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First Drive: Cascada to scrape in under $40K

Canvassing: Opel's new competitively priced Cascada will be available in Australia from next year.

Open-top Opel promises premium experience for less cash


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12 Mar 2013


OPEL will give its new Cascada convertible a flying start in Australia, with likely sub-$40,000 base pricing, a long list of “premium” features, and a powerful new petrol engine as standard.

On sale from January next year, the “four season” ragtop will target every four-seater convertible from the $36,990 Volkswagen Golf Cabrio 118TSI and its $51,990 Eos 155TSI sibling, up to the lower-end luxury version of the Audi A5 Cabriolet, which starts from $78,500.

Yet, at 4.7 metres, the Cascada is significantly longer than the 4.2m Golf, and the 4.4m Eos and Peugeot 308 CC, beats the 4.6m BMW 3 Series and A5 convertibles, and is just 2mm shy of the 4.7m Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet.

Value – as well as metal – for the money will also be central to Opel’s customer pitch, with the base ‘Edition’ manual expected to include 18-inch alloys, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, key-operated electric roof, electric heated front sports seats that automatically slide forward to give access to the rear seats, and a powered front seatbelt extender.

Opel is hoping to dazzle buyers not expecting this level of equipment in a non-luxury branded convertible. It’s a ploy we think will pay dividends, particularly in such an image-conscious segment.

Meanwhile, satellite navigation, active front cornering lights, a front-mounted camera, adaptive chassis controls, Nappa leather upholstery, and automated parking should be bundled in the better-equipped ‘Cosmo’ line, kicking off from about the $45,000 mark.

From the start of the Cascada program in 2010, the engineers shied away from the previous Astra Twin Top’s metal folding roof on the grounds of unnecessary weight, bulk, and complexity, as well as aesthetic compromise.

Styling and engineering work had the design ready in just 15 months in July 2011. Both departments agreed that a longer wheelbase was necessary to achieve the twin objectives of premium experience and proportional elegance. Aiding the latter are clean flowing lines, the absence of rollover hoops (instead, there are spring-loaded pyrotechnic bars), a simple roofline, and the implementation of ‘Inverted Blades’ side scalloping that serves to take out visual weight from the car’s sides.

The only Astra carryover parts are the (OPC model only) headlights, front mudguards, and mirrors, with the Cascada’s chrome grille, bonnet strakes, LED tail-light graphics, and extra chrome brightwork adding to the model’s unique visual signature.

Overall, the effect serves to separate the Cascada from its small-car sibling, but the nose is still unmistakably current-gen Astra. Rear-on, meanwhile, the look is unexpectedly American. But as Opel is striving to sell this car in China, probably badged as a Buick, it may not be a surprise after all.

The roof, meanwhile, was co-developed with Convertible Top Systems, which supplies Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche and Bentley with their various automotive decapitation requirements.

In this case, the Opel’s fabric item takes 17 seconds to fold (about seven seconds longer than the Golf’s), weighs 50kg (65 per cent lower than the Astra Twin Top’s), and uses extended aluminium profiles and a magnesium front fascia to help keep strength up and weight down.

A bonus is that it can be operated at up to 50km/h plus, the roof is ‘ballooning resistant’ to 240km/h.

But its relative tardiness can catch you out during briefer-than-expected traffic-light sequences the operation can be a bit clunky as it shifts and jerks into place and the boot space reduction from 380 litres to 280L with the roof stowed is a bit disappointing in such a long vehicle.

On the other hand, folding the twin backrests extends total luggage capacity to 750L with the roof up. It basically makes the Cascada everyday-practical for singles or couples who might otherwise feel obliged to buy a hatchback.

Two top varieties are available – a “normal” roof and an acoustically enhanced “Premium” version that uses polyester fleece layers and heavier base fabrics to cut noise intrusion by 33 per cent. That’s standard on Cosmo trim. Buyers can choose a top that is black, tan or maroon.

On our 150km or so drive in and around Nice and Monaco, the Premium Roof soon had us forgetting that it was fabric – and not solid steel – enclosing the cabin. Wind intrusion at freeway speeds is acceptable in full-open mode and impressively subdued with all side windows up but with the turret still tucked away.

Opel has worked hard to raise the refinement levels and the Cascada succeeds admirably.

Convertibles invariably suffer from body flex issues, so luxury class-equalling or leading rigidity and bending properties were the engineers’ main goals.

To that end, the Cascada boasts underbody cross bracing, beefed up A-pillars, rocker panels, and rear sub-frame torque box unit, and a big increase in the use of high, very-high, and ultra-high strength steels over the Astra Twin Top, resulting in one of the stiffest cars in its segment. In turn, Opel says safety, steering, ride comfort, noise suppression, and overall quality aspects rise accordingly.

Frankly, we struggled to spot scuttle shake from the windscreen or body structure, even over quite large potholes and road bumps. Only once was a shimmy detected, and that was over a sizeable ridge through a road works area.

Underneath the front-wheel drive Cascada is a mixture of Insignia-derived Epsilon II and Astra-based Delta II components.

They are built on a 2695mm wheelbase and 1587mm tracks that are 40mm and 2mm shorter respectively than the Insignia’s.

Opel uses the MacPherson strut front end from the flagship Insignia OPC, meaning that car’s HiPerStrut design (that separates damping and steering functions for improved traction, cornering precision, and reduced torque steer effect), Flex Ride adaptive damper system, and OPC-tuned speed-sensitive electric power steering are included, while the rear employs a Watts link arrangement.

Now, if you’re a keen driver who is also looking for a convertible, the four-seater options are almost all universally disappointing this side of a BMW 3 Series – with the notable exception of the Audi A3 and Golf cabrios.

The Cascada doesn’t pretend to be a dynamic tool, and isn’t as dynamically sparkling as the drop-tops above. But it straddles a fine line between comfort and competence that ought to please most buyers in this class anyway.

With the Flex Ride switch set to Sport mode (which basically weighs up the steering and firms the dampers), the handling feels a bit tauter than in the still-proficient normal mode, with slightly tighter body control through sharper turns. But a bit more precision and feel from the tiller wouldn’t go astray.

Not surprisingly, in Sport, the ride quality suffers on the 19-inch clad Cascadas we drove, morphing from unobtrusively absorbent to a mite firm when the surfaces became less than smooth, and then choppy over rough stuff.

This Opel’s chassis was optimised to perform on 20-inch wheels – the largest available on the Cascada – but none of the vehicles sampled had them fitted.

Most of the development shakedown occurred in Europe, with Sweden for winter testing and Spain in the summer, though New Zealand also played a role during cold-climate evaluation.

Perhaps the best has been saved until last.

The engine in question for Australia will be the car-maker’s all-new turbocharged 1.6-litre SIDI direct-injection four-cylinder petrol unit, delivering 125kW of power at 6000rpm and 260Nm of torque from 1650 to 3200rpm – with another 20Nm available for short bursts via an overboost function.

While the Cascada is down on power compared with the 155kW Eos’ 155TSI 2.0-litre turbo, it will most probably be more than $10,000 cheaper, and outguns the 118kW Golf Cabrio’s 118TSI’s 1.4-litre turbo/supercharged engine.

Considering the near 1750kg kerb weight of the car, acceleration is strong off the mark, with a heady turn of speed on offer if you’re prepared to mash down hard on the pedal. The 6500rpm limit is quickly reached with no strain or fuss.

More impressive is the sheer flexibility of the engine, pulling strongly in higher gears from low speeds with little effort – revealing a torquey undercurrent that’s easily accessed. Both test cars were six-speed manuals, as autos are not yet available.

Even after a brief drive, we were asking ourselves: “Have we ever driven a slicker and smoother GM manual gearbox?” Light yet direct, with a pleasing throw action, Opel transmissions are at last up to scratch.

On the European cycle, the six-speed manual version with (very speedy and smooth) stop-start technology earmarked for Australia averages 6.3 litres per 100km with 148 grams per kilometre of carbon dioxide emissions, or 7.2L/100km and 168g/km in six-speed automatic guise – a gearbox that features new low-friction properties compared with Opel’s other autos.

The diesels will be sidelined Down Under for now, but a pair of 2.0-litre single-turbo (121kW/350Nm “CDTi”) and new twin-turbo (143kW/400Nm “BiTurbo CDTi”) options is open for Opel Australia to contemplate.

However it is unlikely that the 88kW or 103kW 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol units (both with 220Nm) will be in the mix.

EU kerb weights figures that have the driver included range from 1701kg for the 1.4T to 1733kg (1.6T SIDI), through to 1816 for the CDTi cars.

Inside the dashboard architecture is largely new, though the centre console is derived from the Astra Select models.

Since our preview cars were heaving with almost every available option – including the perforated Nappa leather in contrasting tan trim that is unlikely to be offered in Australia, as well as the self-parking function, a front camera with traffic-sign recognition, lane departure warning, collision warning system, and blind spot alert – tasting the butter from the jam on top was a bit tricky.

But it is clear that the Cascada is roomy up front, with great seats, sensibly sited and well-assembled controls, and obviously highly equipped.

Rear-seat access is good (though the electric seats take a while to slide along), and the twin perches can easily accommodate a 180cm adult.

But the fiddly navigation controls cry out for a touch-screen (apparently that’s coming soon – and may even make it in time for when Australian deliveries commence), while the dials and switchgear are too basic-Astra to feel special against Volkswagen’s and Audi’s.

That’s a shame because that cosy Premium Roof goes a long way in convincing occupants that the Cascada feels upmarket inside.

Four airbags are included – dual front and front-side items – but this also means that the rear riders are not in airbag coverage area. Nevertheless, Opel expects to achieve a five-star ANCAP safety rating.

According to Opel Australia spokesperson Michelle Lang, it is too early to talk Cascada specifics including volume aspirations, but the model is very important since it is a brand builder.

It is also worth noting that the Polish-built drop-top is a unique and stand-alone proposition in the General Motors world, with no Holden equivalent.

Priced competitively, with good looks, a lavish interior, sweet turbo engines, and more space than most rivals, the Cascada appears to have all the major points well covered. This is a likeable car with a quality and charm lacking in most similarly priced competitors, and with only minor drawbacks.

Should we be surprised? Opel’s been building drop-tops almost continuously for more than seven decades, and this experience shows. We look forward to driving the Cascada in Australia in 2014.

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