Impractical convertibles seem to do ok. The practical ones not so much.
The Camry Solara, 200 convertible and C70 withered away for lack of interest, like unwanted timeshares — notwithstanding back seats that were both present and adult-usable as well as trunks large enough to hold more than a bag of M&Ms and a bottle of water.
Meanwhile, Miatas without back seats at all do fine.
And convertible Camaros and Mustangs with useless ones, too.
Apparently, the Critical Ingredient is not backseat legroom. Or a more-than-pouch-sized trunk.
In other words, practicality isn’t the problem.
Which could be a problem for Buick and this new Cascada convertible.
WHAT IT IS
The Cascada is a mid-sized, front-wheel-drive convertible, very much like the Camry Solara and Chrysler 200 convertible were.
Like them, it is practical for a convertible, with a roomy, road trip-friendly interior and passenger-friendly back seats (unlike the convertible versions of sporty 2-plus-2 coupes like the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang).
Base price is $33,065 — but “base” is an unkind word to use given this version of the Cascada comes standard with almost everything that’s available in every Cascada, including 20-inch wheels, heated leather seats, a seven inch LCD touchscreen, in-car WiFi, GPS, a heated tilt and telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and a power soft-top that can be raised or lowered in about 17 seconds with the car moving at speeds up to about 30 MPH.
A top-of-the-line Premium trim stickers for $36,065.
It comes with electronic nannies such as lane departure warning and forward collision alert as well as useful items such as air deflectors for the front and rear seats to reduce wind buffeting when the top’s down.
While there are lots of convertibles on the market, almost all of them are either sporty two-seat roadsters like the Mazda Miata and BMW Z4 or soft-top versions of established two-plus-two sport coupes like Camaro and Mustang that sell well because of their popularity, despite their impracticality.
Like the departed Camry Solara and Chrysler 200 convertible, the Cascada is more about taking one’s time and enjoying the ride than getting there quickly.
There are no high-performance engine options — and the ride is set up to be soft and quiet (even with the top down).
The Cascada’s chief rival — or rather, the car Buick is specifically targeting — is the Audi A3 Cabriolet.
It is smaller and costs more — $36,300 to start, pushing $45k optioned out — but it’s much quicker and (as an Audi) has euro-brand cachet.
Another possibility is the VW Eos — which is more reasonably priced at $32,860 to start — but you’d better hurry if you’re interested in that one because it’s been cancelled. This year will the last year for the Eos. You’ll have to pick from whatever leavings are still available on dealer lots.
The Cascada is a new model and Buick’s first convertible model since the Reatta (RIP) back in the early ‘90s.
It’s very pretty — and very handsomely equipped as it sits.
Drop the top without having to stop.
No cowl shake, excellent body integrity.
Usable back seats (32.8 inches of legroom) and trunk (13.4 cubic feet).
Costs thousands less than Audi A3 Cabrio.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Despite its very small engine — just 1.6 liters — it uses a lot of fuel (EPA says 20 city, 27 highway vs. 24 city, 35 highway for A3 Cabrio; I averaged 21.4 MPG).
Could use more engine.
Zero to 60 takes 8.6 seconds (The base A3 Cabrio does the same run in 7.4 seconds. With its optional engine, the A3 can do it in 5.8 seconds.)
No optional engine in the Buick.
Lots of too-small buttons for secondary controls.
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel is manual-adjust; it works fine but doesn’t feel refined.
Ditto the physical/insert and turn (as opposed to push-button) ignition key. Seems out of place for 2016 — and $35k.
UNDER THE HOOD
In keeping with Trends, the Cascada has a very small (just 1.6 liter) four cylinder engine with a turbo bolted to it for on-demand power. A six-speed automatic is the standard and only available transmission and there is no optional engine.
Small (but turbocharged) engines are being resorted to en masse as a way to reconcile the historically irreconcilable goals of high fuel economy (which the government demands) on the one hand and good power/performance (which buyers expect) on the other.
When not on boost, a little engine drinks less fuel than a larger engine. When on boost, a little engine can make bigger engine power, as needed.
That’s the idea.
The Cascada’s engine makes good power — 200 hp — for its size. The problem — from the standpoint of performance (and fuel efficiency) is the Cascada’s weight: 3,979 lbs. empty.
Add driver and passenger.
The power-to-weight ratio is not favorable.
Which is why the Buick needs 8.6 seconds to achieve 60 MPH. And only earns an EPA rating of 20 MPG in city driving and 27 on the highway.
These aren’t terrible numbers but they’re not very good numbers, either.
The Cascada’s targeted competition — the A3 Cabrio — is both quicker and more fuel-efficient. It is also some 600 pounds lighter (3,384 lbs.) Which is why it gets to 60 more than 1 full second sooner and uses a lot less fuel, too.
It’s the same story vs. the VW Eos (soon to be retired). It has exactly the same power (200 hp) but because it is hundreds of pounds lighter (3,508 lbs.) it is much quicker (zero to 60 in 7.3 seconds) than the Buick as well as easier on gas (22 city, 30 highway).
I’m not sure what Buick’s thinking was when the decision was made to use the 1.6 liter engine in the Cascada. It’s not a bad engine. It’s just not enough engine. Not for two tons-plus. Arguably, a larger (and not turbocharged) V6 would have done a better job delivering both power/performance and MPGs. I’ll get into that in greater detail below.
On the plus side:
Though it’s turbo-boosted, the Buick’s 1.6 liter engine is designed to run on regular 87 octane unleaded. The A3 Cabrio’s also-turbocharged engines (1.8 and 2.0 liters) both are designed to operate on premium.
ON THE ROAD
A World War II aviation analogy may help get a handle on the Cascada’s possibly fatal flaw. The German Luftwaffe had this great idea for a fighter-bomber, a plane that could defend itself against pure fighters while also carrying a payload of bombs to the target. The result was the Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstorer (destroyer).
It was a great-looking plane that got shot down a lot.
Because it was too heavy (when loaded with bombs) to be fast enough and agile enough to dogfight.
And when not loaded with bombs, it was…. not much use a bomber. The Germans never quite figured out what to do with it.
When it comes to convertibles — the successful ones seem to be either those that are light and small and agile (like the Miata and BMW Z4) or those that have the power — at least as an available option — to overcome their size and weight (e.g., the convertible versions of the Camaro and Mustang).
Convertibles that aren’t particularly sporty — without much going on under the hood — haven’t done so well.
In fact, they have done terribly.
I think it has to do with cruiser convertibles being out of step with the times. The pace of things has picked up and take-your-time models like the Camry Solara and the Volvo C70 and the Chrysler Sebring/200 were out of step with the times.
Like Vitalis hair tonic — and men wearing pork pie hats to work.
Flash back to 1969.
When men did use Vitalis and wore pork pie hats to work.
There were lots of convertibles back then — but most of them not “sporty.” Most were big, heavy cruisers packing big V8s that overcame their battleship curb weight with a superabundance of torque and a heapin’ helping of horsepower.
Picture a red Eldorado with a bone white interior and 8.1 liters under its hood. Or a 455-powered Buick Skylark. They had three-across bench seats and column shifters and people loved them because traffic didn’t give you angina in those days and driving with the top down was actually pleasant most of the time.
It’s not anymore — chiefly, because most of the time, you’re not moving. Because traffic sucks and it sucks almost all the time, unless you are lucky enough to live out in The Woods like me, which most people don’t.
So, the top is up most of the time, for most people.
Which shifts the attention to how the car drives; to what happens when you stomp on the gas.
How it takes the curves.
Not much happens when you stomp on the Cascada’s gas. Except that it uses a lot of gas. I averaged low 20s, which is pretty poor given the car’s performance. My 40-year-old muscle car sucks gas too, but it also goes when you hit the gas. And its mileage isn’t actually all that bad, considering.
Only about 10 MPG worse than the Cascada’s when I’m running it hard.
And it runs hard.
So do the Camaro and Mustang convertibles — which incidentally also have smallish turbo fours but much stronger ones (275 hp for Camaro; 310 for the Mustang) that deliver V8 muscle car acceleration (5.5 seconds to 60 for the Camaro; 5.8 for the Mustang) and pretty solid MPG numbers, too (21 city, 30 highway for the Chevy; 21 city, 32 highway for the Ford).
Roadsters like the Miata, on the other hand, are not muscle car quick but they are light and nimbler than a corporate lawyer — while also delivering almost-economy car MPGs (27 city, 34 highway).
So where does the Cascada come in?
It’s neither speedy nor particularly economical. It’s a gentle cruiser, with a very smooth and quiet ride, ideal for languid sight-seeing trips on the Blue Ridge Parkway, for instance. With the top dropped on a warm summer day, no hurry about getting there, it’s the perfect car. Unlike a Miata or Z4, it has back seats.
And unlike a Camaro or Mustang, those back seats are usable.
The trunk is huge for a convertible: 13.4 cubic feet (Miata’s is 4.6 cubic feet).
But such eminently practical attributes didn’t do much for the Camry Solara or the Chrysler 200 or the Volvo C70.
There are also some practical problems.
While it’s cool that you do not have to stop the car to raise or lower the top (you have to come to a complete stop in the A3 Cabrio to do either) when the top is up it’s hard to see what’s going on behind you because the rear glass is tiny and slanted sharply and the rear headrests (mandated by Uncle for “safety”) eat up what little rearward view you’ve got. Plus — because Uncle and his rear-impact standards — the car’s rear is big and high.
Rearward visibility with the top up is a problem in most modern convertibles — which probably helps explains why convertibles are a hard sell unless they do other things well when the top’s up.
Another problem is the Cascada’s array of smallish and numerous center stack buttons for the various secondary functions. Other car companies have addressed the problem of having too much “button clutter” by using an all (or mostly) electronic interface of the mouse/scroll/menu variety. The Buick has a touchscreen, but it also has too many physical buttons and some of them are awkward to use. For example, the main knob input is a knob with a ring around it that slides in and out. You rotate the knob to (as an example) find the radio station you want and then — using your thumb and index finger — you push in to select/engage.
The LCD screen itself is recessed too deeply, making it awkward to make changes by finger touch.
A final oddity is the old-timey ignition key. It’s an actual key — a metal key.
Just like 1969!
There is nothing wrong with this; old-school keys work just fine. But most people under 50 today probably expect a keyless/pushbutton ignition. Buick doesn’t even offer this as an option.
Most buyers also probably expect a $35k-to-start new car to either automatically unlock when they approach — or unlock when the owner touches the door handle.
With the Cascada, you have to manually press “unlock” on the key fob transmitter.
AT THE CURB
It’s pretty — no worries there.
And that may save its bacon.
The Camry Solara and Chrysler 200 were the Mrs. Doubtfires of their kind. They were Old Lady Cars. Not that there is anything wrong with that, either.
But there are only so many old ladies in the market for a new convertible.
The Cascada isn’t exactly (cue Luca Brasi voice) a masculine car but it’s not geriatric — and that’s definitely in the plus column.
As are the adult-viable backseats.
And the doors — which open super wide, almost perpendicularly — which really opens up access to the interior.
It is a fairly large car — 184.9 inches long overall vs. 175.4 for the A3 Cabrio — but it’s not a lunker (like a ’69 Eldorado) and — other than the keyhole visibility to the rear when the top’s up — it’s an easy car to maneuver.
And it is absolutely loaded as it sits.
In keeping with its lover-not-a-fighter nature, the Cascada literally cascades with amenities. In fact, there are no extra-cost amenities. Just a few “safety” gewgaws such as Lane Departure Warning, front parking sensors and Forward Collision Alert. None of these add luxuriousness to the car so if you skip them — by not opting for the Premium trim, which includes them — you won’t be driving a less-posh Cascada. And — in my world — being able to avoid these “safety” systems (which would more accurately be called Addled/Inattentive Driver Idiot-Proofing systems) and their attendant light and buzzer show is a blessing.
Plus, you save $3k by opting out.
One thing that’s not a blessing is that the otherwise loaded-as-it-sits Cascada doesn’t come standard with the air deflectors that come standard with the Premium trim. These are necessaries in a convertible and should be included in the car’s base price.
Or at least, you ought to be able to order them a la carte.
But you can’t.
Instead, you’re looking at a $3k price bump — to the Premium trim — which also socks you with the “safety” nannies you might like to skip.
You’ve read my gripe about the Cascada’s less-than-great performance and mileage. Now hear a related gripe about the standard 20 inch gnomesayin’ “rims.” You can make an argument for huge “rims” (and super stiff/short-sidewall tires) if they are for a performance car. They make the steering feel sharper and the car handles better. But they also increase rolling resistance (see that point above about fuel economy) and are at odds with ride quality. Buick engineers managed a minor miracle imbuing the Cascada with a plush ride despite the “rims,” but it’d be even more plush with sane (for a car like this) 17 inch wheels.
It’d probably get better gas mileage, too.
Especially if it went on a diet.
The dearly departed Camry Solara — a very similar car in terms of size — only weighed 3,615 lbs. That’s almost 400 pounds less than the Cascada. Even with a big V6 (3.3 liters, twice the size of the Buick’s 1.6 liter four) it still managed 18 city, 26 highway — and got to 60 in 6.9 seconds (nearly two full seconds sooner than the Buick).
The Solara still failed, even so — probably because it wasn’t very pretty.
The Buick is very pretty — but it’s also way too heavy.
Which may be the thing that seals its fate.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I like this car. Most people who see it probably will, too.
But will enough of them want to buy it?
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos