Buick, Infiniti reach for sky with convertibles

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

There’s nothing like a convertible or a horsepower boost to raise consumer interest in a brand, especially one competing in the premium car segment. At least that’s what both Buick and Infiniti hope from their latest moves.

Buick aims to maintain U.S. market momentum from last year with a convertible borrowed from General Motors’ Opel division in Europe. Dubbed the Cascada, the first convertible in Buick’s stable in 25 years is built in Poland, a fact that underscores the truly global nature of the auto industry.

Compact in dimensions but sleek in appearance, with its heavily raked windshield and big 20-inch wheels, the Cascada may come from a modest background, but it looks fine in the company of the limited number of smaller premium convertibles still on the market — notably the Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series.

Driving the Cascada reveals a car that’s not as sporty as its German rivals. Performance from the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder is punchy initially but quickly runs out of steam. Handling capability is similarly modest but quite in keeping with the car’s mission statement.

Top down, the car is surprisingly refined, the body doesn’t flex noticeably and the cabin is largely free of wind buffeting, thanks to a rear draft blocker. The roof is powered and simple to operate, but rear three-quarter vision is severely limited with the top raised.

In practical terms the Cascada scores well, with its relatively roomy rear seat and a pass-through hatch to the trunk, but its best selling points will likely be its sharp-looking design and price point.

Starting at $33,990, the Cascada is considerably less expensive than the previously mentioned German contenders. As such the new Buick is a welcome and fashionable alternative to the status quo.

For Infiniti, Nissan’s upscale division, the U.S. market has been a tough slog in recent years with intense competition from other second-tier luxury brands, management upheaval and a wholesale renaming of the model lineup.

On a positive note, Infiniti sales improved in 2015, rising 14 percent to 133,500 units. But the brand is counting on a series of new and refreshed products this year to keep up the pressure.

As well as filling out its offerings in the hot crossover market, Infiniti is focusing on the Q50 performance sedan to lead the charge. A new version called the Red Sport 400 joins the Q50 range this year with 400 horsepower and a host of refinements to the steering and suspension systems, plus interior upgrades and more driver aids.

“The Q50 is the centerpiece of our brand,” says Keith St. Clair, director of Infiniti Americas product planning. “It’s unmistakably Infiniti.”

What the Red Sport 400 does is bring an impressive horsepower output within reach of a broader consumer audience. “Today you need to put down $60,000 to get 400 horsepower; this car will be way below that,” adds St. Clair, referring to the expensive sports sedans from the German luxury brands.

At the wheel, the Red Sport 400 is fun to drive, with serious acceleration on tap whenever you need it, and certain handling qualities that can be personalized to the driver’s tastes. The Q50 is elegant inside and out, with just the right amount of sporty attitude to compete with rivals from Mercedes, Audi and BMW.

Though the Buick Cascada and Infiniti Red Sport 400 are destined to be small-volume sellers on the fringes of the premium market, their presence is a boon for buyers looking for a new car with a little extra spice.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com