US giant General Motors would like you to think of Buick as the “premium” brand in their portfolio. Not as luxurious, or costly, as Cadillac, but a definite cut above the slightly blue-collar Chevrolet, and with a largely different portfolio from the utility-oriented GMC. To a European, it seems, therefore, somewhat incongruous when you survey the range to find that most of the models are Buick-badged versions of cars that are sold as Opel or Vauxhall models in Europe. As, let’s be honest, despite what marketing might like to think, neither Opel or Vauxhall are seen as premium brands in Europe. As well as federalising the models, where needed, and slapping Buick badges on them, they do tend to have lashings of leather inside, and an equipment level that befits their pricing. In fact, the first Americanised Opel models were badged Saturn, but when GM killed that brand, the then next generation of models became Buicks. First to appear in this way was the last generation Insignia, sold as the Buick Regal, and positioned as a sports saloon, and this was followed by the Encore, a close relative of the unlovable Mokka. The mid-sized Verano hid its Astra roots with a different body style, and then the range was filled out with Buick’s first convertible model since the ill-fated Reatta of the early 1990s, the Cascada. Sales of the Cascada have been modest in America, as indeed they have been in Europe, even though the car now has no truly direct competitors in either market. With a large acquisition of GM products into the Hertz rental fleet from late 2017, after a period when there were none at all, I did wonder if the Cascada would be among them, as I was keen to try it, a European spec model having continued to elude me. I first saw a Cascada at LAX on my last trip, in September, but it was black (not photographically ideal) and rather battle-scarred, so I left it for someone else to rent instead. There was another one at Phoenix a few days later, but when I enquired if it was available, the answer was that they wanted a completely ridiculous $1000 a day for it (yes, you read that right!), which unsurprisingly, I declined. I found this one parked up in the Ultimate Choice section at LAX on a Monday morning, and decided to take it. I was quite surprised to find that it had 18,000 miles showing, given that it appeared to have been registered only in July. It was showing signs of a hard life, with plenty of scratches all over the bodywork. Subsequent research revealed a sticker marked Fort Lauderdale (Florida) for a 15,000 mile service, so it would seem that the car was a bit older than July, and had presumably been replated when it arrived in California. None of this would affect the way it drove, though.
First task, the rather chilly morning notwithstanding, was to lower the roof. This is as easy as it gets. There is a release switch in the centre console, which you pull, and then just wait, as the side windows drop, the theatre of the rear metalwork raising and the rear window raising before the whole hood folds up and drops down into the well behind the rear seats, before the metalwork close up again. It takes 17 seconds, and can be done whilst the car is on the move. There is a divider in the boot which had to be in place before you can do any of this. And when it is, be aware that the luggage space is very limited indeed. Luckily, I was already installed in my hotel, so all I wanted to do was to put a small carrier bag with the day’s necessities in there, and there were a couple of convenient hooks from which to hang it. There were no issues driving even on the freeway with the roof down, though you will probably want to have the side windows up. The very steeply sloped windscreen – almost a continuation in line from the bonnet – is claimed to help eliminate buffeting. It certainly works, as I drove the entire day with the roof down. There is a rear wind deflector stored behind the rear seats, but I did not feel the need to find it and fit it.
Whilst the Opel and Vauxhall badged versions, which are produced in the same German plant as this Buick version, are offered with a choice of petrol and diesel engines, there is only one engine offered here. The familiar 1.6 Turbo four cylinder unit which can be found in many other Opel and Vauxhall models. It puts out a healthy 200 bhp, though it should be noted that the Cascada is no featherweight, so needs every horse it can find. The transmission is a 6 speed automatic. The Cascada is certainly not what you would call fast, but it can more than hold its own in traffic. Think of this is a cruiser rather than a sports car, and you won’t be disappointed. You might be less sanguine with the gearbox, though, as it did seem to get caught out rather readily, either holding onto a gear when it could change up, or changing up to too high a gear too readily and depriving the driver of much needed acceleration. This probably explains why after driving 130 miles in my day with the car, I needed to put in 5.3 gallons to refuel it, an average of 24.53 mpg US, or 29.3 mpg Imperial, a not very impressive result, given the fact that the car was driven quite gently on many of those miles. At least en route, noise levels were low, from engine, road and even the wind.
Other driving characteristics remind you that this is no sports car. There is plenty of understeer if you go into the bends with gusto, and whilst the steering is nicely weighted, there is precious little feel, as is the case with so many cars these days, and body roll is all too apparent. The body seemed reasonably rigid, with no obvious signs of chassis flex, probably a consequence of all that weight that the car is carrying around. Standard fitment are rather large 20″ alloys, on 245/40 tyres, and yet the ride is not bad, reflecting the softish suspension settings. The brakes reflt rather spongey, with a dead feel on the first but of the pedal before they bit. There is an electronic handbrake Needless to say, visibility with the roof down is very good, with nothing to get in the way around you apart from that very steeply sloped windscreen pillar. When you look behind you the rather prominent radio antenna mounted on the boot lid is rather obvious, but not an impediment. There is a rear-view camera, as these are now a requirement in the US. Roof down, it is not quite as rosy a picture. The rear window area is quite small, and there is quite a lot of cloth roof on the side, so care is needed at oblique junctions- There are front and rear parking sensors fitted in the Premium trim version of the test car.
The dashboard of the Cascada reminds you very much of the last generation Insignia. And above all else, that means buttons. I gave up counting when I reached 50! The early Regal was similarly inflicted, before GM decided to relegate some of the functions to the much derided IntelliLink system instead. And that was not necessarily a Good Thing, either. Second impression was that although there was a lot of leather in the cabin, covering much of the dashboard, the door casings and the seats, much of it was looking a bit tatty after less than 20,000 miles. There are metallised (look) silver and gloss black inlays which provide some textural contrast. The instrument dials are in deeply recessed individual cowls, with speed and rev counter being the larger ones, and fuel level and water temperature the smaller ones, set in the upper region between the larger ones. Below these is the trip computer display area, which will provide the usual sorts of information, which you can cycle through using a button and twist function on the left hand column stalk. Sadly this, and indeed the Infotainment screen proved to be completely unreadable in bright sun when driving with the roof down. The stalks are stock GM items that you find in most of the rest of the US range. Lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. Steering wheel spoke buttons are cruise control related on the left hand side and audio repeaters on the right. Then we get to the centre of the dash and the button fest. There is a small 7″ display screen for the IntelliLink infotainment system. It is touch sensitive, but as it is recessed, it is not the easiest to reach as you drive along, but beneath it are all those different buttons to press. The layout is logical enough, but finding the right one quickly without looking intently is not going to happen. Sadly, the XM Satellite radio was not working (a clue to the age of the car, as this means that the subscription had expired) but the working wavebands were perfectly usable even with the roof down. Navigation is included in the package. Beneath all the audio unit related unit buttons are those for the dual zone climate control, and including other functions such as the seat heaters. This means that the centre console is free just for the electronic handbrake and the roof latch.
You sit surprisingly low in the Cascada. Indeed, this is one of few cars where I found the lowest setting of the seat to be too low. Adjustment is electric, and combined with a telescoping wheel, I was readily able to get comfortable, though I have read reviews which suggest that were you to sit on the seat for a lengthy period, you may conclude otherwise as regards the shape and comfort of the seats. The seat belt mounting, as is generally the case with convertibles, is well back, but a motor helpfully propels it forward when you start the engine. There are heating elements for the seats and the steering wheel, and whilst it was not as warm as you might expect from California (it was December!), I did not feel the need to use them.
There are most definitely only two rear seats, as the space between them is given over to a pair of cup holders. Space is at a premium even for two. First you have to get in. With the roof down, this is not too hard, as you have no height limitation. Even so, there is not a lot of space between the front seat, whose backrest folds forward, and the bodywork, so you will need a degree of athleticism to get in, and especially to get out. With the roof erect, it is even harder. Once installed, you quickly realise there is not much space. Even with the front seat set well forward, legroom and knee room was not particularly generous, but set the front seat well back, and both of these more or less disappear. The Cascada would be a struggle for four adults, really, especially with the roof up.
Though if the roof was up, then you could at least get a bit more luggage in. With the roof down, the divider between roof and boot means that there is very limited height for anything in the boot, though the floor area is actually not too bad. Under the boot floor there is a space saver spare wheel, and there is space for a few odds and ends around it. The rear seat backrests do fold forwards. The gap through the rear bulkhead is not huge, but this would help a bit with luggage capacity. Inside the cabin, there is a good split level glove box, there are pockets on the doors, and there is a cubby under the central armrest and a further open area in front of the gearlever. For those in the back, there are map pockets on the back on the front seats, a small pull-out tray from the back of the centre console and small recesses in the side trim mouldings.
The Cascada comes in three trims: 1SV, Premium, and Sport Touring. Every trim features the same 200 bhp 1.6 litre turbo-four engine, a six-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. Features-wise, the only extras you get from the higher trims are driver assistance technologies like forward collision alert and lane departure warning, along with access to a broader palette of paint colours. If you can live without those, you’ll do just fine sticking with the base 1SV trim. If you do want those extra features, you’ll only pay about $3,000 more to jump up to the Premium trim. The base Cascada 1SV has a base price of $33,070. It comes with leather upholstery, heated front seats, Buick’s IntelliLink infotainment system, a 7-inch touch screen, navigation, a USB port, Bluetooth, satellite radio, a seven-speaker audio system, a rearview camera, rear parking sensors, dual-zone automatic climate control, a heated steering wheel, and a Wi-Fi hot spot. The Cascada Premium starts at $36,070. In addition to the 1SV’s features, the Premium comes with front parking sensors, forward collision warning, and lane departure warning. The Cascada Sport Touring has a starting price of $37,070. Its features list mirrors the Premium’s, though the Sport Touring adds sporty upgrades like a flat-bottom steering wheel and alloy sport pedals.
I was slightly surprised during the test to receive several favourable comments about how stylish the car is. One of these came as I was filling it up before returning, from someone driving a Dodge Challenger. I retorted that I would far rather have his car, and he replied back saying that “yeah, but it is a gas guzzler”. As more and more fuel went into the Cascada, I was able to tell him that so was this Buick. Roof down, though, there is a certain style to it, and if you want a convertible at an affordable price, there are not many other options. In rental car land, they amount to the Ford Mustang and the Chevrolet Camaro. Both are oriented towards sporty rather than luxury, and suffer from even less space in the rear seats. But if you can live with this, you would probably find both of them a lot more fun to drive, and neither of them are as crude inside as once they were, so the luxury angle is not that much of an advantage to the Buick these days. If you really do want luxury, then you have to look at the cars which are truly premium like the Audi A5, BMW 4 Series and Mercedes C Class Cabrio, all of which cost a lot more money. Of these, the Mercedes is currently in the Hertz US fleet, and I hope to try one to see what you gain by spending either extra rental car money, or on a purchase price. Meanwhile, if you want an open air rental experience, I would suggest you take the Mustang – there are more of them on fleet, and it is a better car to drive, and will probably cost you the same rental rate.