Chevrolet Camaro convertible — The joy of driving

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Thoughts turn to the great outdoors as a wet spring turns into a blissful summer. Feel the beautiful sun-splashed days and temperate evenings with the smell of night blooming jasmine in air; just a wonderful time to be cruising in a convertible top down.

 And perhaps nothing could surpass a slow drive down a busy city street in a new Chevrolet Camaro convertible. Does it get any better than this? Picture a 2011 Camaro, sans top, with a rumbling muscle car V-8 under the hood; perhaps politically incorrect? Definitely happiness correct! You better believe it.

You can gain this happiness with a bit less cost and more gas mileage in a V-6-powered convertible. Chevrolet has developed a marvelous six-cylinder engine — this year gaining a few more horses, now up to 312 — for the Camaro.

Two wonderful choices, whatever you decide — and can afford — we can attest to the fact that you will be noticed during your fun-time forays on the streets and highways.

You will be amazed at how well the drop top works with the Camaro coupe design. But then the Chevy designers always had a convertible version in mind, according to the automaker, when working up details of the current-generation Camaro, which reached showrooms less than two years ago as a 2010 model.

In the closed position, the smooth fabric top looks every bit as appealing as the top on the fixed-roof coupe. And with it down, the Camaro’s profile is simply stunning. To access the open air simply flip open the header handle and push a button. The operation is completed in about 16 seconds and the top is stowed behind the rear seat.

The usual thinking is you have to give up some body rigidity and expect some of the usual convertible body flex, right? Wrong. This convertible feels — and drives — as structurally sound as the coupe. Best we could tell after multiple days and hundreds of miles on a variety of road surfaces, you give up nothing in ride, handling or rattle-free driving.

 One downside of the Camaro is its lack of visibility due to the turret-style design, which results in narrow windows and large pillars all around creating anxiety when pulling out to pass or when entering another road from an angle. The awful sightlines make for a great design at the sacrifice of safety.

As a general rule convertibles have even less visibility than their hardtop counterparts, but we found visibility from the Camaro droptop similar to the coupe. And with the top down, no B-pillar and the wide C area sail panel stowed the world — and sightlines in all directions — opened wide. With the top up the wide C area sail panel once again creates havoc with visibility.

The interior is a knockout with retro square gauge hoods and a neat four-pack of auxiliary gauges. Controls are generally user friendly. The audio system is easy to use and the radio comes with driver-friendly satellite information readouts. A head up display with a digital speedometer and other useful information projected on the windshield is available on the higher trim packages.

Unfortunately, the dashboard design does not lend itself to a navigation system, a feature that is becoming increasingly popular. You will have to bring your portable Garmin along with you.

The convertible, like the coupe, comes with a choice of V-6 or muscle-car V-8. We are suckers for the tire-burning performance of the 426-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8, especially paired with a six-speed manual as found in our test car. The rumble is intoxicating and the performance is exhilarating. For those who would rather not shift for themselves, a slick-shifting six-speed automatic is available.

 The V-8-equipped convertible is a tick or two slower than the coupe according to tests by a couple of auto magazines, but we don’t consider 0-to-60 in around five seconds slow.

As much as we enjoyed the V-8, we found the 312-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 a dandy alternative in a rented Camaro. While the car was rental edgy there was nothing wrong with the sophisticated direct injection six, inherited from the Cadillac CTS. Mated to either a 6-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual, the V-6 is the personification of efficiency and performance, a combination that fits in neatly with today’s emphasis on frugality.

The Camaro V-6 is rated at 18 mpg city and a startling 29 highway. Figure in a 0-to-60 time of around six seconds and a quarter mile time of 14.5 seconds at around 100 mph and you have one heck of a 30 grand convertible in base trim format.

Boosting an independent rear suspension, the Camaro in either guise has exceptional handling traits. We were impressed, perhaps surprised is a better description, at our convertible test car’s ease at confidently and safely handling the twists and turns of our favorite winding back stretch of asphalt.

The handling prowess comes with no loss in ride comfort. If you need to come down from speed quickly, the Camaro has you covered with brakes that will stop the car from 60 mph in under 110 feet.

And another thing that applies to daily driving, the Camaro has a tight turning circle of 37.7 feet. The car feels big and perhaps for this reason we were amazed at our ability to make a tight U-turn without running over the curb.

The front seats in our test car were comfortable, and we had no problem finding an excellent driving position. But for all practical purposes the convertible is a two-place vehicle. The back seats look delightful, but leg room is all but nonexistent. We figure an adult can ride back there behind the passenger who will have to move his or her seat to a near full-forward position to allow a modicum of comfort for the third rider. And the trunk is small, allowing for perhaps a couple of overnight bags. Forget the golf clubs. And with the top down you also better move the overnight bags to the rear seat.

While all Camaro trim levels — there are five — come with considerable standard equipment, there are numerous desirable upgrades and options. There are three V-6 trim levels (LS, 1LT and 2LT) and two V-8 trims (1SS and 2SS). All come with full power equipment, 18-inch wheels, air conditioning, satellite radio, antilock brakes, stability control and full-length side-curtain airbags.

The convertible starts at $30,000 and the range tops out with the 2SS V-8 model for $40,500. Our top-trim test car came in at $42,995 with a handful of options.

There is little more enjoyable than top down driving and the Camaro delivers that joy with gusto.

Base price: $30,000; as driven, $42,995
Engine: 6.2-liter V-8
Horsepower: 426 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 420 pound-feet @ 4,600 rpm
Drive: rear wheels
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 112.3 inches
Length: 190.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,116 pounds
Turning circle: 37.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 24 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 4.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mustang convertible, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, Nissan 370Z convertible

The Good:
• Head-turning design
• Outstanding V-6 or muscle-car V-8
• Excellent handling

The Bad:
• Tiny trunk

The Ugly:
• Poor visibility — sight lines to kill