First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible [Review]

Spring is around the corner and the 2011 Chevy Camaro Convertible is finally here. Let's take it out for a spin.

General Motors first revealed its new Chevrolet Camaro to public eyes in 2007's Transformers movie. After that, it took nearly two years to finally bring the real Camaro to market. But the masses still weren't satisfied. (Are they ever?)

The result was a vehicle that grabbed attention, rekindled memories, and fired up the pony car wars once again. But still, some were left wanting.

So Chevrolet let the clamor build to a crescendo pitch, waiting till just the right moment to release their latest salvo. That salvo, er, vehicle, would be the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible.

Sensational build-up
When Chevrolet unveiled the hardtop Camaro nearly two years ago, it was an instant sensation - so much so that in its first full year on the market, it outsold its natural born predator, the Ford Mustang. That's no small feat given that the blue oval rival already offers a popular topless model.

As a coupe, the Camaro is a sharp, exciting looker with two great engines and no shortage of swagger. That's not to say it was free of flaws or warts.

When it was introduced in 2009, the Camaro coupe had already been pre-engineered to accommodate a convertible model. The thinking inside GM's engineering minds was: Why reinvent the wheel? So the propeller heads at the General set out to engineer a vehicle structure that would be stout enough to accommodate all the extra rigmarole that goes into making a convertible.

These included a shock tower brace stretching from strut to strut under the hood, transmission support reinforcement, an underbody tunnel brace and front and rear "V" braces. The result is a Camaro convertible that is nearly as stiff and rigid as its hardtop counterpart, and according to Chevrolet, has more torsional rigidity than the Mustang or the BMW 3-Series.

The Camaro convertible is one of those cars that look as good topless as it does with a hardtop roof in place. The profile of the ragtop is very similar to that of the coupe and actually has even better sight lines because there are no "B" pillars to get in the way. Made of an old-school, Z-type convertible frame assembly, with a single grab handle as found in its Corvette sibling, it is easy to operate and goes up or down in approximately 20 seconds. It is equipped with an acoustic liner and each unit is subjected to eight minutes of water testing, according to GM.

We did find the tonneau cover a bit awkward to install, with a couple of plastic tabs that might break off, but once in place, it gave a nice, clean appearance to the rear deck. Kudos to the engineers for hiding the AM/FM radio antennas in the available rear decklid spoiler. OnStar and XM Satellite Radio use the shark fin antenna mounted on the decklid.

The interior of the Camaro convertible is very similar to that found in the hardtop. Leather-equipped cars featured seat heaters that came in handy while driving through the mountains east of San Diego during our preview drives. The dashboard features the retro-inspired design from the 1969 Camaro in a more contemporary look, but the center stack still looks like one of those Japanese robot toys that also happen to be popular in the "˜60s. We totally get the retro look of the interior, but think at this point, it's ready for a full navigation system with eight-inch screen. Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser cryptically says, "we have a very good basis with the Camaro that gives us room to grow."

Look for an upgraded infotainment system in the near future.

The rear seat is narrower than that found in the coupé, owing to the packaging of the convertible roof assembly. A subwoofer is located behind the rear seat, and a key cylinder to access the trunk in case the battery goes dead, is located behind the left rear seat bolster.

The steering wheel in the RS/SS models features a big beefy feel that transmits good driver feedback from the steering system. Order the base V6 version and you get a less beefy, more springy suspension and a set of paddle buttons at the back of the steering wheel for the automatic.

Like the coupe, the convertible comes in four flavors. Two levels of the LT model (1LT/2LT) are equipped with the 3.6-liter V6 direct-injection engine that delivers 312 horsepower and 278 lb-ft. of torque. The V6 strikes with a max highway mileage of 29 mpg. It can be had with a Hydra-Matic 6L50 six-speed automatic transmission, which offers smooth shifts and a manu-matic function to operate the gear changes via those behind-the-wheel buttons, or an Aisin-built AY6 six-speed manual shifter. We tried the automatic and actually thought it was a great operating box with one shortcoming: The behind-the-wheel buttons. Seems NHTSA wants people wearing gloves to be able to fully operate the buttons, so the paddles as we know them now would not work. But we think the General should lose the little nubs that hint where the paddles would be if they were there.

The big, badass packages are the two versions of the 6.2-liter V8 engines. In L99 format, look for 400 horsepower and 410 lb-ft. of torque when mated to the Hydra-Matic 6L80 six-speed automatic. In LS3 guise, look for 426-horsepower and 420 lb-ft. of torque. Bolted to the Tremec 6060, it is a monster that's a blast to drive, both from a performance and auditory standpoint. In fact, we'll go out on a limb and say the Tremec and its Hurst shifter is our favorite manual available today. For those watching their weight, the SS with automatic slots in at 4,168 lbs., while the Tremec equipped model tips the scale at 4,116 lbs.. Mileage is 16-city/25 highway, while the six speed hits it at 16-city/24 highway.

The suspension is made up of a multi-link strut with coil springs, stabilizer bar and strut tower brace in front. Out back, look for a multi-link setup with a stabilizer bar and coilover shocks. A standard rack and pinion steering system gives great steering feedback to the driver in the V8 models.

The V6 is sprung slightly livelier than the V8, so we prefer the big motor with its beefier bushings, and a retuned suspension that puts the Camaro SS convertible up to the task of a curve cutter on mountain roads. An engaging ride, we wanted to push to the limits and found a car that rewarded all our inputs. And the bonus was it performed with nary a creak or groan.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Camaro Convertible gives bowtie traditionalists the chance to strut their topless stuff with little in the way of compromise over the coupe version. Additionally, it is a car that will appeal to many others who are outside the fold, but who will still appreciate good automotive design, especially in a convertible.

It still forces more compromises than the similar Ford Mustang, but it offers that "right now" strut and style" that could keep the Camaro tide going.

Why you would buy it:
You need your daily dose of vitamin D, and what better way to do that than with your top off in this season's hottest droptop.

Why you wouldn't:
Sniff, sniff. What's that burning smell? Oh, it's my scalp!

2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible base price range, $30,000 to $40,500.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.