Comparison: 2013 Acura ILX vs. Buick Verano
The battle for affordable luxury heats up
If, a decade or more ago, you had even suggested comparing a Buick — any Buick — to anything wearing an Acura badge, you would have been laughed right out of auto journalism. The once storied American brand had fallen into such disrepute, its cars so boring, its image so bland that it was the butt of now politically-incorrect, ageist jokes. Buick was the example that David Letterman trotted out whenever he wanted to illustrate how truly old someone was. Buicks were the kind of car that your dad's dad drove.
Acura, meanwhile, was a brand ascendant. Along with Honda, it was at the height of its powers, its reputation for reliability legendary and its promise of Teutonic-like luxury at Japanese prices attracting ever more customers. The thought of an elderly Buick taking on a spry Acura would have simply been ludicrous.
And yet, the surprise — ruining any suspense for the eventual outcome of this toe-toe comparison — is quite how well the Buick Verano fared when we recently tested it back-to-back with Acura's new ILX. And not in just such relatively easily-contested areas such as content and size, but in the engineering nitty-gritty of robust chassis and sophisticated powertrains.
Indeed, it's the Buick that is truly the first "premium" compact to offer a big car ride. Thanks to its obviously stiff and well-engineered platform, the very first impression behind the wheel of the Verano is that it conducts itself like a much larger car, its advantage in comportment over the Acura substantial. Where the ILX is like a typical small-car, jarring ride over any surface less than glass smooth, the Verano literally floats along as if it weighs half a ton more. While most small cars transmit every bump and crease directly to the passenger compartment, even over some seriously rough gravel roads, the Verano remained as calm and unperturbed as a traditional luxury sedan. So, although the Acura has a slight advantage in suspension technology — a rear multi-link system versus the Buick's Z-link torsion beam — the Buick more than makes up for it with the solidity of its framework.
Nor is its advantage the result of Buick's traditional ultra-soft suspension. Yes, the Acura's suspension is firmer and it corners with less roll than the Buick but suspension performance alone is not enough to give the handling advantage to the ILX. What does, however, put a checkmark in the ILX's column is its superlative steering feel. Where the Verano uses a more modern electric power steering system to reduce load on the engine (and therefore fuel consumption), the ILX sticks with tried-and-true hydraulically-boosted steering and gains a measure of credibility for sticking with the retro tech system. Where the Verano steering feels Novocaine numb whenever you bend it into a corner, the Acura offers quasi-BMW like (or, at least it feels like it in comparison) feedback. This lack of steering feel is both the Verano's biggest drawback and the ILX's biggest asset so, if playing silly buggers on twisty roads is a prime consideration, the Acura has a distinct advantage when the going gets curvy.
In every aspect of driving in a straight line, however, the Verano wins hands down. Besides the aforementioned ride advantage, the Buick's engine offers a perfect trifecta of advantages: it is larger (2.4L versus 2.0L), boasts 30 more horsepower (180 hp versus 150) and has more torque (171 lb.-ft. compared with 150). Yet the Verano managed exactly the same fuel consumption as the ILX, both our testers achieving exactly identical fuel consumption when switching cars. The Verano manages this feat because a.) its larger engine features direct fuel injection, always a boon to fuel economy and b.) its autobox features six speeds while the Acura's sports but five reducing engine speed on the highway — 2,400 rpm at 120 kilometres an hour compared with 2,700 rpm at the same speed in the Acura. (It should be noted, however, that the Acura has the superior Transport Canada fuel economy rating — 8.6 L/100 km in the city versus 9.9 and 5.6 L/100 km on the highway compared with the Verano's 6.2.)
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the day is finding that the Buick's powertrain is more sophisticated than the Acura's. The Buick's four-banger, for instance, sings far more sweetly at high rpm and its automatic transmission shifts more smoothly. And with the engine spinning slower in top gear, it's amazing how relaxed the Verano feels cruising at highway speeds. Indeed, if you're looking for the Verano's defining advantage over the ILX, it is how amazingly quiet this Buick is regardless of speed.
Fans of Acura may well have a hard time with accepting the condemnation, the realization that mighty Honda has been outdone by, well, Buick a bitter pill to swallow. And indeed, driven in isolation, the ILX's 2.0-litre VTEC engine feels as competent as previous Honda products with decent performance, good NVH (that's engineering parlance for noise, vibration and harshness, by the way) and excellent fuel economy. And yet, it takes less than five minutes inside the Verano to realize the Civic-based ILX is now the technological laggard. It needs at least another gear in its autobox and mighty Honda, the world's largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines, should be able to squeeze more than 150 ponies out of 2.0 litres. Faster, smoother and more relaxed at highway speeds, the Buick's 2.4L now sets the standard for the segment.
Which car has the nicer cabin?
Inside, the ILX and Verano are extremely similar in size (and, indeed, their cargo areas are similar in size, shape and lift-over height — flip through the gallery to compare for yourself) with the ILX having a small advantage in rear seat legroom, countered by an equally infinitesimal inferiority in rear-seat headroom. In terms of interior room, then, it's a wash.
As for décor, the ILX tends toward BMW austere, the monochromatic black of the tester not exactly warm, but extremely functional. The Verano, by comparison, is a Jaguar, with curved spaces forming a semi-cockpit for the driver and the audio and navigational systems' LCD bright and cheery (even if its controls are wonky). The Verano has the edge, by the slimmest of margins, then, in the interior décor category.
The Acura counters, in finest Japanese tradition, with tighter panel gaps. The Verano's fit and finish is hardly sloppy, but the build quality of the ILX reveals the care and attention for which Honda is justifiably famous. The ILX's interior is extremely well made even if the materials don't feel special.
As well, though the Verano's audio system is markedly superior, with both louder and better quality tonal reproduction, its radio station changing function is unnecessarily complicated. One first has to rotate the tuning station knob until the desired destination is highlighted on the LCD and then use your fingers on the touchscreen to finalize the selection. In virtually all other systems, once simply pushes the button you just twirled to make the selection. At first, I thought it was my just my age-related digital ignorance that prevented me from seeing an obvious solution. But then tech-savvy young Justin Couture, MSN Autos' online editor, had the same problem. I was much relieved, the reaffirmation that I am not yet doddering far more important than any minor ergonomic inconvenience.
Another advantage for the ILX is that the Verano's seats, in one last vestige of the Buickdom of yore, are overstuffed and lack sufficient side bolstering. It feels like you're sitting on, rather than in, the seats. It's all very reminiscent of the old-school chesterfield that my grandparents kept in their sunroom. Not only did we both find the seats less comfortable, but there was much slippy-sliding when trying to corner the Verano with any kind of élan.
Don't pinch us: We're not dreaming
Photo: Justin Couture
The Verano counters with some pricing advantages compared with the Acura. Though it boasts a few more features, a base ILX starts at $27,790 while you can get in a Verano for as little as $22,895 (and, yes, that includes the 2.4L engine). We tested the Verano Leather edition which starts at $28,695 compared with the similarly-equipped ILX Tech that starts at $32,290. The Tech offers a navigation system as standard equipment though adding it to the Verano, as well as a power glass sliding sunroof, still only brought the Buick's MSRP to $30,690.
The Acura is not without its advantages. Its steering is far more communicative, its seats more supportive and its demeanor decidedly sportier. But — and, again, this is as much a surprise to us as it probably is to you — the Buick is simply the superior vehicle. Its platform — the basis for everything that is performance and comfort related in an automobile — feels far more robust and its powertrain — with an extra gear in the tranny, more displacement/performance from its engine and decent fuel economy — feels a generation ahead of the Acura.
Despite this apparent superiority, I suspect that Young Turks shopping this segment will reject the Verano on image alone. Buick has absolutely no street cred amongst the young and trendy (those chrome VentiPorts on each side of the hood aren't going to help matters). Performance disadvantages notwithstanding, the ILX's lower and more aggressive stance speaks directly to the Hugo Boss crowd. The ILX is also a marked improvement over the CSX and perhaps even a worthy successor to the Integra, as long as you're not comparing it with the GS-R and Type R versions.
But for those who shop objectively, the Buick is the clearly superior entry-level luxury automobile. Even if we're still having problems believing it ourselves.
2013 Acura ILX
Price (base/as-tested): $27,790 / $32,290
Type of vehicle: FWD compact luxury sedan
Engine: 2.0L, 16-valve, SOHC, I-4
Power/Torque: 150 hp/140 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
0-100 km/h (est.): 8.6 seconds
Fuel consumption (city/hwy/as-tested): 8.6/5.6/8.1 L/100 km
Competition: Audi A4 2.0T, BMW 320i, Buick Verano, Mercedes-Benz C250, Lexus IS 250, Volkswagen Jetta
2013 Buick Verano
Price (base/as-tested): $22,895 / $30,690
Type of vehicle: FWD compact luxury sedan
Engine: 2.4 L, 16-valve, DOHC, I-4
Power/Torque: 180 hp/171 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100 km/h (est.): 8.7 seconds
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 9.9/5.6/8.1 L/100 km
Competition: Acura ILX, Audi A4 2.0T, BMW 320i, Mercedes-Benz C250, Lexus IS 250, Volkswagen Jetta
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