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2012 Buick Verano

story Jeremy Sinek

According to one industry expert, luxury vehicles are purchased by only one in 10 new-car buyers in Canada. Why should you care? Because according to same expert, 80 percent of the rest of us would like to step up into a luxury vehicle. Well, as the cars here demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be a big step. The luxury market is splintering into new sub-segments and spreading downmarket. Sure, not many of us are likely to be trading in our 10-year-old Saturn for a brand-new Mercedes S-Class. But if you’ve already got your head around the notion of a nicely equipped new Honda Civic or Chevy Cruze, it won’t be much of a stretch to an entry-level Acura or Buick instead. Cases in point: five new cars we’ve gathered here – three of them all-new nameplates -- that could park a premium nameplate in your driveway at MSRPs starting in the low $20Ks.

Buick Verano - $22,595
The Verano “splits the space” between mainstream compact sedans (Civic, Focus, Elantra, etc) and the small sport-luxury segment that is defined by the BMW 3 Series. The new baby Buick is based on the Chevrolet Cruze, but this is no case of cynical badge engineering. The Cruze is quite a sophisticated piece of kit to begin with, and the Verano adds its own distinct body shape and richly furnished interior, as well as engine choices not available on Cruze. Verano launched this spring with a 180-horsepower, 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine hitched to a six-speed automatic transmission; coming later this year is a Turbo, with a 2.0-litre four estimated to be worth 250 horsepower, and an available six-speed manual transmission. The Verano 2.4 starts at $22,595 and progresses through escalating trim, equipment and option levels to a fully-loaded $31K (not including Delivery and Taxes).  No prices yet for the Turbo. On the road, the 2.4-litre Verano`s stand-out feature is Buick`s signature QuietTuning technology – it`s the real deal. The engine is no rocket against the stopwatch, but brisk real-world performance is delivered with pleasing effortlessness. What the back seat lacks in stretch space it makes up with above-average seat comfort for those who do fit, and the trunk is one of the roomiest in the compact class.

Acura ILX - $27,790
Arguably Acura Canada created the small near-luxury category with the original 1997 1.6 EL. Through three generations the EL (and subsequent CSX) were built in Canada exclusively for the Canadian market. For generation four, the name has changed again, but the concept remains the same: an affordable gateway to the Acura brand, loosely based on the structural bones of the Honda Civic. The line-up comprises a 2.0-litre, 150-hp model in three trim grades (base, Premium and Tech) that are distinguished by bells-and-whistles counts; a 2.4-litre, 201-hp sports model called Dynamic; and, a first for Acura, a gas-electric Hybrid. The 2.0 and the Hybrid come only as automatics, while a slick six-speed “stick” is mandatory on the Dynamic. These are polished little cars, though the pricing seems rather high compared with the Buick Verano. We’ve driven the Dynamic, which is a pleasing overall package with an unexpectedly smooth ride – “unexpected” because you’d think a sport model that comes only with manual transmission would have a chassis tuned more for sharp handling than a soft ride.

Cadillac ATS - $35,195
Compact sport sedans are the largest segment of the luxury market, “and we had to be there,” says Cadillac. With the ATS, it now is. True, the CTS competes in price with BMW 3 Series, but physically it’s larger, closer to the 5 Series. The new ATS leaves no room for confusion: in price (from $35,195), size and features it’s a direct assault on the smaller BMW. You can make your own mind up about the styling, which one Cadillac exec called “an evolution in our design vocabulary as it translates to a smaller canvas.” Based on a new rear-drive architecture, the ATS offers three engine flavours: 202-horsepower, 2.5-litre four-cylinder; 272-hp, 2.0-litre turbocharged four; and 321-hp, 3.6-litre V6. The 2.5 comes only with rear-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is optional on the 2.0T and 3.6. A six-speed automatic is standard on all except the 2.0T RWD, which can be specced with a six-speed stick. Luxury, Performance or Premium “Collections” (optional packages) are available. With so many variations it’s hard to be definitive, but first impressions suggest Cadillac has really nailed the chassis and the interior. Some rivals’ four-cylinder engines deliver more usable performance, but overall, the ATS is emphatically “there.” The competition had better take notice.

BMW 3 Series - $35,900
BMW wasn’t the first automaker to pursue fuel efficiency through downsized engines that exploit turbocharging to equal (or exceed) the performance of the larger engines they replace. But arguably BMW does it best. The 2.0-litre, 241-hp four in the 328i, which spearheaded the launch of the new sixth-generation 3 Series sedan this Spring, is a tour de force. Potent, refined, and remarkably economical -- with a choice of six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmissions – it almost makes the award-winning 3.0-litre turbo six in the 335i redundant. For 2013 the lineup has expanded to include a 320i base model powered by a 181-hp version of the 2.0T, while AWD (xDrive) is now available in the 328i and 335i: and coming this fall, a Hybrid that can match the economy of the 320i or the acceleration of the 335i (though not both at the same time). All the new 3ers share a new body that is bigger and roomier than before, offering fine comfort for driver and passengers alike. Like most of its competition, though, BMW has adopted fuel-saving electric power steering at the expense of steering feel; combine that with the car’s greater bulk, and the new 3 Series isn’t quite the athletic stand-out it once was.

Audi A4 - $37,800
Audi’s entry in this category had its last major re-do in 2009; for 2013 it’s had a mostly-cosmetic midlife facelift. The front end has a new look, as do the tail-lights, and the interior has been freshened. The main mechanical alteration is the switch to electric power-steering assist – a fuel-saving feature fast becoming an industry standard. As before, the A4 comes only with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine – one of the first of its kind, and still among the best, despite its modest 211 horsepower (a potent 333-horsepower supercharged V6 is available in the pricier S4). The base front-wheel drive A4 comes only with a continuously-variable automatic; opt for the all-wheel drive quattro, and you can choose between a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic, and three trim levels – standard, Premium and Premium plus. Despite its relative age, the A4 is still a real contender, offering one of the roomier cabins in its class, classy interior decor, and a chassis that nails the sweet spot between comfort and control. To our eyes it’s a real looker, too. The starting price of $37,800 seems a little ambitious in this company, but it does include a standard glass sunroof and automatic transmission.  GL

Acura ILX
The Acura ILX

Cadillac ATS
The Cadillac ATS

BMW 3 Series
The BMW 3 Series

Audi A4
The Audi A4