Two brands with two different identities. Who comes out on top?
The base price for our Cascada was £27,595
The telltale sign of scuttle shake only marginal in the Audi
The Cascada cannot hide a centre console lifted straight out of the Astra
The Cascada has one of the finest and most luxurious interiors ever to grace a Vauxhall
The Audi's interior is a pleasant place to be
The Audi offers decent legroom
Vauxhall's Cascada does a better job of hiding any roof-loss compromises
The Audi gets the biggest seal of approval from the public
The A5 fails to ride gracefully
Opel/Vauxhall boss Karl-Thomas Neumann admits image is a problem for Vauxhall
The Cascada is certainly image boosting for Vauxhall
Let’s be honest: when you’re buying a convertible, the importance of how well it drives is nearly always overridden by how good it looks and the kind of statement it makes. So you’d take a rag-top Audi over a similar-sized Vauxhall, wouldn’t you?
Perhaps not any more. Vauxhall has given us an intriguing question to answer with its latest soft-top, the sleek and desirable Cascada. It has jumped a class in size over the forgettable Astra TwinTop that preceded it, gaining an attractive new look, a much more premium cabin and higher price as a result. Almost right into Audi A5 cabriolet territory, in other words. So in a class where image is everything, would you still go for that Audi when Vauxhall is offering much of the same for that bit less?
To give the Cascada a fair chance, we’re testing an apple against an apple – a model with an already near-range-topping engine/trim combination that has been made plusher (so more Audi-like) with optional extras. The base price of £27,595 of our 163bhp 2.0 CDTi model in range-topping Elite trim quickly heads north of £35,000 once desirable options such as an Audi-style Nappa leather interior, a whole host of electronic trickery and adaptive dampers are added.
The A5 cabriolet that matches this Cascada’s spec closest on paper is the 175bhp 2.0 TDI (admittedly, with an automatic gearbox against the Cascada’s manual, so we’ll leave this out of the comparison) in £37,445 S-line trim, which swells to just over £40,000 with some added infotainment options and something that’s surely now crucial in Baltic Britain: heated seats.
Baltic are the conditions awaiting us as we head down the M3 and M27 towards England’s answer to France’s Mediterranean coastline in search of picturesque locations to pose the convertibles in front of and to introduce them to some well heeled and image-conscious locals. Our first port of call is Sandbanks, surely Britain’s most exclusive seaside postcode. It still seems shut for the winter, despite this being spring, so it’s over the river on the car ferry to the pretty seaside town of Swanage for some topless motoring.
On the morning drive to the ferry, it’s the Vauxhall that impresses more. Its cabin seems to stay that bit toastier than the Audi’s in the wintery weather and it proves to be a more comfortable motorway companion. You’d expect 19-inch wheels and a convertible body style to be a recipe for discomfort, but not so in the Cascada. Indeed, it rides noticeably better than the A5, which wears smaller 18-inch alloys. The Vauxhall’s adaptive dampers make things much more supple than the passive dampers in the Audi.
The telltale sign of scuttle shake – a wobbly rear-view mirror – is absent in the Cascada and marginal in the A5. Let’s be clear: the Audi is never uncomfortable, but you’re always aware that dynamic compromises have been made in chopping the roof off – something the Vauxhall does a better job of disguising.
Around town, neither car does a particularly good job of concealing its heft or compromised structure by crashing over more abrasive road surfaces, but the Vauxhall noses it in this department, too. The A5 cabriolet is another Audi that, in S-line trim, just doesn’t ride with any real grace or suppleness on UK roads.
Where the Audi does trump the Vauxhall is in engine refinement and performance. The A5’s 2.0-litre turbodiesel is a noticeably quieter engine than the Cascada’s similar-sized unit, and the small power and torque advantages that the Audi has on paper are amplified more on the road. The A5 feels much brisker.
Back into town and to Swanage, and we pose the cars on a public slipway for some pictures. Locals and tourists that have braved the cold have a nosey as they walk past. The biggest seal of approval is given to “the red one”, as the Audi quickly becomes known, but the Vauxhall is not without its fans. Certainly, no one turns up their nose at the fact that it is wearing ‘only’ a Vauxhall badge.
It’s the Vauxhall that I jump into for the drive back through Dorset and Hampshire into the New Forest on some quieter roads. On first acquaintance, the Cascada has one of the finest and most luxurious interiors ever to grace a Vauxhall. The quality of the leather on the big, comfortable seats and stitched dashboard is exemplary, but it cannot hide a centre console lifted straight out of the Astra, on which the Cascada is based.
In a car with premium aspirations, the ugly, black, plasticky array of buttons is unwelcome. Contrast this to the Apple-like simplicity and quality of the A5, and the Vauxhall cannot compete. It’s as much an issue of perceived quality as anything. We doubt that the volume knob is going to fall off the Cascada, for instance, but everything about the Audi – from the fonts and graphics used on the sat-nav to the tactile response you get from pressing buttons – is superior.
Which is a shame, because when we reach some twistier, more demanding roads in the New Forest, the Cascada outshines the A5 again. Neither car has particularly communicative steering, but you get more feedback from the Cascada, and extra weight can be added by hitting the Sport button on the dashboard.
It’s a similar story when you throw the cars into some hard corners. Neither is particularly involving (these are cars designed for touring, remember), but the Vauxhall comes closer to putting a smile on your face. That extra stiffness and body control are evident, helped by the torque steer-reducing and stability-improving HiPerStrut front suspension, taken from Vauxhall’s Astra and Insignia VXR models.
Heading back up the M3 to London, it would appear that we have a winner: the Cascada. Well, erm, no. It all comes back to that original point of why you buy a convertible. That the Vauxhall is the better car to drive is clear, but whether it is the better car is a moot point in a class with much wider considerations.
The Audi’s interior is that much nicer, and it feels special enough for its dynamic shortcomings to be slightly excused. And you can always opt out of the S-line suspension for a more comfortable life.
Neither car is exceptional to drive; the Vauxhall is good, the Audi acceptable. But the gap between them is not wide enough to declare that you should overlook the extra desirability, quality and better residuals of the Audi to buy the Vauxhall.
It all comes back to image, something that new Opel/Vauxhall boss Karl-Thomas Neumann has admitted is a problem for the brand as he seeks to shift Vauxhall out of the middle market and into the semi-premium segment that Volkswagen has pretty much got sewn up at the moment. The cars aren’t the problem, says Neumann. It’s the badge.
Toppling the A5 was always going to be a tough task for the Cascada. That it gets so close is commendable. Had it been up against a convertible a rung lower in the premium stakes – the VW Eos, for instance – the result would likely have been different.
Vauxhall should not give up hope in its semi-premium quest. It’s certainly more likely to get there with image-boosting cars like this than with boasts in Powerpoint presentations.
We’re pleased that the Cascada exists, and should it go on to achieve the success that it deserves, Vauxhall may no longer have an image problem on its hands after all.