Test Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

?Chevy?s Camaro blows its top for 2011?

Joining the Camaro stable for 2011 is the new convertible, which debuted earlier this year at the Los Angeles International Auto Show. The Convertible began production in January and went on sale in February. The Camaro Coupe has proven to be immensely popular, and it was only natural for the Chevrolet division of General Motors to advance the Camaro to new levels.

The new convertible features an enhanced body structure along with a well-tailored top mechanism ? a combination that delivers sports coupe-like performance with the added driving fun provided by open-air motoring.

The convertible will be available in similar model configurations as the Camaro coupe. The standard model will have a 312-horsepower direct injection V-6 engine that delivers an impressive 29-mpg highway. SS models will be powered by a 6.2L V-8 engine that produces 426 horsepower. A six-speed manual gearbox will be standard across the board, with an optional six-speed automatic transmission available. An Aisin AY6 six-speed manual is standard with the 3.6L engine, with a Hydra-Matic 6L50 six-speed automatic as an option. A Tremec TR 6060 six-speed manual is standard on the SS, with an optional Hydra-Matic 6L80 six-speed automatic.

The base V6-powered model comes in two trim levels ? 1LT starting at $29,150 and 2 LT with a base sticker price of $32,650. V8-powered models are offered in two trim levels as well: 1SS with a base price of $36,650 and 2SS, which stickers starting at $39,650. Prices include an $850 Destination charge. An optional RS Package is available across the entire model and trim range, that includes: 20-inch flangeless painted-aluminum wheels with a Midnight Silver finish, High Intensity Discharge headlamps with integral LED halo rings, unique taillamps and a rear spoiler. There are two versions of the V8: an L99 for automatic transmission models, with 400 horsepower and 410 pound feet of torque and an LS3 for those with manual gearboxes that generates 426 horses along with 420 pound feet of torque. The L99 features a fuel-saving Active Fuel Management System that saves fuel by shutting down half of the engine?s cylinders during certain light-load driving conditions, such as highway cruising.

There are nine exterior finishes available, with tops offered in either black or tan, and all convertible models come with rear parking assist as standard fare.

How will the new drop top Camaro be received in the marketplace? It became an instant segment sales leader when the right to purchase one of the first examples sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction for $205,000 (all proceeds were donated to charity), and the 2011 Nieman Marcus Edition Camaro convertibles ? a limited production group of 100? exclusive models featuring custom-designed elements, proceed at $75,000 each, sold out in only three minutes.

The Camaro convertible?s architecture was designed to deliver the fun of top-down cruising, but with coupe-like driving dynamics. Four strategic reinforcements were incorporated to enhance the already-stiff body structure,?virtually eliminating the common negative convertible issues of cowl and steering wheel shake. They include: a tower-to-tower brace under the hood; a transmission support reinforcement brace; an underbody tunnel brace; and front and rear underbody ?V? braces. Additional enhancements include: a hydroformed tube in the A-pillars, an inner reinforcement bracket in the windshield header, a reinforced front hinge pillar and reinforcements inside the rockers panels.

The Camaro convertible body?s structural changes give it superior bending and torsional stiffness over its closest competitor, and better torsional stiffness than the BMW 3-Series convertible.

The convertible top is made of thick, durable canvas, featuring acoustical headliner material that provides a quiet, coupe-like ride when the top is up. It also incorporates a glass rear window and rear window defogger.

The power-folding top retracts in roughly 20 seconds. It is built in partnership with the same manufacturer as the Corvette convertible top, and operates in a similar manner, folding in a simple ?Z? pattern and latching with a single, convenient handle located at the center of the windshield header. Once the latch is turned to the open position, the push of a single button lowers the windows and activates the top. The car doesn?t have to be parked for the top to be activated, allowing for spur-of-the-moment lowering while stopped at a stoplight.

Designers and engineers sought to eliminate the common appearance of convertible top support ribs, succeeding by utilizing composite knuckles rather than aluminum, as well as extending the top material below the belt line and revising the top?s stitch lines. This resulted in a smooth, taut top with a carefully tailored appearance that also retains a sleek roofline similar to the coupe.

A folding, one-piece tonneau cover is standard on 2LT and 2SS models and optional on 1LT/1SS, which covers the folded top for a finished appearance. An accessory windscreen is available from Chevrolet dealers that installs behind the front seats to limit wind buffeting during top down driving.

During the national press launch of the 2011 Camaro convertible, I was able to experience behind-the-wheel time in virtually all configurations of the new ragtop ? V6 and V8 with both manual and automatic transmissions. I spent the most time in a 2LT model (V6) with an automatic transmission that was also outfitted with the RS Package. The base price was set at $31,800 while the final sticker came to an estimated $33,850 with the RS Package for which pricing wasn?t officially available. The exterior finish was Red Jewel Tintcoat with a Charcoal and Bone interior theme.

SUMMARY: As an open-air aficionado, driving almost any convertible is a pleasure, but the Camaro version was especially enjoyable. For one thing, with the top down, the visibility is obviously better than the coupe, as is the head-room. In fact, though I checked out the top operation, I never piloted my test car with the top in the up position.

The structural rigidity of both V6 and V8 examples is nearly identical. There are naturally, notable differences in handling and power output between the two. The exhaust note of the V6 is on the wimpy side, with the V8 producing a pleasing and melodious rumble, which could be even better with a little tweaking.

Acceleration is more than adequate with the V6, while the V8 delivers a more spirited romp as one would expect. The ride quality of both iterations is comfortable, and the handling characteristics, though were close by comparison, actually seemed better in the V6-powered car ? not sure why, other than perhaps the wheel and tire combinations differences experienced in each.

The 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible is equally attractive with the top up or down, but it belongs stowed unless the weather is inclement, and even then, the theory is that if one goes fast enough, the rain misses the interior altogether.

The 1LT and 2LT examples are more economical, while the 1SS and 2SS versions are more rewarding in the performance department. Either way, the new Camaro drop-top is sure to be a roaring success.