Cro-Magnon Camaro Goes Topless, Still Carries Club: Jason Harper

2011 Chevrolet Camaro
The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible. The SS starts at just under $37,000; the LT is over $29,000. Source: General Motors via Bloomberg

I want to like the Chevrolet Camaro. I really do.

A 426-horsepower avatar of Detroit’s glory days, this revived pony car should remind us of classic rock-and-roll and sweet, summer evenings at the drive-in.

Only I don’t much like the Camaro coupe. Re-released in 2009 with an extremely low roof and burly body, the form ran rampant over function. It looks thuggishly cool, but doesn’t handle all that well and you can’t see out of it. Bombast triumphs over substance.

American buyers disagree. Last year the Camaro outsold its traditional rival, the Ford Mustang, and the gap is widening this year. The Camaro is a hit.

The recently released convertible version gives me a chance to revise my opinion. After all, the latest General Motors Corp. products have mostly impressed me.

I tested the V-8-powered SS model with a six-speed manual, and an automatic-equipped V-6 LT version. The SS starts at just under $37,000, not including the $850 destination charge; the LT at just over $29,000.

The new Camaro was originally conceived as both a coupe and convertible, and even with the top down it’s one menacing-looking vehicle -- bad to the bone. The oversized hood has a massive bulge at its center and a thick, Cro-Magnon brow cresting over the narrow grill. It might as well be carrying a wooden club.

Roof Down

The solidity of that hood is emphasized when the canvas roof is down. There’s no delicate sense of proportion anyhow, so the lopsided dimensions actually work. Points scored for the convertible.

And when the sun is shining, the convertible also solves one of the greatest faults of the coupe: the sensation that you’re trapped in a bomb shelter. With the roof removed, you can see the actual width and breadth of the cockpit. Plenty of room in there. There’s seating for two in the rear as well.

At 60 mph, the short, raked windshield gives precious little protection, and the wind whips into one ear and out the other. You’ll dodge bugs and won’t be able to hear your passenger’s prattle and stray papers will fly away and you’ll exult in the sense of old-school convertible freedom. One with the elements. I like that.

Unfortunately, it rained the week I drove the SS model. Which means I drove hundreds of miles with an acre of black canvas fitted over my head, shutting out the sky, any sense of open-air wonder and -- most importantly -- my view of stoplights and much else of the road.

Knight Vision

Those King Arthur movies where the knights pull down their visors just before they commence jousting, leaving them nothing but a narrow slit to see through? Yeah, it’s like that.

Worse, when you’re relegated to a gulag gloom, you spend lots of time considering the workmanship of the interior. The wash of dark, cost-cutting plastic is clearly from the era of the old, troubled GM.

The leather-wrapped shifter knob and steering wheel only serve to highlight how soulless the rest is. The 2012 model will get updating. Perhaps some signs of the new, more innovative GM will seep in.

All which might have been forgivable if the SS’s 426 horses gave me half as much joy as the Mustang GT’s 412 did. Muscle cars are impractical by definition, so it’s really about having a tire-shredding good time.

Shake, Rattle, Roll

I had a few moments of fun with the SS. But mostly not. The weight of that V-8 in the schnoz upsets any hope of poise. The steering wheel warbled alarmingly in my hands every time I passed over a blemish in the asphalt. It almost seemed like something mechanical had gone wrong. I kept waiting for a piece of the car to fall off.

Chevy has made revisions to the suspension and tires since the coupe I drove in 2009. It certainly handles better in corners, which is especially commendable for a convertible. Still, the latest Mustang is a better-tuned weapon. The Camaro feels blunt in comparison.

Then I took delivery of the less-powerful V-6. The 3.6-liter produces a still powerful 312 hp, and my test car had an automatic transmission (an extra $1,185) and the $1,500 RS sports package.

This time the sun was out. That helped. So did the overall handling and feel of the lighter, more nimble car. Less weight in the front means the entire car is better balanced. Narrow lanes still gave me pause -- you can’t actually see the front edges of the car given the oversized hood -- but it blew through off-ramp curves. The brakes were also fabulous, giving me great confidence.

Give Me Sunshine

I missed the manual, but the automatic worked just fine. The V-6 doesn’t sound as gruff as the V-8, but it makes a nice buzz when you stand on the pedal. And the steering wheel no longer felt like it was suffering from restless leg syndrome.

I had a decent time, especially on the highway with a flood of sunshine pooling into the cabin. I’m not sure it was $36,000 worth of fun -- the price as tested -- but it clarified my opinion. The Camaro with a V-6, top down, in a state where the sun shines.

Chevrolet’s 2011 Camaro 2LT and 2SS Convertibles at a Glance

Engines: 3.6-liter V-6 with 312 horsepower; 6.2-liter V-8

with 426 hp (400 hp with automatic).

Transmissions: Six-speed manual or optional six-speed


Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds; 4.9 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: city 18, highway 29 (with

automatic); 16, 24 (manual).

Price as tested: $36,185; $41,700.

Best feature: Feeling of freedom with top down.

Worst feature: Feeling of imprisonment with top up.

Target buyers: The pony-car fan who doesn’t care for the


(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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