What is it?
The new Vauxhall Cascada: a stretchy lyrca thong of a car, really. Like so many mid-sized cabriolets, it’s for people who like the sun, and like even more to be looked at. It would also be a practical, comfortable, sensible kind of thong, as it happens – so a good thong, in other words. But a thong all the same.
Thing is, people who buy items of skimpy beachwear don’t buy the practical, comfortable, well priced ones: they buy brands. It remains to be seen if they’ll buy a Vauxhall when there are Audis, BMWs and Volkswagens available for the same price.
For what it’s worth, the enlightened ones should. Because they will unearth a much better convertible here than most equivalent mainstream brands currently offer.
What is it like?
Size is key to its case. The Cascada is as big as cars like the Audi A5, BMW 3-series and Volvo C70 drop-tops, but it’s priced like an A3 or 1-series cabrio. The Vauxhall’s back seats are adult-size as a result, so big enough for anyone under about six feet tall. That's because, while it shares the smaller Astra hatchback’s ‘Delta II’ platform, the Cascada’s wheelbase is closer in size to that of an Insignia.
The styling is certainly no reason to turn your nose up. The Cascada’s double-lined cloth hood made for more freedom of the designer’s pen than folding metal might and the car’s proportions are elegant and its detailing appealing. It’s not drop-dead gorgeous, but pretty will do. And while the cabin is bigger on function than flair, it’s rich enough to make you feel relaxed and well provided for.
Engines range from 138bhp 1.4 to 168bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol four-pots, or 2.0-litre 163bhp or 192bhp four-pot diesels. All drive through the front wheels, via either six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions.
Suspension is courtesy of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, but GM’s torquesteer-quelling Hiperstruts are fitted as standard at the front to add smoothness and precision to the steering, and its Watts’ Link goes on the rear to enhance ride and handling. If you’re prepared to pay extra, there are also ‘Flexride’ magnetorhelogical dampers on the options list.
Our test car was a 1.6-litre turbo petrol, and as such the first Vauxhall we’ve driven to use the firm's ‘Mid-sized Gasoline Engine’ (MGE). Its performance was a long way from spectacular, subdued as it is by 1.7 tonnes of kerb weight and long gear ratios chosen more for cruising than sprinting. And yet this is a fine engine: distant and hushed, but accommodating indeed in its power delivery. It’s ideally suited to the relaxed sort of service that Cascadas are likely to see.
That our test Cascada rode as quietly and absorbently as it did may have had as much to do with Vauxhall’s optional Flexride dampers as it did the car’s evidently stiff and robust reinforced body structure. We weren’t offered the chance to try a car on the standard suspension.
However, if those standard cars show almost as much skilled attention to detail in their dynamic tuning, this can confidently be pronounced a very well judged convertible.
It isn’t a driver’s car, nor even one for those particularly interested in the act, but it’s a highly competent one simply too smooth to trip you up or get in your way. It doesn’t brim with communicative, absorbing dynamism, though; the wheel feels light and a tiny bit spongey just off-centre.
But the car has just as much laid-back, cosseting polish as a Volkswagen Eos or Audi A3 Cabrio, perhaps a smidge more. The cloth roof even insulates the cabin from the wind nearly as well as the best folding tin-tops do.
Should I buy one?
The Cascada is certainly a good car in a strong position. But it’d be a much stronger one were it not for the thorny aforementioned issue of brand allure. Will the badge snobs be able to see past the Griffin on the grille to the creditable machine underneath?
Some will; as one colleague expertly realised, all those Saab convertible drivers have got to buy something different. But at this end of the market, you wouldn’t bet on many trading brand appeal for somewhat secondary added practicality.
But the truth is, Luton should be applauded for continuing to confront its big ‘chicken and egg’ problem; it’s one that must be tackled if Vauxhall is going to thrive. If it waits to develop the ‘semi-premium’ VW-rivaling brand so many think it needs to launch desirable cars like the Cascada, it’ll be waiting forever.
The egg, or rather the eggs – the cars - must come first. The road will be long, and another gear will need to be found if everyone is to be convinced that a true transformation is possible. But this car is another step in the right direction.
Vauxhall Cascada 1.6 SIDI Turbo Elite
Price: £28,605; 0-60mph: 9.2sec; Top speed: 135mph; Economy: 39.2mpg; CO2: 168g/km; Kerb weight: 1,685kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1685cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power: 168bhp at 4250rpm; Torque: 207lb ft at 1650-4250rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd automatic