Nobody Wants to Drive With the Top Down Anymore
The most impressive performance metric on the 2016 Buick Cascada is 31 miles per hour. That’s how fast one can be driving and still safely lower the top. Pushing the button is an empirical pleasure that doesn’t get old, like opening a bottle of champagne or popping bubble wrap. And trust us, you’ll want to do it while underway.
Your grandfather wouldn't recognize today’s convertibles. Made with space-age metals and buzzing with little motors, they are, as much as any other modern supercar, a testament to how far automotive engineering has come. Watching them transform is far more satisfying than seeing a Tesla charge. Some of them look like pure magic tricks.
There’s just one problem with these modern marvels: Drivers don’t really want them.
From 2011 to 2015, annual sales of convertibles in the U.S. dropped by 7 percent, according to data from Edmunds.com. In the same period, the U.S. auto industry at-large swelled by 37 percent. Fewer than one in 100 vehicles sold in the U.S, now comes with a foldable top.
"Look at why SUVs are so popular: the higher ride height, the safety, the utility. Convertibles are the exact opposite of all that," said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan.
Sure, convertibles aren't very practical. They're usually heavier, more expensive, slower, less agile, and a bit less safe than their hardtop siblings. They are a lark, an upgrade for those who reach the why-the-heck-not layer of socioeconomic strata.
As a result, almost all sports cars are available in a convertible version, from the Ford Mustang to the Lamborghini Huracán (although the sports car segment is in a sales slump of its own). Even some sporty SUVs are capable of letting their hair down, as the Range Rover Evoque does.
Overall, however, there are fewer choices for convertible fans. In the U.S. this year, only 36 vehicles come in top-down versions, almost one-third fewer than during the market’s peak in 2008, according to Edmunds.com. What’s disappearing is the pedestrian convertible, the regular point A to point B sedan or coupe that just happens to have a drop top.
Chrysler’s 200 no longer comes as a convertible. Nor does the Toyota Camry. Volkswagen is sending its Eos to the scrap heap, and Volvo's C70 is already gone. The convertible machines that don’t fall in the midlife crisis category are almost all tiny, urban parking pods such as the Fiat 500c, the Smart Fortwo, and the Mini Cooper.
Then there’s the Buick Cascada, mentioned above, which is just now hitting U.S. dealers with a starting price of $33,100. It’s not tiny. Though it has only two doors, the Cascada has four very comfortable seats and 10 cubic feet of trunk space when the top is down.
It's definitely not sporty. The four-cylinder engine is turbocharged but relatively small, and the car itself weighs a massive 4,000 pounds. Jamming the pedal from a dead stop will not produce impressive noise or wheel spin. And you can not have it with a stick shift or a push button start. The key slides into a slot on the steering column, just as it did in 1992.
This is the dad-jeans convertible, the normcore model. It doesn’t scream: “I am insecure about my manhood.” It doesn’t need curbside service at the club. It’s going to go home and watch some Netflix, thank you very much, maybe stop by Home Depot if there’s enough time. Which is not to say that Buick’s Cascada isn’t kind of wonderful.
A Friday afternoon on Manhattan’s West Side Highway is one of the last places one would want to drive virtually any vehicle. But the Cascada on a sunny, 70 degree day is about as pleasant as a roof deck. One doesn’t worry about seeing what the vehicle can do; of greater import is what to stream on Spotify.
There is literally nothing on the market like the Cascada. The only thing that really comes close is Audi’s A3 Cabriolet, which starts at a hefty $3,500 higher than the Buick.
And there's much to like apart from than the view. The seats are sublime, and even the standard versions come heated. The steering wheel—also heated—is near perfect, and the steering itself is nicely weighted. The acceleration, cornering, and ride are just fine. Nothing particularly special, but nobody buys a Cascada for performance.
There are a few gripes. Because the lines of the car sweep skyward toward the trunk, rear visibility is terrible. The design itself is pretty busy and aggressive, as if the team shaping the clay model hadn’t talked with the folks piecing together the engine and chassis. Inside, the touchscreen is on the small side, set so deeply that some buttons are slightly obscured by the frame of the dashboard.
The Cascada won't save the convertible market. At best, it will pick up what few stragglers remain. For General Motors, however, opting to sell it was a fairly easy decision. The company already sells this thing in Europe under its Opel badge. "It's about remaking the Buick image," said Tynan. "There's no reason for Cascada to exist, but it's a way to create buzz without really doing anything."
If dealers can just convince normal, everyday car shoppers to take a test drive, sales ought to come easily: Just show them the button that puts the top down.