WARREN, MI – General Motors Co. will display its new-for-’12 Buick Verano compact luxury sedan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week, hoping the car will emulate the Enclave and LaCrosse in attracting buyers previously put off by the brand.

Long-considered too stodgy by most Americans, Buick is enjoying a comeback as one of the industry fastest-growing brands.

The Enclave large cross/utility started changing perceptions in 2007, and the LaCrosse premium midsize sedan built on that momentum with its launch in 2009.

Buick sales finished 2010 up a robust 52%, compared with 2009, according to Ward’s data, and the brand moved its share of the U.S. light-vehicle market to 1.3% from a record-low 1.0% year-ago.

The increase, driven mostly by Enclave, comes close to recapturing what the brand lost between 2008 and 2009, but it still leaves Buick more than a full share point off its recent high of 2.57% in 2002.

Including the LaCrosse and Regal midsize sports sedan, which has met a tepid reception since its launch in November, the Verano will mark Buick’s third new product in two years. Expect a 5-passenger version of the Enclave in 2012 to begin rounding out the brand’s portfolio.

The Verano is based on the same Delta II platform shouldering the new-for-’11 Chevy Cruze and Opel Astra, and production begins later this year at the auto maker’s Orion Twp., MI, assembly plant with arrival at dealers in the fourth quarter. A version of the car currently is sold in China as the Buick Excelle GT.

Buick officials tell Ward’s the Verano and more-economical Cruze share little in common beyond basic platform elements. The Verano is slightly longer, taller and wider than the Cruze and is 200 lbs. (87 kg) heavier. On paper, the interior roominess appears about the same.

The Verano also represents the first compact car from Buick since the Skylark was phased out in the ’98 model year and the first big bet from the new GM that U.S. consumers will embrace down-sized luxury.

Additionally, the new car gives GM another fuel-efficient product for its portfolio as stricter corporate average fuel economy rules begin phasing in next year.

“It is a smart choice that delivers unexpected luxury in a compact sedan,” John Schwegman, Buick’s vice president-marketing, says during a preview of the car here.

“It will compete head-to-head with competitors from Audi and Lexus,” he says referring to the A3 and IS250, which combined for sales of 40,697 units last year.

As with the LaCrosse, which is outselling its heavily discounted predecessor by 28%, the Verano will be promoted for its new design approach, economical performance and must-have technology, Buick marketers say.

Key exterior-design elements include a black “waterfall” grille and trademark portholes; chrome accents; tight wheel-to-body relationship, including available 18-in. wheels; and blue translucent projector-beam headlamps that are new to the Buick lineup.

“It’s simply a great-looking car,” says Dave Lyons, design director at Buick. “It has great proportions and sophisticated details that will look great for years to come.”

Plush seats, soft-touch materials and ambient lighting are hallmarks of the Verano’s interior carried down from the LaCrosse. GM says it focused on tight gaps throughout the interior to emphasize craftsmanship, and few dollars were spared to make it one of the industry’s quietest cabins.

An electric parking brake, push-button start and heated steering wheel and seating surfaces that owners can program to turn on automatically below 47° F (7° C) also should catch consumers’ attention, Buick says.

The Verano will launch with its own smartphone application. Additional available technology includes passive entry; navigation; and Bluetooth with streaming audio, structural speech recognition and SMS messaging capability with text-to-speech conversion.

Under the hood, GM chooses not to carry over the 1.4L turbocharged engine from the Verano’s Cruze platform mate, picking instead the auto maker’s 2.4L direct-injection gasoline 4-cyl. that won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines nod in 2009.

In this application, the E85-capable motor will make 177 hp and 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) of torque. It will be mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission and combined with electronic power steering should deliver up to 31 mpg (7.6 L 100/km) on the highway.

The addition of the Verano will give GM 10 vehicles in 2011 achieving at least 30 mpg (7.8 L 100/km), according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The auto maker says to expect an optional 2.0L turbo engine “in the future.”

The Verano receives a lateral-arm, McPherson-style front suspension, which features decoupled struts for better isolation from unwanted bumps in the road and absorption of lateral loads in cornering. In the rear, the Verano employs a Watts Z-link setup also used on the Cruze.

As a less-expensive, lighter-weight approach to an independent-acting rear suspension, the design received favorable reviews from Ward’s editors earlier this year.

Ten standard airbags headline the Verano’s roster of safety equipment.

The Verano makes its public debut at next week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

jamend@wardsauto.com