x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Road Test: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

The suspension and handling have not been affected by the top coming off, writes David Booth.

Courtesy of General Motors
Courtesy of General Motors

There's no great mystery to evaluating a convertible, at least not a convertible with a saloon or coupe sibling. Other than niggling details like how well the drop-top roof seals and how well the outside world - rain and noise - is isolated by the removable top, you're basically searching for what performance compromises have been made to satiate the quest for al fresco motoring.

Such compromises used to - and still often do - come in the form of reduced body control. Lopping off the roof of a perfectly good automobile is much like cracking the top off a soft-boiled egg. What was once an incredibly rigid structure is now but - pardon the bad pun - a shell of its former self. As for the egg, you had better be careful with the decapped version or else you'll be wearing the slimy yolk. Similarly, an automobile's chassis - now sans roof - becomes a much more flimsy framework, the loss of the roof allowing the body to twist and shake like Jerry Lee Lewis in full Great Balls of Fire form.

Manufacturers construct all manner of reinforcements to compensate. There are strengthening beams below the chassis, suspension tower struts atop and all manner of thicker steel throughout the body to try to compensate for Humpty Dumpty's more fragile state. Despite the extra metal, however, it's almost impossible for a convertible to match its coupe sibling's stiffness (usually referred to as torsional rigidity). Rarer still are the convertibles that try to do so with the same stiff suspension as its more rigid sibling (stiff suspension, as you can imagine, will upset a limper chassis more easily, hence the reason so many soft-tops have more compliant suspension than their rigid-roofed cousins).

No wonder, then, that Chevrolet is making much of the fact that the suspension of its newly decapitated Camaro is exactly the same as the hardtop version. "To compensate for the reduced structure of an open car, engineers often will make the suspension softer, making the convertible a boulevard cruiser," says Al Oppenheiser, the Camaro's chief engineer. "Instead, we took the more difficult but better path of bolstering structure rather than softening the suspension. We didn't change a strut, bushing or spring rate from the Camaro coupe."

Said bolstering takes the form of a tower-to-tower suspension brace under the hood, additional bracing for the transmission tunnel and further "V" bracing under the front and rear underbodies. It's nothing fancy. Indeed, these are fairly straightforward changes, yet according to Chevy's engineers the chassis is stiffer than the comparable Ford Mustang and equal to the much-vaunted BMW 328 Cabriolet.

And although it's less rigid than the hardtop version, the difference goes largely unnoticed. For better or worse, the convertible version's ride and handling is pretty much the same as the coupe's. In other words, on a smooth road the handling is precise without the ride being overly stiff, and the steering well weighted if a little numb. Even on bumpy roads the Camaro Convertible is superior to the Mustang, thanks to its more modern independent rear suspension. (Opposed to the Ford's refined, but still archaic, solid rear axle.) The only surface on which the Camaro Convertible feels out of place is on very tight roads, where rapid changes in direction belie its heft (even the lightest version weighs 1,808kg).

The one disappointment resulting from the changes are the brakes on the base V6 version. Because the V6 models are intended for a less-enthusiastic audience, the LS and LT are saddled with single-piston brakes front and rear (the monster-motored SS gets four-pot Brembos up front) and smallish 321mm ventilated discs. The result is a wooden feeling I thought GM had banished from its fleet. Or at least its sports-car fleet. Here, the extra metal - 112kg of it - that GM added to boost that stiffness exacts a penalty.

GM's bean counters contend the V6 version of the Convertible is less about performance and more about style. But the V6 model deserves better, if for no other reason than the fact that the V6 is plenty sporty indeed. Its 312hp would have been the equal of the V8-powered Mustang GT but a few years ago, and more important than just the numbers (it also pumps out 377Nm of torque and accelerates the LS to 100kph in just 6.2 seconds, only 0.2 behind the hardtop) is that it feels sporty.

Indeed, I am going to commit a sacrilege here and say that the 3.6L actually sounds better than its mega-horsepower V8 alternative. Maybe it's because I'm a motorcyclist at heart, but I like the sound of the V6 more than that of the muscular V8. Where the V8 is the traditional eight-piston Nascar rumble that we all know and love (and the lower-horsepowered automatic-equipped SS has barely a whisper of that), the V6 has a rasp that turns into a superbike howl when the revs start climbing. It's more noticeable with the top down, and it's quite amusing to be motoring around in a V6 (an engine design not normally associated with rorty exhaust notes) romping up and down the rev range just to hear the combustion.

The V8, of course, is sportier still. Indeed, with 426hp on tap (400 in the L99 automatic version), the LS3 V8-powered SS has more than enough moxie to warrant the SS nameplate. Traditionalists need not fret that General Motors has watered down the Camaro nameplate, as even the heavier convertible version of the SS blasts to 100kph in five seconds. I would, however, recommend sticking with the manual-equipped SS. Not only does it boast 26 more horsepower and a noticeably more evocative exhaust note, but the V8's six-speed autobox is not nearly as sophisticated as the V6's automatic.

The last part of the equation, for any convertible, is styling. Here, the Camaro, I think, impresses. Unlike the interior, which is somewhat bland, the Camaro's exterior is always striking, whether in hardtop or convertible format. Indeed, with its roof up, the Convertible looks every bit as menacing as the hardtop. Top down, it's a little more feminine; probably a good thing, since females are a large part of the prospective market, particularly for the V6 version.

The drop-top roof may be stylish, but it is not as convenient as it could be. Yes, it's electrically powered, but it does require manual removal of the tonneau cover, as well as manual connection to the windshield's header. And though it's quick to stow - less than 20 seconds - it takes longer to install.

These, I suspect, will be minor details. In the United States, the Camaro already outsells all the variants of the Mustang - hardtop, convertible and even the Shelby variants - with just one model. Chevrolet marketing mavens estimate that the convertible will result in an additional 20 per cent sales increase. There's little reason to doubt them.

The Camaro Convertible will arrive in the UAE in April, though the price is yet to be confirmed.