When Ford launched the current Mustang in 2004, producing an eye catching design that successfully combined a visual homage to the very first Pony car with modern styling cues and simple but effective mechanicals that made even the cheapest V6 model good to drive at a price that plenty could afford, they had the market for affordable sports coupes and convertible all to themselves. Back in the 1960s, Ford had quickly gained competition, most especially from GM who launched their Camaro and Firebird models in 1967. Even more than the Mustang, these once revered nameplates had lost their way during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the desires of modern buyers and the GM cars were killed off before the turn of the century. Spotting the success of the new Mustang, though, the designers at Chevrolet decided to go down the same course and produce a new Camaro, that also took design cues from the much loved 1967 car, but with new engineering to make it relevant to twentyfirst century motoring. After literally years of showing concept versions, the new Camaro finally went on sale in 2009, and it quickly became clear that this was a real competitor to the Ford. Just as in the 1960s, there is an element of almost religious zeal among the fans, with neither Ford nor Chevy fans willing to concede that the other product is as good, or even, heaven forbid, perhaps better. One way of looking at it is to see which car sell the most, and very soon it was the Camaro that was outselling Mustang, admittedly only by a small margin each month, but enough for it to be clear that this was definitely no longer a one-horse race. Chevrolet achieved this in 2009 and 2010 despite the fact that many Mustang sales were of the popular and attractive convertible version which has huge appeal to holiday makers and other car renters especially in the sunnier states, whereas Chevrolet only had a Coupe to offer. The production Camaro Convertible finally made its debut at the LA Auto Show in November 2010, and for me, someone who despite liking the latest Mustang is probably more on the Camaro side of the house, it was a Star of the Show. I had driven an SS Coupe earlier in the year and absolutely loved it, so I was hopeful that the open topped cars would arrive in rental fleets to join the gradually increasing population of Camaro Coupes. I had to wait for most of 2011 before Hertz acquired the convertible on fleet. What did delight me is that when the cars arrived they had bought not just the V6 models but the “full fat” V8 SS cars, too. Booking one of those for my New Year vacation in Arizona was a no-brainer, and I collected it on New Years Eve, just before getting the news that in 2011 Chevrolet sold nearly 20,000 more Camaros than Ford did Mustangs. Hopes were high, therefore, that the last test car of 2011 and first of 2012 would prove to be something very special indeed.
The raison d’etre of a Convertible is roof down motoring, and blessed with sunny skies and warm Arizona temperatures, I conducted almost the entire test with the roof down. The process of lowering the top is simple. There is a large release catch in the middle of the hood at the leading edge, and once that is undone, you press the button on the header rail, and the side windows all drop then the roof electrically retracts, closing down neatly in a well behind the rear seats, and into the boot. There is a warning message on the dash to tell you whether the roof is securely stowed or not, which is just as well, as I noted that there was a bit of flutter as the wind got under the edges at speed, however it is of semi-rigid construction so unlikely to come loose. Closing the roof is the same simple process in reverse. With the front side windows up, I had no issues driving the Camaro at freeway speed and was even able to listen to the radio without needing to turn it up unduly. When I took the car up to the Grand Canyon, and climbed up past Flagstaff at 7000 feet above sea level, and on to a summit of 8046ft, the temperature was down to 46 degrees F, but a little help from the air conditioning meant it was still viable to drive roof down. With a climate like that of Arizona or California, you really would get value from a convertible, probably only keeping the roof shut in summer when it gets too hot to have it open. With the roof up, noise levels are well controlled and little different from the coupe. Certainly there was no apparent extra wind noise that you sometimes encounter with fabric roofed cars.
Apart from the fresh air, there is another advantage in driving with the roof down. You can hear the wondrous sounds from the V8 engine. They are at their best when you start the car, or when you prod the throttle, as at a steady speed, this is a nicely refined cruiser. Starting it is a real treat, as there is clearly a flap in the exhaust designed to make a special noise a couple of seconds after you turn the key. I’d say that Chevrolet have found the right balance between making the car sound nice and not being too loud that it gets wearing on a long journey. Be in no doubt, though, that this engine is more than just a nice noise. It makes the Camaro go pretty well, too. Automatic gearbox cars lose 26 bhp over the manual machines, but they still put out 400 bhp, which is a lot, and it makes this car not just brisk, but genuinely rapid. And if that is not rapid enough, then the forthcoming V8 supercharged ZL1 car with 580 bhp should stop anyone moaning. You can potter along quite sedately, with no problem, but just squeeze the throttle a little and the Camaro comes to life, accelerating hard for as long as you will let it. Sadly, although Arizona has got rid of its profusion of speed cameras that infested the place a couple of years ago, there were too many law enforcement officers around and a bright red convertible is always going to attract attention, so I had to limit my flexing of the right foot. Even so, I found immense pleasure in driving this car, in exploiting the acceleration albeit in short bursts, and revelling in the sound it makes. The note that you get on start up was almost enough to encourage a lot more stop/start of the engine than normal, but when you look at the number of photos I took of this car – far more than normal, even allowing for the fact that I had it for 5 days – it seemed that there was a set of valid reasons to be listening to the crackle of start up time and time again. That said, when cruising at a steady speed, the car is quiet, almost too quiet from an engine point of view, so this is a refined car as well as a hooligan mobile. Perfect! Automatic Camaros have a 6 speed transmission. the leather wrapped gearlever comes perfectly to hand. “Flappy paddles” are mounted behind the steering wheel for manual changes, but you would be hard pressed to be smoother than those executed by the gearbox electronics, as they are all but undetectable. For the kind of testing I undertook, the Camaro always seemed to be in the right gear and the ample quantities of torque ensured that even if it was not, it was never likely to be embarrassed or slow to respond.
When I collected the test car, the tank appeared to be full and the info display on the dash advised me that the range was 245 miles, which did not seem a lot. During the course of the first day, I managed to use most of the tank, and refuelled the car, simply noting how much petrol I had bought (a lot, and 91 octane stuff in honour of the car, rather than the standard 87 octane “regular” fuel). I then drove it fairly steadily on the freeway up to the Grand Canyon and en route back, filled it up again, at which point it told me that the range was 450 miles. That leads me to suspect that the previous renter had been enjoying the Camaro as it is intended to be used, and as a consequence would have paid the price at the pumps. Steady speed freeway cruising also allows the multi-cylinder deactivation to cut in, which explains why on that long journey I averaged 22.15 mpg US, which equates to 26.4 Imperial, but the following day, the tank went down a lot faster.
The steering wheel is leather wrapped and felt good to hold, with the rim being just a perfect thickness. The weighting and feel is well judged, too, meaning that this car is good to steer. It handles well, too. There is no way that you can exploit all the power on public roads, so I knew that all my sampling of this car was going to be only a subset of its capabilities and limits, and this will likely apply to many of the buyers of the car, too. Certainly, the way I drove it, it handled well, and was lots of fun on the twistier roads in the Phoenix environs, although I have yet to find roads in that area that quite equal the canyon roads up above Los Angeles. What really impressed me is that this is a convertible, ie a car with no roof and where the loss of stiffness in the body usually makes itself all too obvious on bends or bumpy roads. Not so for the Camaro Convertible, which felt impressively rigid at all times, with no trace of scuttle shake, and no vibrations or anything to suggest that the car was weaker than the Coupe model. Even on 20″ wheels, Camaro rides well, absorbing the different road surfaces with aplomb. The brakes are good, providing every reassurance needed that they will stop you from whatever speed you were doing. There is a central pull-up handbrake lever, though in an automatic this is almost academic.
With the driver’s seat set well forward to suit my short legs, getting in required a certain agility, as there is quite a narrow gap between the lower dash, the wheel and the seat, but it was a knack that I quickly mastered. Once installed in the cabin, the dash looked familiar and that is because it is identical to that of the Coupe. As a quick reminder, that means that you get quite a stylised retro-look layout. There are two main dials, portrait style oblongs, with a thick silver rim to the edge of the cowls, with the water temperature gauge let into the bottom of the speedo and fuel gauge to the bottom of the rev counter. It mattered little how easy or not it is to read the speedo in this car, as it came with a heads up display. I really like this feature, and the one in the Camaro had the added value that it also gave you a quick update of the title of a new track playing on the satellite radio, removing the need to look at the display screen on the audio unit. Between the two large dials is a display area for vehicle information, such as fuel level to empty or oil life. You can cycle through these readouts by pressing a button in the left hand column stalk, which proved a bit fiddly. There are several buttons on the spokes of the steering wheel, used primarily for the cruise control system and commonly used audio unit functions. The lights are operated by a rotary switch on the dash low to the left of the wheel. There is an automatic setting, and I left it on this at all times, but when I wanted to put the lights on manually, I could not actually see the switch to see to where I needed to turn it. I discovered that with standard DRLs, the lights would seem to be on whenever the engine is running The centre of the dash panel contains a bespoke audio unit that has quite a lot of buttons but was easy to use. Beneath it are two protruding rotary dials for the climate control system. Beneath these are four auxiliary gauges for oil temperature and pressure, battery charge and transmission temperature. These are not easy to read at a glance, but then the information contained on them is not the sort that you need constantly to be monitoring. The main dash moulding contains a large swathe of dark grey plastic and also has some leather surfaces. Some have complained of a low rent interior, but I personally did not really have an issue with what was presented to me.
One of the few criticisms of the Camaro that is repeatedly made by journalists and on other forums is that visibility is poor, largely a consequence of the low seating position and high scuttle and belt line . I did not particularly find this to be an issue in the Coupe, but clearly the Convertible could well fare better when driven with the roof down. The door mirrors are quite small, but the field of view is OK, so actually, even with the roof up, things are not too bad. The rear side windows are very small triangles which means that there is a very large area of hood evident over the driver’s shoulder, so when reversing or joining another road or traffic lane at an oblique angle, care is needed, I found this no more of an issue with this car than the Challenger I had been driving immediately prior. Of course, I had the roof down almost whenever I was driving the Camaro, so this problem completely went away. Nonetheless, to prove that GM does listen, they have included something very helpful, which I discovered first when reversing out of the parking spot in the rental car garage. There is a reversing camera, cunningly located above the rear number plate, I noticed, but whilst this is not particularly unusual in this day and age,but instead of projecting something to the sat nav screen, this one actually gives you a proper camera image projected onto the left hand side of the rear view mirror. In very bright sunlight the image can be hard to see, but otherwise, this was absolutely brilliant, and I am surprised I have not seen this before. It proved quite hard to photograph, but I did try! Whilst on the subject of visibility, another feature I really liked was the polychromatic finish to the driver’s door mirror, which meant than when bright headlights were detected, the mirror went darker to reduce dazzle.
The one other criticism, or shall we call it an observation?, that I cannot really refute is the size of the boot. On the coupe, the actual capacity is not bad, but the opening slot is pretty small, so getting stuff in is even more of a problem than in the Mustang. The Convertible, though, loses quite a lot of space as it is needed to stow the roof. As with many convertibles these days, there is a retractable divider which must be in place before the roof is lowered, and with this in place, you would struggle to get much of a suitcase in the boot, as the area under the divider is very shallow and there is not much space between the divider and the back of the car. A roller bag might fit, but a ful sized suitcase certainly would not. With the roof up, and the divider out of the way, the capacity is only slightly less than in the Coupe model. If more than 2 people were taking this car for more than a few days, they would need to pack quite carefully, or accept the fact that motoring would be with the roof up, which rather negates the point of the open top. Oddment space in the cabin is limited to a good sized glovebox, meagre door bins, a cubby under the armrest that was not quite large enough to take a 500ml bottle of water. There are two cupholders in the centre console. Rear seat passengers are limited to a map pocket in the back of just the passenger seat.
The Camaro is configured strictly as a four seater, with separate bucket seat style cushions for those in the back, and both a ridge in the middle of the seat over the transmission tunnel and some quite thick side panel mouldings that mean that you sit a little nearer the centre of the car than you might expect. With the roof down, access is easy, even though only the front seat backrest tips forward, and once installed, I could sit behind myself with ease and plenty of leg room. Where the front seat is set well back, it would be more of a squeeze, but you could definitely put adults in the back of this car. They might be slightly less content once the roof is up, as the side windows are not that large and the view forwards will be constrained by the front seat headrests. Getting in and out is a little more difficult, but far from impossibly difficult. Slightly surprisingly, there are no head rests for the rear passengers. The front seat proved very comfortable, which is just as well as the day I went to the Grand Canyon entailed a lot of sitting on it. Trimmed in a good quality soft leather, they are electrically adjusted. Just as in the coupe, the steering wheel would usefully have gone a little bit higher, as I had it as far up as it would go and the seat as low as possible, and still would have welcomed a bit more clearance, but it was something I could easily live with.
Camaro is offered in three trim levels, LS, LT and SS. The first is confined to the coupe, but the others are offered on both coupe and convertible. Both LT and SS can be ordered with an option pack identified by 1 or 2. LS and LT models are fitted with the V6 engine, newly uprated for 2012 to 323bhp in an effort not to be outdone by the re-engined V6 Mustang, and the SS cars have the 6.2 litre V8. As well as the V8 engine, the SS gains uprated brakes, sports suspension, a leather wrapped steering wheel and 20″ wheels. Upgrade to a 2SS and you get heated leather seats, heated door mirrors with the anti=dazzle reduction capability, a Boston sound system with USB port, the rear view camera and obstacle detection system and the head up display and the four dial auxiliary gauge pack. Chevrolet charge $2700 extra for the 2SS package which seems like very good value compared to what the German marques would want, as they would likely price just about each of the major features at that increment. That means that a 2SS Convertible retails for $40,600. A big increment on the entry level LS Coupe at $23,200 or even the cheapest 1LT Convertible at $30,100, but I still think it is excellent value for money.
Be in no doubt, I absolutely loved this car. I fell for the SS Coupe in a big way when I sampled that, so my expectations of the convertible were high. If anything, the reality was even better than I had been hoping. Especially when finished in a bold shade such as the Victory Red of the test car, I think the car looks fantastic. Better, even, than the coupe. Driving it, roof down, enjoying that lovely V8 noise and surge of power was just tremendous fun. and although there were a few niggling little things that mean the car is not quite perfect, there was nothing I could not live with. There’s no question in my mind that when you go to somewhere with likely good weather like Arizona, this is THE rental car to pick. I think I would go further and say that if I were to move out to live in one of those places, a Camaro SS Convertible would be pretty much top of my list of cars to buy. It really was that good, and at an on the road price of $40,600 it is a bargain.