“Excuse me, is that the new Buick?” asked the older gentleman in the car next to my family and I as we cruised through our Los Angeles suburb, top down, the kids’ pop music flowing from the convertible’s seven premium speakers.
“Yes. It’s called the Cascada. Do you like it?” I replied.
“Yeah, that is a good looking car!” he responded with enthusiasm. Then the traffic light turned green, and we went our separate ways.
Next day, we pounded pavement across the north end of the San Fernando Valley at 75 mph. An old, beaten-up, faded red Mazda 3 passed us on the left, the tousle-haired teenager in the front passenger seat checking out the Buick and swiveling his head to view the front end as his buddy roared down the freeway.
That night, top down on a balmy summer evening, the kids and I waited outside of a grocery store while the love of my life shopped for some fresh fruit. A toddler wrestling with his mother while she attempted to strap him into a shopping cart took note of the Buick. He pointed. He hooted. He peered around her body to see the car.
It’s been a long time since I drove something that generated this much unexpected attention.
Based on the Opel Cascada, General Motors transformed that Polish-built 4-passenger convertible into a Buick a couple of years before the company sold Opel. Designed and engineered in Germany, the Cascada debuted for the 2013 model year, but didn’t come to the U.S. market until 2016.
Tepid best describes sales, though Buick does claim that it has sold more Cascadas than BMW has 2 Series Convertibles. In California, Cascadas are as common as unicorns, so maybe this Buick is more popular in other regions of the country.
With prices starting at $34,385, a Buick Cascada looks more expensive than it is. It genuinely holds four adults, too, and as long as the top is raised it can carry 13.4 cubic feet of cargo in its trunk. At the same time, though, it suffers from an unrefined powertrain, messy controls, and dated technology.
After the traffic light compliment, my wife turned to me and said: “You must feel like Michael Scott.”
If you don’t get the reference, Michael Scott was the main character in the television show “The Office.” In it, Steve Carell plays the clueless regional manager of a Scranton, Pennsylvania paper company, and one of the character’s symbols of his “success” is a Chrysler Sebring convertible.
No, I didn’t feel like Michael Scott, though my Cascada Sport Touring test car’s bluish green Carrageen paint job (which is discontinued for 2019) wasn’t helping in the self-confidence department.
“There is some merit to the Cascada aside from its looks,” I asserted without citing anything in particular, purposefully gripping the car’s thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped, heated, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and accelerating down the road.
That steering wheel is the best thing about the car’s dashboard and controls. Buttons and knobs litter the dashboard, logically grouped but placed closely together with similarly sized icons. It takes awhile to get used to this old-school Euro-style arrangement. Relatively small, chrome-ringed gauges reminded me of the old Pontiac Solstice, and at night the Cascada uses red illumination just like Pontiacs used to.
Clearly, General Motors left plenty of Opel intact during the Cascada’s transformation into a Buick.
Retro best describes the Cascada’s infotainment system, its 7-inch touchscreen display snugged deep into the dashboard and making it harder to use. Ever visit a website that clearly hasn’t been redesigned in the past decade or two? Yeah, it’s like that.
Don’t look for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto here, either. You do get OnStar subscription services, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, satellite radio, Siri Eyes Free, text messaging support, and a standard navigation system. A smartphone app also provides remote access to selected vehicle functions, and a reversing camera along with rear parking sensors make up for truly lousy rearward visibility when the roof is raised – or even lowered, due to the car’s high rear deck.
Music pumps through a 7-speaker premium audio system. It puts out enough quality to overcome wind noise when the top is down, but won’t ever be mistaken for a high-fidelity listening experience.
Buick equips the Cascada with exceptionally comfortable 10-way power adjustable front seats. They’re heated, and also heat-reflective, which means if you park the car in the sun with the top down you won’t suffer third-degree burns when you get back into it. Nobody in my family complained about hot seats, which in the summertime is a rarity.
An easy-entry system meant the kids had no trouble climbing aboard, though my wife complained about how heavy the doors were, and how wide they opened. The Cascada’s rear seat is a split-folding design, which allows owners to expand cargo capacity – even with the roof tucked away.
Speaking of the back seat, I heard no complaints from the little ones, aside from whining about the chill as we drove west during a glorious sunset. The car had a small windblocker in the trunk, but rather than install it I elected to power the top up, a fully automatic process that takes less than half a minute at speeds of 30 mph or less.
Even I can fit into the Cascada’s back seat, and with a reasonable degree of comfort. I am not a small man, long of leg, large of feet, and wide of girth. Yet I bet I could ride in the back of a Cascada for a decent amount of time.
Push the bottom of the Buick logo to pop the trunk, or use the remote key fob, which contains an old switchblade-style key that must actually be placed into an ignition slot in order to start the car. See what I mean about old-school controls?
Once the lid is open, you’ve got a decent amount of space. But in order to put the top down you’ll need to remove almost everything, because the folded roof goes in with the luggage. Buick says there is 9.8 cu.-ft. of space with the top dropped, but whatever you put in there had better be wide and flat.
A turbocharged 4-cylinder engine makes 200 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 207 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,800 rpm and 4,500 rpm. Evidently, there is an “overboost” function that can momentarily increase torque output to 221 lb.-ft. between 2,200 rpm and 4,000 rpm.
Sounds pretty good, eh?
Well, don’t get too excited. The Cascada weighs a minimum of 3,979 pounds, and its 1.6-liter 4-banger is saddled with a 6-speed automatic that powers the front wheels. As long as you don’t ask much of the engine, it won’t annoy you aside from its turbo lag.
Both performance and refinement rank as adequate, while efficiency comes in as sub-par. My test Cascada slurped premium fuel to the tune of 21.6 mpg on my test loop, coming in well short of the EPA estimate of 24 mpg in combined driving. And I had the top up. With the windows closed.
Rev the engine hard, and you’re rewarded with more noise than momentum, which is why it’s best to push halfway down on the accelerator and let the swell of torque do its thing. The transmission is adept at holding a lower gear when descending grades and climbing hills, allowing the Cascada to maintain proper speed on a local mountain freeway. It also has a manual shift gate, which is dissatisfying to use.
The 20-inch wheels look great, but in combination with the car’s standard sport-tuned suspension they can produce a brittle ride on imperfect pavement. This, along with the loss of structural rigidity associated with the convertible top and a torsion beam Watts Z-link rear axle suspension, means the Cascada wiggles and jiggles unless the blacktop is fresh.
Rough road surfaces also produced a choir of creaks and buzzes from the car’s mostly plastic interior trim pieces. When the top and windows were up I also noted a faint but incessant drone at speeds between 40 mph and 60 mph. When I slowed down, it would disappear. When I sped up, wind, road, and engine noise overcame it.
When driven in town and on the freeway, nothing about the Cascada’s driving dynamics made me look forward to twisting the key in the ignition, powering the top down, and hitting the road. There was, however, an environment in which this Buick shined.
Driven downhill on a smooth, twisty road, the Cascada’s Germanic tuning made itself evident. The steering came alive, the oversized P245/40R20 tires gripped the road like Trump used to Macron back when they were buddies, and the car slithered through a set of S-curves with poise and speed.
So, if you live at the top of a mountain, and you take a road like this to get places, you’ll enjoy driving the Cascada at least some of the time.
Buick, I suspect, knows that the Cascada isn’t a world-class automobile. This is a rapidly aging car, missing desirable infotainment and safety technologies (forward collision warning and lane departure warning systems are the extent of the latter), and lacking the refinement one expects in a Buick.
At the same time, it is a plug-and-play solution for a small niche that includes no direct competitors. Chrysler and Volkswagen used to play in this space with the Sebring and Eos, but when those models rolled off into the sunset the Cascada arrived to take their place, bringing incremental sales to GM for little more investment than swapping Opel lightning bolts for Buick tri-shields.
As I write this, the Buick dealership in my little part of Southern California has a single Cascada in stock, with Premium trim. The discounts amount to $3,250 off the sticker price, knocking it down to 34 grand. That’s well under a base Audi A3 Cabriolet or BMW 2 Series Convertible, but a bit more than a base Chevy Camaro or Ford Mustang convertible.
In other words, the Cascada owns a small but distinct sweet spot in the market. There is nothing else like it, and it delivers decent value.
Therefore, if you want an affordable and attractive convertible with true seating for four adults and lots of traditional upgrades like leather, nice wheels, and more, this Buick might just be perfect. Especially if you like the idea of driving something that looks more expensive than it is, and you don’t mind the stiff ride.
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share it using the “Join the Conversation” buttons below, and thank you for visiting Daily News Autos.