What does vehicle size have to do with luxury? Not much anymore.

 

Traditionally, compact models have been aimed at buyers seeking affordable wheels that stretched their fuel dollars to the max. "Affordable" means limited features, of course.

 

However, that tradition is rapidly disappearing as vehicles such as the upcoming 2012 Buick Verano emerge to redefine and challenge the small-equals-cheap belief. A Buick, redefining and challenging? You read it here first.

 

Upwardly creeping gasoline prices combined with pending government-legislated fuel-economy standards are changing the way North Americans think about small cars: they're beginning to actually need them.


As a result, automobiles sold in North America are starting to shrink, and engines are shrinking right along with them. With eight-cylinder engines primarily relegated to full-size truck duty, six-cylinder engines are becoming the premium powerplants of choice while four-cylinder engines are similarly evolving as the new standard for larger vehicles and even some full-size models.


This fall's arrival of the Verano constitutes a major step in a new direction for Buick, but one that General Motors' up-level division seems fully prepared for, despite a history of large, pillowy driving sedans.


For example, the 2011 Regal is already making waves with its taut body, European-engineered suspension and four-cylinder engine lineup.


The Regal's only real issue is that its $33,400 base price nudges up against that of the larger LaCrosse. This is where the Verano comes in since it will likely enter the market in the $28,000 range, including destination charges. It be as well equipped as the loaded Regal, at least for its base price, but the Verano's Chevrolet-Cruze-based platform and basic body structure is actually closer in size to the Regal than you might think. In fact, the Regal is only about five centimetres longer between the front and rear wheels, while passenger compartment volume is only two per cent greater.


Stylistically, both vehicles share the same shape and are adorned with similar grilles, but the Verano's seems proportionally larger, as do the headlight pods. The neatly contoured fenders allow very little fender-to-tire gap, which hints at a sporty side. The cabin is pure luxury, however. Although base models will come with leatherette (vinyl) and cloth seats, premium models will feature plenty of wood trim and plumped-up leather-covered seat cushions. For any compact car, and not just a Buick small car, this is ground breaking.


Befitting the Verano's upscale leanings, designers added five layers of acoustic material within the headliner and sound-absorbing foam and other insulating materials has been stuffed into every possible nook and cranny. All door openings are triple sealed while thicker windshield and side glass provides further noise reduction.


Other sound-blocking measures include specially designed tires and alloy wheels plus "quiet-tuned" intake and exhaust systems for the standard 177-horsepower 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine (also standard in both Regal and LaCrosse) that's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. An optional 220-horsepower turbocharged unit - also optional in the Regal - will eventually migrate to the Verano lineup.


Buick hasn't yet released a full accounting of trim and content levels, but standard items will include dual-zone climate control and 10 standard airbags. The options list will provide a heated steering wheel, push-button start, electronic parking brake, premium Bose audio package and 18-inch alloy wheels (17-inchers are standard).


It's unlikely that the Verano's arrival will cause BMW or Audi much concern, but it might lure buyers considering a loaded-up Honda Accord or Toyota Camry to seriously consider a Buick, which would have been virtually unheard of five years ago.


That doesn't mean the days of the big luxury sedan are over, just that luxury and big size no longer travel hand in hand for domestic automakers. For brands such as Audi and BMW, however, that have had to content with high fuel prices in their home market for decades, small and luxury fit like a glove. With fuel prices on the way up here, the domestics are playing some catchup and, so far, we like what we see.