First Test: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible
How to Build a Better Camaro: Cut Off the Roof
From the March, 2011 issue of Motor Trend
/ By Scott Evans
/ Photography by Evan Klein
Oh come, ye armchair engineers. Tell us that removing a stressed member as important as the roof is bad. Regale us with stories of chassis flex and cowl shake.
We will listen. Then we will politely disagree and point to the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible as evidence. Counterintuitive though it may be to the number crunchers, cutting off the roof has made the Camaro a better car.
Of course, Chevrolet didn't simply Sawzall-off the roof and kick the Camaro to the showroom. If you'll recall, the original Camaro Convertible Concept debuted four years ago, a year to the day after the original Camaro Concept. A topless car was always in the cards, but then, so was bankruptcy.
After multiple delays, sun worshipers will finally be able to buy Camaro Convertibles very soon. And what a happy crowd it'll be, because the convertible takes everything good about the Camaro and amplifies it. It looks better, sounds better, and is a better car to drive, all of which is directly attributable to the new hat.
Sure, the engineering business is difficult, but really the hardest part of designing any convertible is making it look good. We all remember the old Nissan 350Z and Audi A4 convertibles, cars that were obviously not originally intended to be seen without their roofs.
Getting the roof of the Camaro Convertible to look right was a massive undertaking given the car's eccentric design, and Chevrolet pulled it off. In fact, it looks better than the coupe. Where the coupe's roof is pulled in tight over the big, flat rear fenders, the convertible's roof meets the haunches more naturally and better fills the space on the rear deck. Folded, the cloth roof hides nicely below the Coke bottle fenders and can be covered by an optional tonneau that, frankly, isn't worth the effort or the estimated $200 price tag. (To be fair, though, it's marginally better than the Mustang's cover.) Hiding the AM/FM antenna in the new rear spoiler is a neat trick, and the effort put into keeping the roof looking smooth and not like an emaciated horse is noticeable and appreciated. For now, that roof is available only in black and tan, but Chevy hinted to us that other colors could be offered down the road.
Naturally, ridding yourself of the roof greatly improves outward visibility. What's more impressive is that, even with the roof up, the Camaro Convertible is easier to see out of than the coupe. As you'd expect, the rear window is far smaller on the convertible, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice the difference in actual visibility.
It's simply more forgivable since it's a drop-top. Over your shoulders, the deletion of the thick B-pillars makes lane changes a far less panic-inducing endeavor. Rear-seat passengers will appreciate that the quarter windows even roll down now.
There's still the issue of forward visibility, though. As the coupe and convertible are identical from the windshield forward, those massive A-pillars are still there, necessary for rollover protection, and they'll do everything they can to prevent you from looking through the corner. Meanwhile, the massive OnStar-equipped rearview mirror will do its best to block your view to the right.
Once the wind is in your hair, you won't care. To go topless, grab the single center-mounted latch, pull it down, and give it a twist to the right. Then simply push and hold the nearby roof-control switch and the car will do the rest in about 16 seconds. If you checked the appropriate boxes, you can then affix the optional tonneau cover and a folding wind deflector, the latter of which will forfeit the rear seats, both of which will take up space in the already downsized trunk. To make room for all the necessary roof parts, trunk space drops from 11.3 cubic feet in coupes to just 10.2 in the convertibles. Fold the roof, and you're left with only 7.9 cubic feet of space. As in the old Cadillac XLR, a pull-out screen protects the soft roof from your cargo, which you can stash under and around the folded roof, after you get it through the same tiny trunk opening.
Putting the roof back up is a bit more of a chore. If you've got the tonneau cover in place, that's got to go back in the trunk. Then the roof needs to come up, and it's a much slower process in reverse; in our tests it took about 25 seconds to get the roof up and latched and the windows closed. Short traffic lights and heavy downpours will be your enemies. They certainly were ours. Our early build tester arrived during what's been called the "storm of the decade" for Los Angeles and, naturally, the roof leaked in two places along the windshield header. As if that wasn't enough, the rear window decided to dislodge itself from the soft top. Is this really the same top supplier that builds the Corvette Convertible's roof?
Such is the price of any convertible, if not typically so costly. The price you won't pay is in chassis rigidity. No, numbers people, it's not as rigid as the coupe and we never expected it to be. Chevrolet's engineers are eager to boast, however, that it is stiffer than a vaunted BMW 3 Series convertible. They have to disclose, of course, that it took more than little blue pills to get the job done.
The Camaro Convertible features new V-braces under the front and rear of the car, a new transmission brace, a new front shock tower brace, and a new sheer panel below the driveshaft. All the bracing, along with the various folding roof parts, adds some 253 pounds to the curb weight of an already hefty car. On the plus side, it does help shift the weight balance rearward slightly and closer to a 50/50 split.
Good news is the difference isn't noticeable from behind the wheel. The Camaro coupe always felt a bit too heavy going down the road, and we're happy to report the convertible isn't any worse. In fact, Chevrolet says it's been working on the Camaro's handling, and both the convertible and the coupe have revised damper settings for better on-center feel and less understeer. Those damper changes don't do much to affect the ride, which is still rather firm as befits a sports car. To our fingers, the convertible's steering had a bit more heft and better communication with the tires than the last coupe we drove. It's just too bad you still have to feel it through that uncomfortable, overstyled steering wheel.
The real effects of the weight gain and chassis modifications can be found on the track. Our V-8-powered SS model hurled itself to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, 0.2 second slower than the last SS coupe we tested. The ragtop followed up with a 13.2-second quarter-mile sprint at 109.2 mph, just behind the coupe, which did the deed in 13.1 seconds at 110.8 mph. Sixty-to-0 braking took just 107 feet, one foot shorter than the lighter coupe's 108-foot performance. On the skidpad, the convertible was able to pull 0.89 g, a bit worse than the coupe's 0.93 g, and ran through our figure-eight course in 25.9 seconds at 0.61 g compared with the coupe's 25.2-second lap at 0.73 g.
We might have to give a small amount of thanks to that weight gain. The convertible feels more planted on the road than the coupe, and more deliberate in corners. The extra bracing earns its keep when the roof is down, with little noticeable chassis flex or cowl shake. The car just feels solid all the way around, not flimsy like convertibles of F-Bodies past.
Confidence in the ride allows you to better enjoy the experience. Chevy says it hasn't touched the exhaust, but everyone here thinks the convertible is louder and nastier than the coupe. But it's likely that thin top letting in more noise, and that's not a complaint.
The tradeoff is increased road and wind noise, but we'll take it. We didn't have a chance to sample the optional wind deflector, but we could live without it. We're also happy to report that interior measurements have changed by only fractions of an inch, so friends you stuff into the back won't suffer any more than they would otherwise.
The Camaro Convertible may be fashionably late to the game, but the timing couldn't be better. In 2010, the Camaro finally bested the Mustang in retail sales for the first time in 25 years, but the buzz has begun to wear off a bit, allowing Mustang to catch up in monthly sales.
It's admirable that the Camaro hung onto the lead this long, really, with only a coupe to go against Mustang's coupe, convertible, and GT500. Now, Chevy intends to level the playing field with the convertible and upcoming Z/28.
It may not be that simple, though. Camaro Convertibles will be available only in the LT and SS trims, not the base LS trim. This means prices will start at $30,000 for a V-6 and $37,500 for a V-8, some $2000 more than V-6 and V-8 Mustang Convertibles. Will it hurt sales? Probably not, as Camaro coupe buyers have already been paying $500 more to start than Mustang buyers.
Being a better car than the Camaro coupe certainly won't hurt either.
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