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First on the Block With a Pop-Top Camaro
By Patrick C Paternie, Contributor Email
Date posted: 08-04-2009
There's no reason to wait until Chevrolet decides to build a convertible version of the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro. Right here you're looking at the very first pop-top version of Chevy's new pony car, the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible by NCE. And this is more than just a look at the car that will debut at the 2009 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, because we're taking you onboard for an exclusive drive.
Just a few minutes after the lug nuts on the orange-accented Forgiato alloy wheels were snugged down for the first time, Newport Convertible Engineering tossed us the keys to take the just-completed prototype out for its initial test-drive. Not just its first test-drive by someone in the media, mind you, but the car's first extended street venture of any kind — quite a show of confidence by NCE, earned from 24 years of designing and building convertible conversions of exotics and luxury cars for both private clients and car manufacturers.
When Topless, Less Is More
Most of the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible by NCE is virtually as it came from the factory, except for the roof, of course. This has been neatly but noisily removed via chop-saw surgery from just behind the A-pillar back to the trunk opening. To retain a measure of structural rigidity without the reinforcement of the roof, the chassis has been comprehensively reinforced in the rockers as well as in the A-pillars, the door post and the area aft from the door to the leading edge of the trunk.
Although the rear seatbacks still fold down as in the stock Camaro, access to the trunk has been walled off by NCE. This has been done to create a small space aft of the seats where the hardware and electronics for the power top are mounted, as well as a recess for the top when it's folded back. As with most convertibles, the top's mechanism restricts shoulder room in the rear seat, although the stock seatbelts remain in place.
Speaking of cozy, the snugly fitted and fully insulated top keeps the interior surprisingly quiet during high-speed driving on the freeway. Headroom is good and there's none of the claustrophobic gloominess you feel in many aftermarket convertibles. NCE uses top-of-the-line German canvas for the exterior layer of the fabric top, while the headliner is made from a rich-looking artificial suede. A glass rear window with defroster is also part of the package.
To retract the top, you unlatch the easy-to-operate, dual-hook latches at either side of the windshield header (itself finished in artificial suede). A rocker switch mounted on the overhead console next to the attachment for the rearview mirror sets the power-operated top in motion, and it retracts speedily in a little over 10 seconds. The process is simplified by the fact that there are no rear quarter windows, a measure that simplifies the top installation but naturally makes this far from an all-weather car.
Seeing and Being Seen
Thanks to the missing rear quarter windows, the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS looks a little bit like a Conestoga wagon when the top is in place, but surprisingly we had no issues with outward visibility while driving, even backing up — so unlike the experience offered by the stock Camaro SS coupe. We had more of an issue with visibility through the glass rear window. It isn't bad, but the window could be a bit taller, or perhaps mounted lower for a better view of following traffic. You know, like when you're making quick rearward scans for the highway patrol.
Oddly enough, the most bothersome vision issues came when we drove with the top down. The top stacks up inside its recessed well pretty completely, but the corners still protrude enough to require an extra look to be sure traffic is clear when changing lanes. It's nowhere near as bad as a VW Beetle ragtop, but it's still a constant factor when you're driving in heavy traffic. Top down at freeway speeds, the cockpit is remarkably quiet with little wind buffeting. Better than many production cars with rear windbreaks.
Since the interior of the top is so neatly finished, you'll be tempted to drive without the leather tonneau cover, although you'll eventually discover that your liner is coated with road grease as a consequence. Better to use the boot, which attaches fairly easily with a combination of snaps and Velcro. The flaps over the front corners fit over the door jamb and beneath the door, and the rear edge tucks under the trunk lid, a design strategy by NCE that minimizes all that annoying flapping in the breeze.
Consider Us Convertible Converts
Although NCE expects a convertible conversion typically will add between 80 and 100 pounds to a car's overall weight, it weighed the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS before and after making the top alterations and discovered that there is virtually no change in the car's weight.
We had some reservations about the ride quality likely to be afforded by the oversize Forgiato cast-aluminum wheels — 22 inches in front and 24 inches in the rear. The big rollers have been added along with custom front grille work as accessories for the car's official debut in November at the SEMA show in Las Vegas.
We drove on all types of road surfaces and didn't encounter any special issues aside from whatever you might expect from the use of 30-series Pirelli ZR-rated tires with a convertible. On very rough surfaces or large bumps, we did notice a slight vibration of the rearview mirror and some feedback through the steering wheel, but nowhere near as bad as in a Chrysler Sebring convertible. But you'd certainly want to retain the stock wheels and tires if you want reasonable ride and handling.
Last but not least, going topless makes a dramatic change in the Camaro's appearance — for the good. The car looks better proportioned with more emphasis on its athletic, muscular lines, something that seemed to appeal to the drivers of early Camaros that maneuvered closer for a look during our drive. As a beach cruiser, this car has to be rated a success based on the number of shouts, waves and cell phone photography it attracted.
Newport Convertible Engineering is still working on pricing for the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible by NCE, but it estimates that prices will start around $16,000 plus a donor Camaro. Conversion takes about 4-6 weeks and NCE expects to do as many as 20 cars a month. Since there's no telling when Chevrolet will come through with its own Camaro convertible, NCE has the topless Camaro market nicely covered.