Test Drive: Buick's Verano is a sweetheart of a small car

— -- Let's be outrageous: Buick Verano is a perfect car.

The premise falls apart, fast, because you can't get an important safety feature, a rear-view camera, on Verano, and because it's a compact with limited rear-seat legroom.

Too, as a brand-new model, it has no reliability record.

Buick reminds us that Verano is the first Buick small car since the Skylark was discontinued (except for fleet buyers) after 1997. In Buick's view, it's the first "real" small Buick — that is, a premium model, not a low-price special.

Acknowledging the lack of a backup camera, the limited back-seat room and lack of a track record as significant imperfections, let's see how far we can otherwise take the "perfect" thesis.

•Verano's $23,000-to-$29,000 price range makes it a strong value.

•Verano drives so remarkably well that you crave more wheel time.

There's no sloppy softness to the suspension (true of Buicks for a while, but the old image persists).

Your Porsche/BMW/etc. crowd won't be wowed, but the setup is satisfying for most folks, even spirited drivers.

•The 180-horsepower, four-cylinder seems to have just the right combination of power and smoothness. You get the feeling of a powerful car and an easygoing buggy, both of which a Buick is supposed to be.

And it's done with no under-hood electric gadgets, or other oddball drivetrain gewgaws. Just a robust four-cylinder gas engine and a conventional six-speed automatic transmission — making the most of current, less-expensive technology. We'll sacrifice hybrid-style mpg if it means more pleasant driving.

•Verano compresses the rounded Buick styling to fit a compact exterior and winds up looking quite stylish and alluringly curvaceous.

More than once, when the light hit the big grille at the right angle, the image of a mid-1950s Austin Healey 100 danced through the mind.

•Verano offers a seriously high-class interior. Not faux classy. Not exaggerated or overdone, just nice materials, well arranged in eye-pleasing colors and textures.

Displays and controls are easily understood. The climate control is unusually versatile. It lets you mix and direct airflow more ways than you get in other cars. One setting even blends all the modes, spreading airflow among vents at the floor, the dashboard and the windshield simultaneously.

Nice way to balance the heat or cooling and avoid the annoying drafts that a lot of systems deliver.

•Verano maintains Buick's recent trend of doing many things very well.

For instance, it pairs so fast with even older-model phones that you gasp and fume at the rigmarole other automakers' systems inflict on you.

It uses GM-backed XM Satellite Radio, which employs a signal system different from corporate partner Sirius, resulting in fewer signal dropouts in challenging terrain.

The driver information screen is easy to navigate.

But …

Mileage isn't great. Government ratings of 21 mpg in town, 32 on the highway, 25 in mixed use are OK. But Buicks in general seem to do worse than other cars in the Test Drive regimen of suburban slog and bustle, with a few wide-open throttle moments tossed in for fun. Verano managed 17 mpg.

(A LaCrosse eAssist mild hybrid tested recently also was an underperformer, but Buick says its subsequent tests of that specific car suggest it was flawed.)

One Verano control is particularly bothersome: a big, round headlight knob as on other GM models.

A tiny dot on the knob indicates the knob's setting. When the dot is lighted at night, OK. In daylight, you might as well pull over and park because you'll need all your attention to find the indicator.

That's important because you sometimes want to switch between auto-on and manual-on headlights — such as when sun glare, twilight or other conditions make it safer for you and other drivers if your front and rear lights are on.

GM managers have conceded the point a number of times, but made no change.

So Verano drives great. Looks cool. Makes you feel like somebody special behind the wheel. Perfect? Nothing is.

Among premium small cars, though, Verano is close enough.

Abouth the 2012 Buick Verano

•What? Front-drive, four-door, five-passenger compact sedan loosely similar to the Chevrolet Cruze and new to the Buick line.

•When? Arriving at dealers just now.

•Where? Built at Orion Township, Mich.

•How much? Starts at $23,470 including $885 shipping. About $29,000 with all factory options. Well-equipped test car: $27,175.

•What makes it go? 2.4-liter General Motors EcoTech direct-injection four-cylinder rated 180 horsepower at 6,700 rpm, 171 pounds-feet of torque at 4,900; six-speed automatic transmission.

•How big? Similar to Chevy Cruze. Verano is 183.9 inches long, 71.4 in. wide, 58.4 in. tall on 105.7-in. wheelbase.

Weighs 3,300 lbs. Passenger space, 95 cubic feet. Trunk: 15.2 cu. ft. without spare tire or stereo subwoofer; 14.3 cu. ft. with spare, without subwoofer; 14 cu. ft. with spare and subwoofer.

Turns in 36 ft., curb-to-curb.

•How thirsty? Rated 21 miles per gallon in town, 32 highway, 25 in combined driving.

Trip computer in pre-production test car showed 17 mpg (5.88 gallons per 100 miles) in suburban driving.

Burns regular, holds 15.6 gal.

•Overall: A sweetheart.