Review: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible 6MT
By Chris Haak
I could hardly wait for the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro to finally reach production. Growing up as a fan of the bowtie brand, it was fun to watch all of the excitement that took us from the Camaro concept in 2007 to the final production car in mid-2009. Then, when I finally had a chance to get behind the wheel of a new Camaro, I was left slightly underwhelmed. Sure, it was fast, but it had a pretty cheap interior, it was heavy, it was hard to see out of, and it was almost too large to call a “pony car” with a straight face, thanks to its full-size sedan-derived underpinnings.
But the Camaro has been selling quite well, exceeding GM’s expectations for the car, and perhaps even more importantly, outselling the Mustang, and stealing tens of thousands of sales from its big brother, the Corvette. The Camaro’s sales momentum is likely to continue for a while, at least, as Chevy’s XL-size pony car now has a new convertible variant. Chevrolet has sold 56,432 Camaros (both coupes and convertibles) through July 31, which is an increase over the same period in 2010. Some 81,299 new Camaros found buyers during 2010, so it’s kind of impressive that even after a strong first full year for the car, its momentum seemingly hasn’t slowed even after the early adopters have had their cars for a full year.
There’s a lot to like about the Camaro, and in many ways, the convertible model improves upon the basic formula. The coupe’s roofline remains more or less intact with the soft top, and its design is an updated take on the classic 1969 Camaro form, but with more exaggerated features and some modern touches not ever considered in 1969, such as xenon HID headlamps with light halos around them. While visibility in the coupe is an issue for nearly everyone – even taller drivers like me have trouble seeing over the high beltline – rear visibility is a bit worse with the top up, but infinitely better (literally) with the roof stowed. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
The faux vents on the quarter panels behind the doors are a clear tribute to the first generation car’s shape, as are the car’s basic proportions of a short deck and a long, exaggerated hood. Comparing the new Camaro to a classic F-Body, the biggest change in proportions is the shrinking of the front overhang. And speaking of F-Bodies, I found it pretty cool that the fourth digit in this Camaro’s VIN – where the GM chassis designation is listed – is still an F.
Just as the shape of the car adheres to the form-over-function mantra, the interior gives more of the same. In order to allow for the concept car-like high beltline/low roofline combination, visibility is compromised. You have to lean forward to see some traffic lights, the thick A-pillars add a blind spot, and you have to be super careful to check for things beyond your first glance in any direction.
The shapes in the Camaro’s interior are again a tribute to the 1969 car, but most of the modern convenience are present. There are, of course, power windows and locks (with the European-preferred central lock button), XM Satellite Radio, and air conditioning. You can’t get navigation other than the OnStar-powered turn-by-turn feature – which requires a subscription and doesn’t show maps – thanks to the design of the center stack, and nearly everything in the Camaro’s interior is hard plastic. The glossy plastic highlights on the door panels and across the width of the dash, while hard to the touch, add a nice change from the charcoal gray of the remainder of the Camaro’s interior.
The other exception to the charcoal-only theme in my test Camaro was that it had Inferno Orange seats. While they may appear to be a bit too wild at first glance, they really do a good job of keeping the car’s interior color scheme interesting. The shape of the gauges and steering wheel remind one of an older car (though the wheel’s rim is quite thick), and the optional quartet of auxiliary gauges in front of the gearshift are a blatant tribute to the first-generation Camaro. Unfortunately, other than perhaps for track use, the functions monitored with these gauges are those that you will almost never need to check. We’re talking about such important functions as oil temperature, transmission temperature, voltage, and oil pressure with the auxiliary pod, and it’s a good thing that they’re such rarely-used indicators, since it’s impossible to check them without taking your eyes FAR off the road.
Despite having some misgivings about the interior, the front seats are excellent. In fact, they’re among some of the best that I’ve sampled in a GM vehicle, in terms of combining comfort with lateral support. There are nicely-sized bolsters on the back and bottom, and thickly padded headrests adjust up and down, yet look like they’re part of the seatback. Rear seat room is cramped – and the reason the Camaro’s window sticker compares its fuel economy to other “compact” cars – it simply is very tight quarters back there. But one reason the Camaro has been stealing sales from the Corvette is because it does have a seat back there, and if the front seats are adjusted carefully, it is possible to fit a family of four in the Camaro Convertible for a road trip. I know because I did it, and my wife and preschool-age sons didn’t complain nearly as much as I expected they would.
The fabric top looks good and more or less mimics the fixed roof car’s roofline. It does an effective job of sealing out water and wind, and – as I experienced with the Mustang GT 5.0 convertible a year earlier – you can paradoxically enjoy the V8’s soundtrack much more with the roof closed rather than open. But when you are ready to soak up some sun and traffic noise, just twist the center-mounted latch and hold the power top button, and after less than 20 seconds, the top stows itself into a recess between the rear seats and trunk. Chevy provides a manually-installable tonneau cover, but I didn’t bother to try it because the auto-folded top looks fine as it is.
Trunk space is minimal, as is the mail-slot opening to access it. There’s less cargo space in a Camaro convertible than in the aforementioned two-seat Corvette, and (the Corvette coupe, for that matter, has about double the cargo capacity of the Camaro). While much of the trunk space is consumed by the top when it’s folded, the Camaro only gives up about a tenth of its trunk in the metamorphosis from coupe to convertible.
Aside from criticism of the Camaro’s size, there’s also the matter of a bit of a weight problem. Believe me, the Camaro is far from the only vehicle that has grown in size and weight since the sixties, and I understand GM’s necessity in basing the fifth-generation Camaro on the large Zeta sedan platform. That doesn’t change the fact that the Camaro convertible makes the scales groan at more than two full tons – or 4,116 pounds.
With the big 6.2 liter V8 producing 426 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, the Camaro is still quite fast, despite its weight. But if it was not so heavy, it could be even faster; just look at the Mustang GT 5.0 for an example. The Mustang’s new 5.0 liter V8 produces 412 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque, but because the Mustang checks in around 3,750 pounds, so each of the Mustang’s ponies has to haul 9.1 pounds, while each Camaro horse has to haul 9.66 pounds. The Mustang often gives slightly better acceleration numbers (C/D says 4.7 to 60 for the Mustang and 4.9 for the Camaro). Still, there’s more than enough power to move the Camaro quite rapidly, and it sounds great doing so.
While the weight can be felt, particularly in brisk driving, it does have a bit of a side benefit in imparting a feeling of solidity. Thanks to extra bracing for the convertible (extra bracing linking the front shock towers, supporting the transmission, bridging the prop-shaft tunnel, and tying the front and rear subframes to the unibody), the car is still quite solid, with no flexing or shudders over poor roads. The car’s steering ratio is quick, and its huge 20 inch summer tires provide a great deal of grip.
When it’s time to halt the Camaro’s momentum, massive [14 inch front/14.4 inch rear] Brembo brakes with four piston calipers boast a firm, progressive pedal and fade-free operation (in my driving at least; you may see some fade in track situations). The strong brakes, grippy tires, firm suspension (the convertible shares the coupe’s spring and shock tune, unlike in some other convertibles), and muscular engine provide gobs of driver confidence. That you can see nearly the entire hood in front of you helps too.
Fuel economy is published as 16 MPG city and 24 MPG highway. It’s possible to hit those numbers if you have strong will power. I don’t, and found it hard to keep my foot out of the engine’s broad powerband more often than I should have been in there. I saw about 17 MPG overall, and your mileage may vary.
When I first saw the price tag on this Camaro convertible, I had a mild case of sticker shock. Thinking that Camaros start in the low- to mid-$20,000s and V8 Camaro SSs go for around $30,000, I was surprised to see $42,995 for this one. To reconcile my assumption against reality, a well-equipped SS goes for the mid- to high-$30,000s, and the convertible adds about a $5,000 premium. You may be able to get an SS for around $30,000, but it probably won’t have leather seats. The Camaro SS convertible starts at $39,650. My tester was equipped with the RS package ($1,200), which adds 20 inch wheels, HID headlamps with halo rings; the interior accent trim package ($500), the black stripe package ($470) and Inferno Orange Metallic paint ($325). The paint and stripes looked really cool; the orange is almost pearlescent and really seems to shimmer in sunlight.
I’m not really a convertible guy; they aren’t particularly practical (though I did take advantage of the open top whenever possible; do you know how much easier it is to put kids in the back seat of a car when there’s no roof?), they cost more, and they add weight. But there really is something quite cool about cruising around town with the roof open, keeping the Camaro in second gear so the throttle response is instantaneous and you can hear the symphony of pops and gurgles from the exhaust when you release the accelerator.
In college, I once wrote a paper about why the Camaro is better than the Mustang (circa 1993). The Camaro convertible is fun to drive, sounds great, looks great (if perhaps a bit cartoonish and exaggerated), but the fact is, I wouldn’t be able to write that paper today, 18 years later. It’s just not true anymore. The Camaro is a good car, but I no longer think it’s better than the Mustang.
GM provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.