OWENTON, KY – When General Motors executives told journalists four years ago the auto maker’s plan to revitalize Buick, most snickered quietly figuring the brand was too badly wilted after catering to the white-shoe crowd for so many years.

Look who’s laughing now.

The brand’s leaders now boast about Buick’s new youthfulness, with an average buyer age falling to 57 years old since the premium LaCrosse sedan bowed, while the industry average has been on the rise.

Buick arguably sells the industry’s most popular 8-passenger cross/utility vehicle in the Enclave, which just received a major facelift and has return buyers flocking to dealerships, as well as the high-performance Regal GS sport sedan that blows the doors off most similarly priced competitors.

Buick late last year added the Verano, a pint-sized premium sedan winning over new customers for GM at a clip of 52% of its buyers. Dealer showrooms recently added the new-for-’13 Verano Turbo, an easygoing but excitable version of the small car sure to further cement Buick’s comeback.

The Verano Turbo leverages the same 2.0L turbocharged and direct-injected 4-cyl. engine that last year won a WardsAuto 10 Best Engines nod in the midsize ’12 Regal GS sports sedan, although GM dials back the output from 270 hp and 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque to a tamer 250 hp and 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm).

No matter. The engine pulls the Verano Turbo along with gusto and, most importantly, gives the nameplate a second high-output engine to compete more squarely against the Acura ILX, its chief rival.

Former rival, that is, because both the Verano Turbo and ILX are priced just a shade under $30,000, and the Buick annihilates the Acura in power, interior appointments and, as most probably would agree, exterior styling.

During a test drive through the hills of central Kentucky, the Verano Turbo storms over steep grades and exits sharp switchbacks at speeds once reserved for local bootleggers. The broad torque curve arrives as early as 2,000 rpm, and the engine keeps pulling high into the range, eagerly responding to heavy throttle input.

It’s surprisingly quick off the line, too, given the relatively small turbocharger and the fact the Verano pushes 3,300 lbs. (1,437 kg) with all of its content. But GM claims it will run 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 6.2 seconds. Not too shabby. This is an everyday driver anyway, so neck-snapping boost would be excessive.

Torque steer from the front-wheel-drive setup is minimal and the standard all-season tires wrapping the car’s 18-in. wheels provide adequate grip in the corners, especially through a couple of surprise downhill hairpins on the drive route. Caution signs are as rare in rural Kentucky as a vodka martini.

Overall, the Verano Turbo handles nicely. It’s a lot like the Chevy Cruze with which it shares GM’s global small-car platform, and that isn’t a black mark. Both cars leverage an independent, MacPherson-style front suspension and a Watts Z-link in the rear, which balances ride, handling and comfort with cost in a lightweight and compact package.

We like how the Watts setup keeps the Verano Turbo’s rear end composed in the turns and manages recoil through dips in the roadway.

We’re told the Verano Turbo gets a slightly stiffer suspension, as well as tweaks to the electronic-power-steering system more fitting its performance demeanor. If so, they are awfully subtle. We would vote for even more weight to the EPS system. The accelerator pedal could be a tad heavier, as well.

Much of our seat time is spent behind the wheel of a model mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. At the risk of offending those geeks insisting on a manual gearbox for optimal performance, this powertrain might be the slicker of the two transmissions offered because its tap-shift mode responds so quickly.

No steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but we doubt that’s a deal-breaker. It’s kind of like drinking bourbon up or on the rocks. Both yield the same outcome.

If a buyer insists on rowing through the gears the old-fashioned way, the Verano receives an excellent 6-speed manual transmission with smooth throws and a nicely balanced clutch – it’s firm but won’t tire your leg out. Take-up feels about right, too, making this 3-pedal affair a leisurely one.

Neither transmission comes with a cost penalty. Same price, just check either box at the dealer.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates fuel economy at 21/30 mpg (11.2-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway for models with an automatic transmission. We logged 23.4 mpg (10.1 L/100 km) in mostly stop-and-go driving with our right foot pegged squarely on the accelerator at every opportunity.

Styling-wise, the Verano Turbo does not veer far from its naturally aspirated sibling. That’s a good thing, reserving the Regal GS as the aggressive-looking family member.

The Verano Turbo does receive unique dual exhaust ports, sport pedals and a rear spoiler.

Leather seating surfaces come standard, as does a heated steering wheel, owing to the fact this car occupies a higher trim level out of the factory.

Buick’s voice-commanded IntelliLink infotainment system, which also comes standard, pairs with smartphones and allows for streaming of Pandora and Stitcher Internet audio. We were happy to plug in our iPod and enjoy the excellent Bose audio system.

And since this is a Buick, expect a quiet ride due to items such as acoustic laminated glass, triple door seals, extra-thick carpeting and a solid chassis underpinning everything. But for a sports sedan, we’d prefer a little more bolster to the seats, especially on bottoms we found too flat and unsupportive. They smack of Buick’s lost years.

The car also retains awkward small daylight openings in the front side-glass from ’12. It improves visibility, particularly at corners, but we find it unsightly.

Another drawback for buyers might be the lack of exhaust note. Even the turbocharger remains muted.

But the Verano Turbo is another of the brand’s contemporary models, where the emphasis is on comfort, convenience, upscale styling and surprising extras. This one just happens to kick like a shot of moonshine, giving the folks at Buick the last laugh after all.

jamend@wardsauto.com

’13 Buick Verano Turbo
Vehicle type Front engine, FWD compact sedan
Engine 2.0L turbo gasoline direct-injection 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 250 @ 5,300 rpm
Torque 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) @ 2,000
Bore x stroke (mm) 3.39 X 3.39 in. (86 X 86 mm)
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Transmission 6-speed manual/automatic
Wheelbase 105.7 in. (268.5 cm)
Overall length 183.9 in. (467.1 cm)
Overall width 71.4 in. (181.4 cm)
Overall height 58.1 in. (147.6 cm)
Curb weight 3,300 lbs. (1,497 kg)
Base price $29,990
Fuel economy 21-30 mpg city/hwy est. (11.2-7.8 L/100 km)
Competition Acura ILX, Audi A3, Lexus IS
Pros Cons
Eager turbo 4 cyl. Whimpy exhaust note
Top-notch ride, handling Seats lack bolster
High-tech, stylish cabin The DLO must go