When it comes to sports cars, managing expectations is something that professional auto journalists forget at their peril. On paper, the Chevrolet Camaro, when it launched in 2009, seemed like a “can’t lose” proposition – it shares a chassis with the sublime Pontiac G8, and was available with GM’s excellent direct-injection V6 making 305 horsepower (nearly as much as a V8 Mustang at the time) or an LS3 V8 making 426 horsepower, with a pair of 6-speed gearboxes and the kind of styling that makes a grown man’s heart skip a beat.
1. The Camaro Convertible’s power soft-top folds in 30 seconds and shuts with a single driver-operated latch.
2. Pricing for the Camaro Convertible starts at $30,000 even, including an $850 destination fee. V8-powered SS models start at $37,500.
3. The Camaro V6 is now rated at 312-hp, while V8-powered SS models make 400-hp with the 6-speed automatic or 426-hp with the 6-speed manual.
Imagine our disappointment when we sampled the Camaro, in both V6 and V8 guise, and found that it just didn’t work. With a driving position that has you sitting on top of, rather than inside the seat, the visibility of a WWII machine gun nest, nest and a steering system that used Cream Of Wheat as hydraulic fluid, the Camaro Coupe is unpleasant to drive, even with a sweet V8 soundtrack and the ability to make bystanders gawk in wonderment.
On the upside, the chassis isn’t that bad, and the LS3 V8 delivered all of the magic that we expect from a Chevrolet small-block. But as a closed top sports car, we found ourselves longing for the lighter, less powerful, but more rewarding Ford Mustang GT every single time.
V6 OR V8: IT’S YOUR CHOICE BUT IT WILL COST YOU
On paper, the Camaro Convertible isn’t too far off from the coupe. A 3.6L V6 making 312-horsepower and 272 lb-ft of torque appears as the base engine and can be paired with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic gearbox, while the LS3 V8 is available exclusively with the 6-speed manual, and pumps out a brawny 426-horsepower V8 and 420 lb-ft of torque. Automatic V8s get an L99 V8 with 400 horsepower and 410 lb-ft of twist.
Fuel economy is pretty respectable with V6s returning between 17-18 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, while V8s deliver 16 mpg in the city and 24-25 mpg on the highway.
As expected, the Convertible starts at a much higher base price than the coupe, with a base V6 retailing for $30,000, including an $850 destination charge. Part of the price hike is attributable to the fact that there is no base-trim LS model for the drop-top. Plus, the automatic transmission is included in the price.
Upgrade to leather with the 2LT, heads-up display and 4-pack gauges for $33,500 or step into a V8 with Brembos, a limited slip differential and a rear spoiler for $37,500. Add on leather and 20-inch wheels and you’ll be pushing $40,000.
DROPPING THE TOP LETS THE CAMARO SHINE
When AutoGuide was invited to drive the Camaro Convertible, we approached it with some trepidation. Taking the roof off a coupe is always a dicey proposition; with it goes much of the cars’ rigidity, and even the most solidly engineered chassis has the habit of turning into a bowl of Jell-O, as cowl shake and other dynamic nastiness sets in.
We assumed that without a roof, the Camaro Convertible would be as sporty as Depends adult diapers, but GM was so sure of the Camaro Convertible that it brought both a V6 and V8 Mustang convertible for media to drive against the Camaro V6 and V8 ragtops.
As it turns out, giving the Camaro a soft top was one of the best things Chevrolet has done for this vehicle. The dreadful claustrophobia present in chop-top coupe is gone, although the diminutive windshield is still present, along with bus-like steering wheel and the plush front seats. GM might be pushing the PR spin too hard, however, stating that the Camaro Convertible is not a “boulevard cruiser” and touting the car’s “couple-like dynamics.”
We managed to sneak out for a brief solo drive on the streets of San Diego a day before the official event program began, and our SS, with its 6-speed manual and V8 engine, made us feel incredibly alive as the V8 crackled through the rpm range up and down San Diego’s Gas Lamp Quarter. The first song that came on the XM Satellite radio system was, appropriately enough, “Fat Bottom Girls” by Queen, a fitting choice for a car that weighs between 3,986 and 4,116 pounds, truly gargantuan figures for a so-called sports car.
A stiffer structure, including 4 additional braces, revised damping and softer compound tires in the front (the latter two will also be available on the coupe) have helped retain rigidity and improve steering feel compared to the first batch of cars released at launch in 2009. Chevrolet claims better torsional stiffness than a BMW 3-Series convertible, and despite the numbers proving them right, we had to do everything in our power to avoid cackling during the media briefing. As it turns out, Chevrolet engineers had the last laugh.
CAMARO CONVERTIBLE: A MUSTANG KILLER?
To demonstrate the Camaro’s potential for spirited driving, Chevrolet had us drive through a set of twisty mountain roads outside San Diego that were downright challenging. We were a little thrown off by the presence of anti-motion-sickness wrist bands (something we’ve seen before) and a paramedic. Naturally, journalists’ egos can be gargantuan, and soon enough, we found ourselves at the back of a three-car pack, with a 5.0 Mustang leading, a mauve SS in the middle, and AutoGuide’s silver SS manual in the rear. Halfway through the 25-mile route, we had overtaken both cars, and it’s a credit to the driving dynamics of the Camaro that we were able to do so.
Much of the route was extremely treacherous, with two-lane roads barely wide enough for our gargantuan muscle car’s width, and daunting elevation changes that required frequent use of the Camaro SS’ stellar Brembo brakes. Make no mistake – on a road like this, the substantial heft and less than precise steering work against the driver, but if one take’s a deep breath and has a little faith in the car, the Camaro can demolish a given stretch of road, even if it won’t do so with the same gusto of a car like the 3-Series, Porsche Boxster or the Mazda MX-5. Nevertheless, we were blown away by what we could do with the Camaro Convertible.
The Camaro’s capabilities were amplified when we ran the same route in the opposite direction with the Mustang 5.0. While the Ford V8 sounds magnificent, the inferiority of the live axle is amplified to extreme levels, as we battled transient lateral movements on anything but perfect pavement, along with a jittery ride and a demeanor that was decidedly less confident than the Camaro.
While the Mustang Coupe is the clear victor over the tintop Camaro, the convertible ‘Stang felt like a disheveled mess, with far less composure at the limit than the Chevrolet. Make no mistake, both cars have equivalent trade-offs, but when it comes to going fast while getting a dose of vitamin D, we have to hand it to the car from the Bowtie brand.
One Chevrolet engineer noted that on most convertibles, key suspension components have to be softened, since the compromised structure can no longer handle the stiffness, but the Camaro’s rigid structure allowed Chevrolet to keep the same springs, damping and anti-roll bars as the coupe. If there’s an explanation for the Camaro Convertible’s driving dynamics (and the Mustang’s relative shortcomings), that’s about as convincing as we’ve found.
INSIDE: IF YOU’VE SEEN THE COUPE, YOU’VE SEEN THE CONVERTIBLE
Spending time inside the Camaro felt like a throwback to a time when a gallon of gas cost cents, not dollars. That being said, the gauges, especially the low-mounted instruments ahead of the gear shifter, aren’t exactly easy to read, and seem to be there for purposes of form rather than function. Apart from the big swaths of plastic on the doors, none of the materials look cheap, and everything seems to be designed and assembled to a fairly high standard. If you’ve seen a Camaro coupe, then you already know what to expect, and while it’s not our taste, buyers who had an original Camaro in high school will certainly delight in the retro touches.
We were impressed with the Z-folding power top, which uses a single latch design like the MX-5 and Chevrolet Corvette. The top takes less than 30 seconds to fold, and doesn’t look awkward when raised – we’re especially partial to the tan top, which seems to look good on most color choices.
The Camaro coupe was never at home in its put-upon role as Chevrolet’s affordable sports car, and it doesn’t have the chops to keep up with the Mustang around a road course. But without a roof, the Camaro really shines, as the emphasis shifts from the numbers to the qualitative experience delivered behind the wheel.
While the lack of steering feel and vehicular obesity problem mean the Camaro will never be a true sports car, it would be grossly unfair to not give the car credit for doing a damn good job of delivering what its target demographic expects. Ironically it’s the version considered by most enthusiasts to be “soft” that does the best job of delighting the driver.
Above and beyond of course, is the popping, backfiring V8 mixed with the California sunshine and classic rock coming through the stereo. Cruising with the top down might be looked down upon by the “hardcore” sports car set, but the pragmatist in us acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of Camaro buyers gravitate towards this kind of activity, rather than tearing up a track day or a winding back road. For this kind of driving, the Camaro reigns supreme, and to not acknowledge this would be dishonest. It’s hard to see why one would buy the coupe, when the convertible is arguably superior. Chevrolet estimates that only 20 percent of Camaros will be ragtops, but if consumers get wise to this car, we predict the mix will be far higher.