Captive to a German sense
Opel Cascada (2013)
You wanna know what? I think it's okay to call it Cascada. It fits the rather binary naming system employed by Opel: meaningful or not, make the word end with an -a and that's it. Luckily, Cascada does have a meaning, although calling your car a cascade could be a bit weird... But it does sound good. Unless you know what it means which is why in Spain the car is sold as Opel Cabrio. There goes the German Sense of Humour, Volume One for you.
I have never disliked the name. If you worked for Opel I am sure you would also want to disguise the fact that your fancy open top vehicle is in reality is just a mass-market compact car. Is that cheating? It depends. There is this guy I know, he is literally a genius. He refused to buy a flat once because he said its area was miscalculated. It was measured from the centre line of the walls and he cannot live within the walls, now can he? Maybe I'm retarded but if I am standing in a flat looking around, I know the price, and if I like what I'm getting, I don't feel cheated. All they did was rename it something nicer. Is there a law against that?
This car has more than a nice name of course. It also has heat reflecting seats which repel 72% of the sunrays meaning that instead of 60°C the seats only warm up to 30°C on a hot day. I asked the Opel staff about the secret. They said it was some sort of a coating and readily admitted it was not their own invention – this is quite common in premium cabriolets. There is an electric seat belt extender, as well as a motor driven convenience feature called Easy Entry that facilitates climbing in to the rear seat.
I could say the Cascada collects its first score as soon as you get inside but the fact is it gets a whole bunch of scores. The seats are comfortable, the steering wheel feels nice in the hand, but there are more crucial things in cabriolets than that – such as the positioning of the windscreen. You see, in the Peugeot 307 CC it reaches so far back you feel like you are in a covered bus stop waiting for the rain to abate, and there are more cabriolets like that. In the Cascada my forehead was about six inches from the top of the windscreen, almost like in my trusty old Mazda MX-5. That's cabriolet feeling at its finest!
The Cascada also looks good as regards optical mass distribution or the curvature of the sheet metal. The only thing I could not come to terms with was the strange headlights, like eyes of a sparrow hawk. I have nothing against birds of prey, eagle eyes would be cool but this is like a small animal, not a very majestic one actually. The rear lights suffer of post-facelift trauma – those on the Astra J were just perfect, then they had to come and slice off a bit – just look at it and you'll understand what I mean. The side features the inverted blades design, a motif that has been featured on every Opel since 2008. Bearing a name befitting a hip-hop band, inverted blades originally appeared on the 2004 Astra H, replacing the oval hump of the Astra G. I would also argue that it was already present on the Vectra. Inverted blades are the cockroaches of car design, they survive everything.
Opel would not tell us why they went with the soft top; I assume retractable hard tops just don't work out well on such a large car. This one, on the other hand, works out in an awesome way. It opens and closes faster than almost anything else in the business. It takes 17 seconds to complete the cycle and you can do it up to 49 kph. The only car with a faster roof mechanism is the Audi A4 with 15 seconds. The BMW 1-series needs 19, the Peugeot 308 20 seconds, while the Renault Mégane leaves you in the twilight zone for no less than 30 seconds. The roof structure of the Cascada weighs 50 kilograms and offers pretty good insulation, although the thought of extruded aluminium, magnesium alloy and insulation layer did not turn me on as much as it obviously did the Opel engineer in charge
Needless to say the Cascada, like all proper cabriolets, only has a parody of a luggage compartment. With the roof up it measures 380 litres which is not bad except you gotta laugh seeing the capacity under the safety height limiter. It takes expertise, time and a good degree of luck to place two pieces of carry-on luggage under that internal cover. Opel engineers, being the funny guys they are, also measured the compartment with the seat backs folded: you can fit in a pair of 183 cm skis or a bunch of rakes, while the overall capacity reaches 750 litres. No ordinary engineer could come up with that, they must have secret identities being successful stand-up comedians.
Most German and French cabriolets measure between 4.4 and 4.5 metres in length. I am talking about the BMW 1-series, the VW EOS, the Peugeot 308 CC – even the Mégane CC, the goliath of the pack is no larger than 4480 mm. All midsize cabriolets are either premium products or priced as such, leaving an unfilled niche in the market – and this is exactly where the Cascada slots in. Measuring 470 cm the Cascada is a giant compared to the compact models. Its wheelbase is 23 cm longer than that of its predecessor, the Astra TwinTop, and 11 cm longer than the current Astra which means that it's certainly not an open-top Astra, shared platform or not.
The Cascada seems handicapped in many ways. At 4.7 metres the car is 9 cm longer than the last Vectra. It weighs 250 kg more than the Astra (1633 kg) It is powered by an 1.6 Turbo checking in at 170 PS, versus 180 PS of its predecessor. All of this means that if I had to pick a location for the test drive I certainly would not have chosen Monte Carlo with its undoubtedly picturesque but narrow and winding mountain switchback roads. No, cabriolets like this belong in someplace peaceful and serene, like a majestic seaside drive where RV's keep the pace down anyway. That's alright, though: cabriolets are made for cruising, whereas roadsters such as the BMW Z4 or the Mazda MX-5 are made for driving. Two seats, rear-wheel drive, end of discussion.
But no big deal, we all make mistakes, now Opel did too, I'll just take it slowly through the narrow streets on Monaco – or that's what I thought. In a few moments though I was on the open road daring the dangerous hairpins of the mountainous principality. Defying conventions and reason the Cascada drives devilishly well. The front suspension comes from the Insignia OPC and while I no longer believe in fairytales, it turns remarkably well, its handling is agile and precise, and it won't act like a whale washed upon the shore if you brake too hard when entering a corner.
The chassis is stiff enough. There was a bunch of numbers quoted, percentages, torsional rigidity, whatnot, but since most carmakers use these measures interchangeably I tend not to pay attention to their statistics. But you can't fake road behaviour so it all comes down to that anyway. And the Cascada did very well. There are no torsional movements even with the roof down, it even maintains its composure on uneven road surfaces. Of course things do shift around a bit in a cabriolet, it takes high-end Mercedes cabriolets to completely lose that flex but in everyday cabriolet terms the Cascada is as rigid as it gets. What is strange, however, is that you can hardly feel the weight of the car. It felt suspiciously light but a quick check confirmed that Opel has not removed any of the primary components from these press vehicles.
The new SIDI engine is manufactured in Hungary so by definition it has to be good. At 170 PS it is less powerful, but has more torque (280 Nm), than its predecessor. Official figures suggest it even consumes less. There is one thing I don't understand though: when contemporary regulations and standards allow manufacturers to get highly creative with their consumption and performance figures, Opel could have easily specified a higher engine power. Driving the Cascada it feels nothing short of 190 PS, it has plenty of grunt even driving uphill. Its turbocharger is not a variable geometry one but since it has low inertia it revs easily. It has power in plenty for everyday driving whereas aspiring boyracers can apply left foot braking in hairpin turns to maintain turbo pressure – preferably with no-one around, though.
SIDI stands for Spark Ignition Direct Injection, which makes it analogous with all the GDI, JTS, DISI and similar engines. What matters is that all of these stand for something very good. You won't hear the engine unless driving through a tunnel but it sounds nice there.
Having just written all this down I am beginning to wonder why Opel engineers have gone to all the trouble and outdone themselves. This degree of capability is certainly not expected of a midsize cabriolet. The gearbox works fine, although Ford still seems to make them a tad more pleasant to shift, not to mention the gearbox of the BMW 114 I drove last week; that shifter is the epitome of premium. Brake disks do not seem too large but the car was equipped with 19” alloys and driving on the wet white tarmac of mountain roads you don't need to brake that hard anyway. I am certain though the brakes could be driven to fail on a race circuit.
The options list offers nothing of extraordinary interest. Blind spot detection is nothing new, and even the Opel Adam has a heated steering wheel. Anyone not familiar with Opel audio systems will have a hard time coming to grips with the quirky controls such as having to push a ring for confirming a selection, or tilt a button to navigate around the GPS screen. It is amusing to see that satnav can still screw up in 2013: the Cascada chose a route to our hotel which ended in a pedestrian bridge – one that has probably been around for a few centuries. This was no update error then, rather a practical joke played by an IT technician because leading up to the bridge was a narrow winding street, not even wide enough to turn around, which gave us a splendid opportunity to try out the reversing camera. The satnav did speak Hungarian, albeit with a funny accent.
So then, there are mass market compact cabriolets – the Mégane CC, the Peugeot 308 or the VW EOS. Then there are premium compact products like the BMW 1-series or the Audi A3. Premium midsize cabriolets comprise BMW 3-series, Audi A5, Mercedes E-class. And mass market midsize cabriolets? Having listed all of the above at the press conference the Germans must know, deep down, that while Opel may one day become a premium product, this isn't going to happen in 2013, That also influences pricing though: a base specifications Cascada with the entry level 1.4 Turbo engines starts around €26,000. Yes, that makes it an insanely good buy. It also looks nice and feels good to drive. And that's something I must approve of.
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