Muscle cars have never coped well with having their tops clipped. Losing the roof rarely does a vehicle any favors in the rigidity department, but the high-horsepower, high-torque coupes of the last four decades took fiendish delight in twisting themselves into pretzels after a few enthusiastic throttle plunges. To make matters worse, frumpy, awkward-looking soft tops were never as attractive as the original tin. When it came time to design the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro, the engineers at General Motors specifically aimed to avoid those pitfalls by drafting the chassis to field both coupe and convertible duties.
Long before the first test mule ever turned a tire, this coupe was designed to go topless, and the result is one of the more stable convertible platforms out there. With a little help from the minds behind the Chevrolet Corvette soft top, the retractable lid even offers the same sleek profile as the Camaro Coupe. That's not to say all is right in this cruising kingdom, though. Tough top-up visibility, a bulging waistline and an overly extroverted interior all work against the drop head. Even so, this is still a vehicle soaked in summertime. And whatdayaknow? The sun's out.
Part of the appeal of the fifth generation Camaro is the vehicle's concept-car aesthetics. With a low-slung roof line, high hip and plenty of sharp creases, it should be lounging under auto show lights instead of sulking in the Costco parking lot. The designers at Chevrolet managed to retain most of the coupe's presence thanks to the fact that both vehicles wear identical sheetmetal from the window sills down. Up above, a long, arching soft top still holds true to the profile of the coupe when in in place. The piece can be had in black or tan cloth as the buyer sees fit, and for the most part, the design is free of any odd bulges from protruding bows.
Put the top down, and the Camaro Convertible takes on a much more swept look than its fixed-roof kin. The steeply angled windshield becomes more prominent without the burden of anchoring the top and the muscular hips over the rear fender arches define the vehicle's profile. It looks good, even if it is the size of a small river barge. At 190.4 inches long and 75.5 inches wide, the 'vert matches its coupe twin for length and girth, resulting in a vehicle that feels larger than life, even at a glance.
That theme continues on indoors. Thanks to a surprisingly wide cabin and a tall dash, it's hard not to feel like you're 12 years old sitting behind the wheel of your uncle's new car. That high hip line translates into a window sill that isn't made for resting your elbow, at least not without losing blood flow to your arm. Our 2011 tester also came with the highly-stylized but not overly comfortable steering wheel of the 2011 Coupe. General Motors has fixed that issue with a parts-bin piece on 2012 models, however.
The rest of the cabin feels much like the Camaro we know, with the notable exception that the rear seats are now significantly easier to access. With the top down, two adults had no problem sinking into the rear buckets, though the tight seating made for bruised hips on the side of the seatbelt buckle. Though legroom is cramped for rear passengers, there's enough space for young people and flexible adults. Our cabin came awash in some impressively obnoxious orange plastic trim and leather seating surfaces, though we do appreciate the attractive orange contrast stitching on the door panels.
Unlike the Corvette Convertible, which relies on a button tucked well below and to the left of the steering wheel to operate the retractable soft top, the Camaro Convertible leaves its button out in the open and right beside the large center latch. Undo the mechanism, press the button and listen to the whir of electronic and pneumatic wizardry as it pulls the top into the trunk cavity. The whole process takes around 20 seconds, which sounds brief enough until the skies open up on all that orange leather. Once the top is stowed, an optional toneau cover can be folded in place for a clean, finished look, though the piece is an aggravation to install. Check out the Short Cut below for a look at the top in action.
Those who thought rearward visibility of the coupe couldn't get any worse need only to throw the convertible into Reverse with the top up to see just how wrong they were. The infamously lengthy C pillars of the hard top have somehow swollen in the convertible, and while the back glass looks large enough, its angle and height make for a narrow field of view.
GM equipped this particular SS-branded beast with a 6.2-liter LS3 V8 engine with 426 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The duo is the most desirable engine and gearbox combination available and is borrowed straight from the coupe. There are some mechanical differences between the two, however. Engineers added additional bracing in four key areas to give the Convertible as much of the rigid feel of the coupe as possible. A sturdy aluminum strut tower brace, a transmission support reinforcement brace, an underbody tunnel brace and front and rear underbody V braces are all tacked in place to combat torsional flex. The company says that all of the work helps give the Camaro Convertible the same stiffness as the BMW 3 Series convertible.
While we didn't have the pleasure of putting a 335i Convertible through its paces against the big Bow Tie (probably a good thing), we will say that the engineering work paid off. Typically, wrenching the roof off a coupe leads to dreaded cowl and column shake as the chassis contorts over rough road surfaces. The typical engineering response is to soften the springs and dampers to the point that the effects are less pronounced. GM is proud to remind us that the Camaro Convertible uses the exact same spring and damper rates as the hard top, which results in an incredibly similar driving experience. Under most normal circumstances, there's little telling the two apart. Only under some serious thrashing did we notice even a hint of column shake during a deeply-cambered downhill right – a situation that the vast majority of Camaro Convertible buyers will never find themselves in.
While the standard Camaro is no great pantheon of handling, the fact that its large, topless sibling can come close to matching pace is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the convertible is lugging around a substantially larger curb weight, which colors the driving experience accordingly. According to GM, the Camaro SS Convertible tips the scales at 4,116 pounds in our tester's spec. That's a full 267 pounds heavier than the SS Coupe, with most of that weight lodged over the rear axle. As a result, acceleration feels somewhat dulled even though GM claims that the vehicle can get to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds – two-tenths of a seconds slower than the hard top. The convertible simply feels heavy to drive, with braking, cornering and straight-line grunt all taking a hit.
But the Camaro Convertible does well as a comfortable cruiser and there's no denying how good it looks cruising through town or rolling down a deserted highway at dusk. The optional high-intensity discharge headlights of the RS package on our tester are appropriately threatening with their halo ring and the long, lunging hood is unmistakably Muscle. With an as-tested MSRP of $42,995 including the $850 destination fee, the exterior was covered in a black vinyl stripe package, while the loud orange interior accent package rang up an additional $500, with another $1,200 for the RS package.
GM doesn't seem to be trying to convince anyone that the figure is a small price. In fact, the company calls the BMW 3 Series convertible its chief competitor instead of the Ford Mustang GT Convertible. The latter will cost you $38,310 plus destination for a GT Premium Convertible while the German commands a lofty $46,450 plus destination for the significantly less powerful 328i Convertible.
So where does that put the Camaro SS Convertible? Buyers seeking the near irresistible nostalgia of the coupe combined with the joy of being able to put the top down will find exactly what they're looking for. It easily trades its performance credentials for cruising machismo, and in a machine like this, that's no slight.