole all of the attention. The sedan has a fresh, upscale and purposeful design that we felt definitely projected a more premium vibe. Phillips: "At 1st blush, the Buick really stands out to me as an attractive car, in part due to the blue paint and the beautiful brown leather interior. I know Buick has made an effort to build a car for a younger demographic, and in this car, they've succeeded." Yet there was some dissent. Thibaut called out GM's platform sharing immediately: "It's clearly a Chevrolet Cruze... and I'm not sure if Buick's design language does enough to attract younger buyers, especially with those rear chrome eyebrows." We all felt that the Verano's "Angry Bird" rear lights were a bit distracting, and we also found it odd that GM declined to spill the beans on our tester's turbocharged powerplant. "There should be visual differentiators like wheels and fascia, and performance indicators like a lower sport suspension and brakes," said Thibaut. "The only indicator is a little red 'T' badge on the trunklid."

The Acura ILX isn't a bad-looking sedan either, but its bland overall design means it has an even more difficult time removing itself from its Honda roots. "Looks a lot like the Civic," said Thibaut before peering inside. "The styling appears to reflect a 'make it work' attitude and the interior design borrows from Acura's design language, but in a more minimal way," he added. Upon closer inspection, all of us agreed that the fit and finish were below what we expected from a premium brand. Everything from the inexpensive appearing headlight assembly to the unsubstantial sound of the doors closing reminded us more of a Honda.

Buick also took top mentions for interior appointments, build quality and comfort with its warm and inviting cabin. "The interior is at the level of a luxury sedan, just smaller," said Thibaut in a subtle reference to its bigger LaCrosse sibling. We likewise expected premium materials in the ILX, especially as Acura is better established as a premium marque, but the small sedan let us down. Its interior wasn't even as nice as the emergency-refresh 2013 Civic. "I've seen better leather on a Kia," blasted Thibaut. Rumor has it that Acura will be making a few Civic-like upgrades to the ILX in the near future, and it can't come soon enough.

We settled into each of the cabins, turned on a pair of Motorola 2-way walkie talkies, and aimed our hoods eastward.

The 1st part of the drive was an exercise in carving canyons as we forced each sedan to climb nearly a mile in altitude over a 20-mile distance. The 2-lane road was free of traffic, so we were able to push the ILX and Verano to our comfort levels. As neither is touted as a sport sedan, our expectations were not particularly high.

Buick's hot little turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine emerged as a workhorse, pulling the Verano strongly up each of the mountains. "Lots of power once the turbo kicks in," said Kyle over the radio, verbally expressing what each of us had been thinking the whole time. But a good engine is nothing without a competent transmission, and that's exactly where the Buick fell on its face. Its sloppy 6-speed gearbox soon attracted a storm of complaints: "The manual transmission seems like an afterthought in the Verano Turbo, feeling vague and uncommunicative. In fact, the gearing of the 6-speed transmission feels far too high, often leaving the turbo-4out of its powerband," said a frustrated Phillips. When the engine was spun to redline, the fuel flow was abruptly cut resulting in an immediate loss of power. This annoyed all of us, but it particularly chafed Thibaut: "The very aggressive rev limiter is incredibly annoying. This frustrating and awkward manual transmission is the reason people don't buy manuals anymore – why even offer a stick shift if it's going to be this bad?"

The engine in the Acura, an automaker long known for its wonderful naturally aspirated 4-cylinder mills, screamed effortlessly all the way to its soft redline with each throw of its short-shift lever. Power was obviously down compared to the Buick, but the shorter gearing and more precise shifter action in the ILX made it the favorite in the mountains. "Great Honda engine note all the way past 7,200 rpm... and the manual transmission is fun – clutch and shifter are robust and offer quick shifts." More test notes: "The ILX sounds like a racecar for the street. While it may not be the most pleasant thing to listen to on the freeway as it hovers above 3,000 rpm, it's an addictive noise when you're engaged in spirited driving."

After the 1st stop, halfway up the mountain, everyone fought over the keys to the Acura. It didn't seem to have the power or even the lateral grip of the Buick, but it was much more communicative in terms of steering, chassis and throttle response. "The ILX is undoubtedly the better car to throw around on a canyon road," said Phillips matter-of-factly. "Not that many buyers will purchase it for this type of mission, but the car is certainly capable of an entertaining Sunday drive." The steering on the Buick felt artificial and vague, and its superior cabin isolation was discomforting when pushed hard, as the drive felt disconnected from the pavement. Said Thibaut succinctly: "I can't communicate with the road in the Verano."

A similar lack of engagement was found with the Buick's manual gearbox, as it seemed out of place. The Verano's clutch pedal felt disconnected, and its shifter sloppy. Some of us complained about missing shifts. The Acura, on the other hand, was nearly perfect with a smooth clutch and tactile lever action. "The ILX's shifter is its saving grace, allowing for gear changes that are both accurate and lightning fast with a flick of the wrist," said Drew. Everybody agreed.

In terms of real-world acceleration, the ILX is quicker off the line thanks to its slick shifter and lower gearing. The more powerful Verano bogs and chokes off the line, but its more powerful engine doesn't have any problem passing the Acura once it hits its stride. Passing maneuvers were much less stressful in the Buick too, thanks to the instant torque the turbocharger helped deliver. We estimate both will hit 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds, give or take a few a few tenths.

After dropping down the other side of the mountain, we stopped for more road trip snacks before starting our 100-mile highway portion of the comparison.

Within minutes, the rosy hue encircling the ILX and it sporty demeanor began to fade as the Verano's vault-like chassis, whisper-quiet interior and suite of amenities began to win each of us over. With the Buick's agonizing manual transmission left untouched in 6th gear for the duration, we focused on its the audio system, navigation package and creature comforts. It was almost an unfair comparison. The no-nonsense cabin of the Acura, acceptable when focused on sporty driving, became noisy, with an annoying engine drone when cruising at highway speeds. Thibaut called it, "way too loud, and it seems as if there is a lot of coarse noise coming from the underbelly." Phillips mirrored his comments nearly spot-on. "Going from the Verano Turbo to the ILX, the 1st thing you notice is the noise. It's a loud car, with everything from tires to wind to the engine contributing."

Both the Acura and Buick were competent freeway companions, but the ILX's engine was spinning about 1,000 rpm faster than the turbocharged engine under the hood of the Verano, and its cabin was much louder and more reflective – the noise just seemed to bounce around. There was no contest about which was the better cross-country cruiser, the Buick owned the highway portion of our comparison.

The city schlep was interesting. Our 3-man team preferred the Buick's cabin and connectivity, but once again, we didn't like its transmission. The Acura was more engaging, but it fell short on creature comforts and overall refinement. We longed for a Buick with a slushbox and wished for more amenities in the Acura.

We ended our drive at a gas station. Despite following each other nose-to-tail, the trip odometer of the Verano read 196.8 miles while the ILX had only counted 194.7 miles – chalk it up to a 1% odometer error. We pumped 6.78 gallons of premium unleaded into the Acura and 7.77 gallons of premium unleaded into the Buick, for a trip fuel economy of 28.7 mpg and 25.1 mpg, respectively. The Buick cost us $4.60 more in fuel for the identical trip.

A few minutes later, as Phillips set up his equipment for sunset photography, we mulled over which sedan won the comparison – as we don't hand out participation trophies at Autoblog, 1 of these 2 was going home a loser.

Our final vote was tallied, and the decision was unanimous – we all preferred the Buick Verano Turbo over the Acura ILX Premium.

Throughout the entire comparison, the ILX simply couldn't shake its Civic roots. It was constantly referred to as "the Honda" during our radio chatter (we never once called the Verano "the Chevrolet"), and we couldn't stop thinking about the still-outstanding Civic Si each time we slid behind the Acura's wheel. "I want to like the ILX, but the car simply doesn't make sense to me. The interior isn't nice enough to appeal to me as an entry-level luxury sedan, and the performance isn't good enough to justify its lack of quality in the interior. At the end of the day, nothing about the car stands out enough to make me want to choose it," Drew observed. Thibaut questioned why the low-volume ILX Premium model was even offered. "This particular trim does not need to exist. The question is, are a few premium features hiding behind an Acura badge worth 125-percent of the price of the Si? The answer is a million times no."

None of us questioned the sticker price of the Buick. "The Verano Turbo is the better entry-level luxury sedan. It's more comfortable, quieter and a more practical powertrain." Premium materials aside, Kyle went out of his way to point out that the Verano had more useable interior space (especially in the rear seats), a larger trunk, bigger brakes, larger wheels and more horsepower. "Clearly, the Verano is the best value by a long shot," he concluded. So much so, that 2 of us questioned whether it was a better value than the only marginally larger, yet more expensive, Buick Regal.

But interestingly enough, none of us would recommend the Verano Turbo with its manual gearbox – nearly all of our gripes had to do with that lifeless transmission – the no-cost 6-speed automatic is the proper entry-level luxury buyer's choice.

With the sun dropped below the horizon and the photography complete, we climbed back into our cars for the short drive back to our original meeting spot. After a few moments of silence, a voice came over the radio airwaves with an encapsulating sentence: "The Verano feels like a cheap version of an expensive car, while the ILX feels like an expensive version of a cheap car." Although our vehicles were hundreds of yards apart and moving down the highway at better than 70 mph, each of us realized that we were nodding our heads in agreement – it would be difficult to summarize our comparison more succinctly.
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