Review: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

Up Front

Last year, General Motors' (GM) revived and updated Chevy Camaro was king of the rear-wheel-drive muscle cars, outselling the Ford (F) Mustang

by more than 7,000 units. Now the new Camaro convertible is arriving in dealer showrooms, finally giving Chevy a model to match the Mustang convertible. It's a beauty, with a sturdy, well-tailored top and surprisingly good handling for a convertible. If you're looking for a fun car to wheel out on sunny weekends and warm summer evenings, the new Camaro may be the model for you.

Like its hardtop sibling, the Camaro ragtop is available with either of two engines. The sensible choice is a 3.6-liter, 312-horsepower V6 paired with a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic (for an additional $995). Driving fun rises exponentially if you opt instead for a big honking 6.2-liter V8 rated at 426 hp with the stick shift and 400 hp with the six-speed automatic. The Camaro accelerates like a bat out of hell with the V8 under its hood, which isn't surprising because it's the same engine found in a Corvette.

The advantage of the V6-powered Camaro convertible is that it's not only less expensive than the V8 but is surprisingly fuel efficient, with a rating of 18 miles-per-gallon in the city and 29 on the highway with the automatic transmission and 17/29 with the stick shift. The V8-powered Camaro is rated to get only 16 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway with the automatic and 16/24 with the stick.

Either way, you pay a substantial premium for the soft top. The Camaro convertible starts at $30,000 for a V6-powered 1LT ($6,470 more than a hardtop Camaro LS Coupe), rising to $40,500 for a V8-powered 2SS ($5,355 more than a hardtop 2SS). The 2011 Ford Mustang convertible has a price advantage, starting at $27,955 with a V6 and $38,695 with a V8.

The Camaro convertible doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings, but standard safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, six months of free OnStar service, front and side air bags in the front seat, and head-protecting, cabin-length side curtain bags.

Camaro sales boomed last year, increasing 31.9 percent, to 81,299. However, sales fell 7.1 percent, to 11,008, in the first two months of this year, so a boost from the new convertible may be the factor that keeps the model's overall sales rising this year. In any case, the Camaro is doing much better than the Mustang, whose sales increased 10.6 percent, to 73,716, last year, only to plunge 30.4 percent, to just 6,862, in the first two months of this year.

Behind the Wheel

As befits a muscle car, the V8-powered Camaro is very quick. However, the ragtop is slightly slower than the hardtop because it's about 265 lbs. heavier. Car and Driver clocked the V8-powered 2011 Camaro SS convertible at 4.9 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, 0.3 seconds slower than the hardtop Camaro and 0.2 seconds slower than the 2011 Mustang GT 5.0 convertible. With the V6 engine under its hood, the Camaro convertible does 0 to 60 in a little over 6 seconds.

Handling is surprisingly good. As in the regular Camaro, the convertible's front/rear weight distribution is an excellent 52/48. To avoid the loosey-goosey frame that leads to shaking in many convertibles, Chevy designers put a lot of additional bracing in the Camaro convertible's body, which they claim has more torsional rigidity than a BMW 3 Series convertible. The extra stiffness allowed Chevy to keep the suspension as sporty as in a Camaro hardtop coupe, rather than soften up the settings, as is often done in convertibles.

The Camaro's interior styling is macho and utilitarian, with retro touches such as a bank of four rectangular gauges (showing oil pressure, battery voltage, and so forth) on the center console. Optional $500 orange-and-black upholstery, with ambient lighting that glows orange in the dark, gives the cabin a striking, surprisingly attractive look. There's plenty of space in the front seats, but the rear seat only holds two passengers and is cramped. It doesn't help that the Camaro convertible comes with only two doors, making it even more difficult for adults to crawl into and out of the back seat. Nor does the rear seat's back fold down to create extra hauling space.

The Camaro's soft-top, similar to that in the Corvette convertible, is taut and classy looking. It's made of thick, durable-looking canvas, folds up in a simple Z pattern, and features a glass rear window with a defogger. The top attaches to the windshield header with a single handle, making it very easy to put up and down. You simply undo the handle and hold down a button until the top has automatically folded down into the trunk compartment, an operation that I clocked at a mere 16 seconds.

Folded down, the top fits into a space at the pinnacle of the trunk, with a cloth partition separating it from the luggage area. Trunk space with the top down is 7.85 cu. ft., enough for a few small bags. Space expands to 10.24 cu. ft. when the top is up.

A canvas tonneau cover, standard on the 2LT and 2SS and optional on the 1LT and 1SS, gives the car a well-tailored look with the top down. The cover snaps easily into place in a minute or so, and folds up and stows in a pouch when not in use. A removable wind shield, which reduces buffeting in the cabin when the top is down, is available as a dealer-installed option.

Other than its price, one of the few serious criticisms I have of the Camaro convertible is that there's annoying wind noise around the windshield area with the top up, especially at highway speed. I also found the stick shift a little squishy.

The other rap on the Camaro is that its narrow windows and high belt-line make the car's exterior cool-looking and distinctive, but they restrict sightlines when you're peering out from inside. One of the convertible's obvious advantages is that putting the top down largely fixes the problem. You still can't see very well when backing up, but rear-parking assist is standard.

Buy it or Bag It?

In this class of car, it's Chevy vs. Ford. There's no Dodge Challenger convertible (unless you have one custom-built), and there's no Japanese or German model quite like the Camaro and Mustang.

I would have to swallow very hard to pay an extra $5,355 to $6,470, but if you're dead-set on having a convertible, that's the premium for a drop-top Camaro. (The premium is $5,000 for the drop-top Mustang.) Price aside, which car you go with will depend largely on which look you like best. I prefer the Camaro's radical styling to the somewhat-dated pony car look of the Ford. Unless you're really into raw speed, the V6-powered Camaro is plenty fast and costs $10,500 less than its tire-squealing, V8-powered sibling.

When the new hardtop Camaro first came out, I predicted the car would not only outsell the Mustang but would one day be considered a classic. Same goes for the new Camaro convertible.

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