First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

by Zach Bowman

Chevrolet doesn’t need any help selling its Camaro. It handily throttled the Ford Mustang in sales last year despite only being able to offer customers a single coupe bodystyle compared to the Stang’s more expansive coupe, convertible and GT500 range. In fact, General Motors says the Camaro is jumping off of dealer lots with nearly no incentives and 90 percent retail sales. Still, buyers have been clamoring for a droptop version of the mighty Bowtie since the Camaro Convertible concept hit the scene in 2007. This year, The General has finally obliged by taking out the knife.

The history of the Camaro is littered with topless wonders that looked like a stack of cool cash while parked, yet most drove like a wet noodle when you stepped on their skinny pedals. The minds that pull the strings at GM have made it clear that in the coming years, what was once the king of the muscle car heap will turn its attention more toward the sports car crowd, and to that end, they’ve striven to deliver a Camaro Convertible capable of all of the same driving dynamics as the coupe. Have they pulled it off? We took to the streets of San Diego to find out.

Outside, GM has kept the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible nearly identical to its hardtop sibling with a few notable exceptions. The largest of those is, of course, the fact that buyers can now opt for either a black or tan folding soft top in place of the coupe’s tin, though there are a handful of subtler changes as well. RS and SS models enjoy a trunklid lip spoiler with an integrated AM/FM radio antenna that does away with the wince-worthy whip piece of lower-rung trims. Additionally, a tonneau cover for the stowed top cleans up the rear deck of the car nicely. The piece is standard on 2LT and 2SS trims and optional on 1LT and 1SS configurations. Unfortunately, as we would find out, installing the tonneau cover is a frustrating process that could be employed as an enhanced interrogation method by sinister law enforcement agencies.

Even without the cover, the top stows politely enough to be attractive. We see zero need for the additional decoration. Throw the top up, and the convertible does a smart job of retaining the same chopped-look roofline of the coupe, though mechanical necessity has generated a C-pillar that’s slightly chunkier than that of the metal-roofed Camaro. GM says that the company uses the same supplier responsible for turning out the canvas covers for both the Cadillac XLR convertible and the Corvette, and that each top undergoes a severe eight-minute water test before being shipped from Bowling Green, Kentucky to the Camaro Convertible’s manufacturing facility in Oshawa.

  Head indoors and you’ll notice few changes compared to the coupe, as well. GM has decided to mount the controls for the convertible roof along the top of the windshield frame, and their placement makes it easy to operate the motor control and lock down the top at the same time. Backseat riders will notice a little less available hip room than before thanks to the space gobbled up by the folding top, and trunk space has been all but negated.

Still, if trunk space and rear hip room were your top priorities, you’d be buying a Honda Odyssey instead of a 430-horsepower topless muscle car. Considering that these are two of only a handful of sacrifices buyers will have to make when opting for the convertible over the coupe, we’re hardly complaining. By our stopwatch, it takes about 20 seconds to raise the top from its fully stowed position and an additional three seconds to manipulate the center lock handle to secure everything in place with zero practice. That seems like a completely reasonable figure until you find yourself trapped in a rain storm. The top drops in about the same period of time.

General Motors has stitched in a heap of special bracing to make up for the loss of the Camaro’s roof structure, including added hardware at the strut towers, a unique transmission support, a tunnel support and new under body V-braces. The aim was to reduce windshield frame and steering column shake as much as possible – two unfortunate byproducts of the convertiblization process. Critically, the reinforcements allowed the GM engineers to implement the exact same suspension hardware and geometry as found on the coupe instead of implementing softer bits to make up for any undue flex. All told, the additional bracing and the top mechanism add a total of 246 pounds to the recipe.

That’s not a small chunk of weight, but according to Chevy’s official specs, the convertible hasn’t lost much in the way of performance due to its extra poundage. In all variations (V6, V8, six-speed manual transmission or six-speed auto) the convertible only takes an additional 0.2 seconds to 60 mph and around 0.4 seconds longer down the quarter mile. In short, any stoplight-to-stoplight discrepancies are likely to be as much the fault of the nut behind the wheel as they are the extra heft. GM says that the 2011 Camaro Convertible with the six-speed manual gear box can scoot to 60 mph in a mere 4.9 seconds and do the quarter-mile dash in just 13.2.

While you aren’t likely to feel the weight gain in a straight line, it does rear its head a bit in the Camaro’s steering. With the mighty LS3 V8 lodged under the hood, the tiller feels a good bit heavier than it does in the hard top, though it’s not enough to be an issue. Switch to the standard V6 and the weight is much less pronounced. Despite GM’s best efforts toward banishing steering column shake, we did notice a bit of wiggle on some of the more abusive sections of road on our drive. According to the company’s engineers, there was a choice between softening the suspension to eradicate the shake and maintaining the vehicle’s handling. They opted for the latter, and given how rarely the issue arose during our time with the car, we feel they made the right decision.

What’s most impressive is that the Camaro Convertible reacts nearly identically to its tin-top twin when the tarmac turns twisty. Start wrenching on the wheel and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two were the sun not on your face and the wind in your hair. This isn’t a car we’d be particularly interested in taking to our local autocross, but it’s far more athletic than we anticipated. This is a convertible grown men don’t have to be embarrassed to drive.

The current Camaro has always been plagued by rearward visibility that’s dismal at best, and you’d think that lopping off the top would be a quick step toward curing that ail. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Thanks to the high hip line of the Camaro Convertible, checking your blind spots only yields a detailed glance at the nice grain work on the interior plastics. That’s partially due to the relatively low seating position in the Camaro. Fortunately, parking your derrière low in the cabin serves to shield you from the vast majority of wind buffeting, at least at speeds below 100 mph.

Raise the top and you’re rewarded with a drive that’s nearly as quiet as that of the coupe. The cloth lid boasts an insulated acoustic liner to help keep road and wind noise at bay, and it functions admirably. At near-interstate speeds, we observed a slight hint of wind noise and a little flutter from the all-glass back window.

GM has priced the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible starting at $29,150 for 1LT trim, and prices ratchet all the way up to $39,650 for 2SS guise, both without $850 in destination charges. Step over to rival Ford, and the Blue Oval will be happy to put you into a V6 Mustang convertible for a comparatively lean $27,145. Still, given the way GM is minting money with the Camaro, we doubt the price differential will cause Bowtie buyers to lose a wink of sleep.

The engineers at GM have done an impressive job of keeping the traditional convertible gremlins at bay with the topless Camaro, and the result is a car that asks buyers to make few sacrifices for the joy of open-air driving. Of course, we’ll see if we keep that opinion after we spend a bit more time with the car. Look for the 2011 Camaro Convertible to hit showrooms in February.

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