A little Keys soul in the all-new Buick Cascada convertible

By Russ Heaps
Clanging Bell

(January 31, 2016) I'm not the kind of guy who whines about taking a break from a workation to, well, do a little work. So, when Buick offered me a berth on its Cascada event in Key West, I dropped my paint roller,
repacked my bag and headed to the Ft. Lauderdale airport.

I try to pick up a house-painting gig or two in Florida after the holidays each year. I like to paint. Most people don't. I pick up a few bucks, enjoy the warm sunshine — although not so much this year — and get to reconnect with Florida friends while freeing someone of the burden of putting a coat of paint on a room or two. It's a win, win, win, win, win.

Buick took a rather novel approach to this early showcasing of its all-new convertible. The four-night event was broken into two waves of two nights each. Buick then divided each wave into two groups of roughly a dozen or so media. On day 1, one group flew into Miami and the other into Key West. Day 2 had the Miami group driving south to Key West and the Key West group driving north to Miami. Both groups lunched together near their drive's midpoint in Islamorada, just north of Marathon. Each group reached its destination in time for dinner and a good night's sleep before flying home.

For the uninitiated, there isn't much in the way of steering required on most of this 170-mile slog. It's a straight line along US 1 for 125 miles from Key West to Florida City before picking up the Florida Turnpike extension for the final 50 miles or so to Miami's South Beach. You make more steering adjustments traveling through a car wash. Urban sprawl occupies much of the US 1 landscape. “Oh, look, another T-shirt shop!” The monotony of the string of bars, sea-shell shops and restaurants is periodically interrupted for some drop-dead gorgeous sights like the Seven Mile Bridge.

Believe me, hauling butt through the keys in a convertible is not a bad way to spend a January afternoon. Sometimes I love being me. I was lucky to be on the wave with decent weather. The wave earlier in the week had to choose between rolling with the top up and being toasty warm, or dropping the top and dressing like they were on their way to scale Mt. Everest. My wave had sun and temps in the high 60s.

Cascada (pronounced CASS-cah-dah) is Buick's first convertible in 25 years. It was well worth the wait. Amply insulated the top screens out most outside noise when in place. Raising or lowering it requires just the push of a button and 17 seconds-- a process that can be accomplished when the car is in motion at speeds up to 31 mph.

A head turner, Cascada is handsomely styled. At a mid-morning stop at Sombrero Beach near Marathon, our eight or ten cars were mobbed by passersby. Before we knew it, we were opening hoods, trunks and doors to give everyone a better look. A pair rode up on bicycles and each snapped the other's picture while sitting behind the wheel of my Buick.

Buick's intent was to build a halo car capable of attracting shoppers to Buick showrooms. Mission accomplished. Even at the reasonable starting price of $33,990, Buick doesn't expect Cascada to be a huge seller; but it will put the brand on people's radar. Buick created a humorous 3-minute video (Check it out here.) with “Bridesmaids” star Ellie Kemper that represents the way it expects this soft top to bring shoppers to the brand.

Buyers won't need to waste a lot of time dithering over content choices. There are only two grades: the entry-level “Standard” and the upscale $36,990 “Premium.” Basically, a few added safety technologies, like forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning, front/rear park assist and rain-sensing wipers separate the two trims. There are also differences in their 20-inch wheels.

Even in its Standard trim, this car is loaded with content, such as high-intensity discharge headlamps that follow the direction of the wheels, leather seating, a seven-inch color touchscreen, Bluetooth, Siri Eyes Free, navigation system, Wi-Fi hotspot, remote start and dual-zone climate control.

Designed and engineered from the ground up as a convertible, Cascada has plenty of reinforced framing built in. It feels firm and stable over the road. A 200-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine flows power to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. This isn't a sports car by any stretch of the imagination, but it is responsive and nimble.

Surprisingly roomy for a smaller convertible, the interior comfortably holds four adults. A unique power-sliding front-seat system moves the front buckets forward for easy backseat access. Sensors in the seat backs recognize the position of the rear-seat passenger's knees, automatically stopping a half inch or so from them when the front seats return to their original position.

Buick hosted us at the Casa Marina in Key West. This was the winter home of Henry Flagler, whose railroad basically put South Florida on the map. Situated about 15 blocks from Mallory Square, getting from the hotel to the action on Duval Street requires some mode of transportation. But once there, be prepared to party.

Casa Marina has no shortage of personality. During my beach-side lunch at the hotel, various birds mounted a two-pronged offensive. Roosters wandered around my feet as seagulls – rats with wings — buzz bombed my table. A gull's wing actually smacked my head at one point. My fish and chips was delicious, but there was a bit too much ambiance for my taste.

On the other end of the drive, Buick put us up at The Edition Miami Beach on South Beach's Collins Avenue. It's fairly typical o
f South Beach hotels: lots of white paint and furniture. For dinner, Buick spirited us off site to Milo's where I had a terrific steak.

If there is a nit to pick with this car, it's its name. It's one of those names that isn't pronounced as it looks. Figuring Buick had to have a reason to pick something that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, I had to Bing its meaning: “waterfall” in Spanish. They probably told us the meaning and the reason it was chosen at the formal presentation, but I was concentrating so hard on writing out the phonetic spelling, so I could say it with some degree of accuracy, I missed whatever explanation was offered.

There is no question in my mind that Cascada will make its mark within the Buick lineup. Convertible choices are limited, and this one should get its fair share of that market. I'd be happy to drive it between Key West and South Beach any time.

Clanging Bell