Chevrolet reports that the new Camaro SS convertible, a ragtop version of America’s hillbilly Veyron, weighs a mere 246 pounds more than the SS coupe. That’s a very creditable figure but I wonder: Does that include water-weight gain?
I ask because as I was heaving the big bruiser around in the back roads of North Carolina, I heard a strange sloshing in the back. Concerned—had someone spilled his bong?—I pulled over to investigate. I raised the canvas top halfway and there, pooled in the lined recess behind the rear seatback, was about a pint of rainwater.
This puzzled and excited me. Puzzled because, surely, the engineers and designers who have so admirably decapitated the Camaro could have managed to keep the rain out. Actually, in many ways the convertible is a superior car. While the ragtop is a bit slower to 60 mph (4.9 seconds, compared with 4.6 for the coupe) and a half-second more leisurely through the quarter-mile (13.4 seconds), the retracted top cures the low-roof coupe’s biggest functional liability: massive rear-quarter blind spots and desperately limited outward visibility. You know that tunnel-vision thing that happens right after you fall out of your tree stand? Like that.
Photos: Ragtop Road Monster
So while the SS coupe might be a touch faster, it’s actually harder to drive fast because it’s so hard to see out of. Advantage, convertible. Also, given the car’s slightly remote-feeling steering, it helps to be able to hear the tires moaning in a corner, the better to judge the available grip. Chevy’s chassis boffins have reinforced the convertible so that it is at least as stiff as the coupe—despite its lacking the cross-bracing rigidity of a hardtop—and the shock and spring rates are just as flinty as the coupe’s.
In fact, the convertible is mechanically almost a clone of the coupe. It’s offered with either a direct-injection, 3.6-liter, 312-horsepower V6 or one of two 6.2-liter V8s: the 400-hp L99 engine (paired with the six-speed automatic transmission) or the 426-hp LS3 engine mated to the six-speed manual. The latter configuration—pleasingly snarly and bellicose, with a popping and slobbering exhaust note right out of “Beowulf”—is how my test car came.
2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
- Base price: $39,650
- Price as tested: $42,080
- Powertrain: 6.2-liter, 16-valve pushrod V8 with port fuel injection; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive with limited-slip differential.
- Horsepower/torque: 426 hp at 5,900 rpm/420 pound-feet at 4,600 rpm
- Length/weight: 190.4 inches/4,116 pounds
- Wheelbase: 112.3 inches
- 0-60 mph: 4.9 seconds
- EPA fuel economy: 16/24 mpg, city/highway
- Cargo capacity: 10.2 cubic feet (top up); 5 cubic feet (top down)
The SS convertible will definitely get around a corner. I mean, it isn’t particularly tidy—blame the 4,116-pound curb weight and the relatively high center of gravity. The car can get a bit pitchy as you squeeze the (awesome) brakes and you have to give it a half-sec to take a set in a corner. But then it puts its shoulder down, the summer radials take root, and the car arcs around in a heady display of angular momentum.
Compared with a lightweight open-top sports car like a Mazda MX-5, the SS convertible feels like swinging a sack of flour in a pillow fight. A lot of effort, but when you make contact, Pow!
More from the dynamics notebook: Not surprisingly for a front-engine V8 convertible, the SS ragtop is a little nose-heavy and the engineers have thoughtfully dialed in an additional degree of protective understeer, lest you, in an exuberant moment, wipe out your neighbor’s display of wooden duck windmills. However, in the right gear and the right corner, you can bring the rear end around with the car’s largess of pushrod torque (420 pound-feet at 4,600 rpm). All Camaros have limited-slip differentials, which is nice. You can also engage the Competition Mode, which allows more yaw angle before the car’s stability control intervenes. All of these technical measures help you to more safely and confidently explore the limits of your SS convertible.
The “competition” in question, by the way, is Most Hated Man in the County.
And, of course, the Camaro also allows you to kill the traction control completely in order to perform clutch-dropping, tire-hazing, tail-dancing 50-foot burnouts. With the top down. In high-school parking lots. And they say there is no God.
I understand that these go-fast features are obligatory for the SS convertible. I likewise understand that none but the nuttiest will attempt to road-race this machine. No, this car is all about self-presentation, about the code, the metaphor, the ball-peen mentality of Camaro. And that brings us back to the aquarium I found under the top, and my excitement.
The Camaro is an imperfectly perfect design. If the designers had been the slightest bit rational, they would have insisted that the coupe’s outward visibility be better and they would have done something about the absurd roof buttresses and postage-stamp backlight. But they didn’t dial the design down; they dialed it up, so extravagantly in fact that when in the “Transformers” movie the car turns into a giant laser-belching robot, you miss the car because it looks cooler.
To effect the convertible, GM’s designers insisted that the canvas roof retain exactly the same turret-style profile as the coupe roof. In order to do that, they extended the canvas-top mechanism below the beltline, thus creating the pocket for the pond to form. They certainly could have made life easier on themselves. I suspect, as they read this, they might wish they had.
But please, despairing designers, take heart. It’s just a crummy seal. Easy to fix. The world is full of nominalized, fully rational cars with perfectly fitted convertible tops. This is not the mind space that Camaro needs to occupy. Instead, it wants to be the Harley-Davidson of sports coupes: slightly brutal, a little primitive, deeply nostalgic. And as someone who’s owned a few vintage ragtops, I can tell you, nothing could be more authentic than a leaky top.
So the car will occasionally need a diuretic. Who cares?
Meanwhile, behold the power of the SS convertible. I was coursing along an interstate with the top down when I found myself overtaking a guy in a yellow SS coupe. He didn’t notice me until I was right beside him and, until that moment, he was Master of the Universe. Then he looked over and his face fell off.
To qualify as a true performance car, the Camaro really needs more horsepower, a more cinched-down suspension, less weight, more evolved aero and better gearing. Stay tuned for next year’s 550-hp Camaro ZL1. In the meantime, the SS convertible is the ultimate Camaro, as well as the world’s quickest rain barrel.