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2016 Cascada convertible is Buick's latest change agent

"That's a Buick?" asks a beachgoer as I snap pictures of the new 2016 Cascada in Islamorada, Florida. It's as if I'm in a General Motors TV commercial, except a Matt and Kim song isn't playing in the background.

A crowd starts to form, with a couple in their early 40s joining those who begin to ask questions about price and when the model goes on sale. A guy in his 20s wants spec details and to see under the hood. I answer questions and oblige all requests thrown my way, with a flurry of smart phones coming out for photos and videos of the Buick.

My unexpected photo-shoot experience suggests Buick's decision to bring the Cascada to market may pan out exactly the way it hopes. Unlike bigger-volume models such as its Encore, Enclave and forthcoming Envision crossover SUVs, Buick isn't banking on the Cascada to be sales juggernaut. Instead, it will serve as another model to help modernize the brand's prune-juice image in hopes of drawing more attention and attracting younger customers.

That's not to say that Buick isn't keen to sell as many Cascadas as possible. The comfort-first 2+2 convertible segment has seen entries fall by the wayside lately -- with entries like the Chrysler Sebring and Volvo C70 receiving their walking papers -- which may mean that there's a gap in the market to exploit. After spending some time behind the wheel, it doesn't seem like a stretch to picture the Cascada catching on with orphan droptop fans, or doing well in coastal rental car fleets.

For starters, the Cascada is quite handsome. It's a simple design with subtle character lines and surfaces that aren't overdone. The majority of sheetmetal is shared with its Opel counterpart that's been on sale in Europe for a few years, but the front and rear fascias are exclusive to Buick, and there's a tasteful amount of chrome trim dressing the exterior.

All US-bound Cascadas come standard with 20-inch wheels, which are crowd pleasers on the beach, and with the roof up, the design still looks quite good. With the top down rolling from Miami to Key West, a driver in a red Chevrolet Corvette convertible paces me for a few miles, either to admire the Cascada's looks or because he can't quite comprehend the Buick badges on such a stylish car.

The 2016 Buick Cascada is a looker while posing on the beach in Florida.

Jon Wong/CNET

It's a comfortable cruiser for my four-hour drive over mostly smooth and very straight roadways. The platform feels robust, which Buick says is because the Cascada was developed from the beginning as a convertible, with all of the appropriate reinforcements to make up for not having a fixed roof. The rigid platform enables engineers to give the suspension a softer tune to provide a complaint ride even on 20-inch tires. I do wonder how the Cascada will behave on pothole-strewn roads of my home state of Michigan, however.

With straight, two-lane roads making up most of my route and Florida's highway patrol out in force, I didn't really have a chance to open the Cascada up hard or throw it around too much, but my initial impressions suggest the chassis will hold its own when driven harder. Steering is fairly responsive to inputs, with a small dead spot on center, while the suspension isn't overly soft and keeps the Cascada's body from flopping all over the place. And don't forget about those wide tires that should help get the Cascada through corners swiftly.

The Cascada is no slouch. The 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder with 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque is punchy, with linear power delivery that pulls the Cascada off the line in a hurry. It also has good mid-range guts to blend in with expressway traffic or pass slower cars. Fuel economy is EPA rated at a rather disappointing 20 miles per gallon in the city and a more respectable 27 mpg on the freeway.

The six-speed automatic transmission performs slick gear changes, and downshifts happen in short order when more oomph is needed. That's good, because even though there's a manual shift feature using the center console shifter, it's not particularly responsive, nor does it rev-match for downshifts. I didn't feel the need to use it again after playing with it for a mile or two, and I suspect that outside of wanting to use it for engine braking on a long downhill grade, most Cascada buyers will never bother.

The 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder is peppy with 200 horsepower on tap.

Jon Wong/CNET

Head into the cabin, and the comfort trend continues, with eight-way power adjustable front seats that have been redone with wider American frames in mind. They feel good, with just enough support on the sides and lower back area, and covered with heat-reflective leather. For chillier days, the heated seats and steering wheel come standard. With the top down, wind buffeting isn't much of an issue, allowing me to keep the radio at a regular volume and have a conversation with passengers without screaming. In just 17 seconds, the roof is up, and the cabin is impressively quiet, with acoustic insulation in the soft top keeping wind noises out. Materials throughout are of good quality, and the accent stitching on the dash and door panels are a premium touch.

Standard technology features include Buick's IntelliLink system with a 7-inch color touchscreen with text message alerts, Siri Eyes Free, navigation, OnStar 4G LTE with a Wi-Fi hotspot, a rear view camera and a remote vehicle starter system. Upgrading to the Cascada Premium model adds automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, front and rear parking assist, a forward collision alert that audibly warns drivers of an impending accident, lane-departure warnings and unique 20-inch wheels.

Fans of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are unfortunately left out in the cold, with those capabilities not being available on the Cascada's older-generation IntellLink system. A company spokesman says it isn't currently planning to add them. Also signaling the Cascada's older infotainment system are the long load times for the navigation system.

The busy center stack on the 2016 Buick Cascada already looks dated.

Jon Wong/CNET

Another knock against the Cascada's interior is its busy center stack, which features a carpet of buttons, some of which are very small. I'm usually a fan of traditional hard switches, but the layout in the Cascada appears dated, and can be distracting as you sift through it looking for the right controls. It's also surprising that blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control systems aren't available. The former would be great when the roof is up (there's a sizable blind spot area common to most soft-top convertibles), while the latter would help make this cruiser even better for long road trips.

Speaking of long hauls, the backseat isn't a place where adults would want to be for long, because it's not particularly spacious. For a night out on the town, adults will be OK back there, but a weekend road trip for three or four would be difficult. That's because the second row will likely be holding some luggage -- with the top down, the trunk is only large enough to hold one roller bag and a backpack (it holds 13.4 cubic feet with the top up and 9.8 with it stowed).

Even with a lack of the latest tech features and a somewhat dated interior layout, the 2016 Buick Cascada remains a compelling entry into a segment that's starving for fresh blood. This Buick is a looker with a great ride quality, and it will certainly garner new eyes for the brand when it hits showrooms in the coming weeks. With a base price of $33,990, the Cascada undercuts BMW's smaller but sportier 2 Series Convertible, as well as the Audi A3 Cabriolet. Size wise, it matches up favorably with the Audi A5 Cabriolet and Lexus IS Convertible, but those cars cost substantially more, giving Buick an even stronger value argument (even if it doesn't have the same brand cachet).

Will the Cascada finally quash the notion that Buicks are for old people? No, but until we see something like a new Grand National or a production version of the Avista concept, the Cascada will likely be the most important image-altering vehicle in its lineup. The crowd of people it drew at my Florida beach photo shoot proves that it's off to a good start.

 

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