The Camaro was already a good car by any standards. But now Chevy has chopped off the roof to bring back a legendary style. Was that a good idea? Imran Malik heads to Yas Marina to find out.
Before I was even allowed to lay my eyes on the new Camaro Convertible, I first had to prove my mettle. And not by thumb wrestling another hack who'd also been invited to Yas Marina. No, I would have to endure a quarter-mile sprint in a 1,200bhp dragster capable of hitting 0-100kph in… one second. Pass this little obstacle, and the keys to the Chevy and the entire North section of the track would be mine.
To remind me just why I was about to risk life and limb, in rolled the SS, finished in Summit White complete with red stripes, massive 20in alloys and of course, no roof. I'd have shot myself out of a cannon to drive it. Turns out that's as good as what I did. Now, I like going fast as much as the next guy, but this three-seat dragster bordered on the downright lethal.
Strapped in with what seemed like 100 harnesses, I squeezed into the tight cockpit and surrendered myself to the mercy of two-time drag racing world champ ‘Hot' Rod Fuller. Even with a pro behind the wheel, my heart was pounding, but not as hard as my head for just inches behind me sat a 10.2-litre V8 with a belly full of nitromethane. It roared so loudly just at idle that I could feel it grinding my insides.
This blue-and-white cruise missile was capable of speeds of 300kph, and yet its front tyres looked like they belonged to the local shawarma shop's delivery bike. They were thinner than an anorexic model and they didn't exactly fill me with confidence. When Fuller floored it, it sounded like the world just exploded. The sheer violence with which we took off was plain and simply wrong. Fortunately, the agony wouldn't last too long. Seven seconds to be precise, by the end of which we were doing 280kph. I was later told that it was being driven at just half of its potential. After that baptism of fire, I was ready for the new drop-top Camaro. But not before a little run to the restroom...
The gold bowtie never looked so proud sitting in the middle of the ferocious looking front end. When Chevy unveiled the tin-top model almost two years ago, it was an instant hit. It outsold its old enemy, the Ford Mustang, in its first year. But I was more interested to see if GM would bring the Trans Am back since both cars shared the same platform. Unfortunately, Pontiac was consigned to the history books in order to save the General during the financial crisis and so any chance of the T-Am rising from the flames like the Phoenix on its bonnet was gone.
The muscular Camaro looks great with or without a roof, though it was always destined to be a convertible. When the coupé was launched, plans were already in place to chop the top. So the designers had to engineer a vehicle structure that would be capable of handling the extra weight that a drop-top would create. As a result, it has more braces than a class of teenagers. A shock tower brace stretching from strut to strut under the bonnet, a transmission support reinforcement, an underbody tunnel brace and front and rear underbody V-braces help make this iconic pony almost as stiff as its hardtop counterpart. And if you are to believe the marketing spiel from Chevy, it features better torsional stiffness than the BMW 3 Series Convertible.
Since there are no B-pillars getting in the way, this rag-top has even better sight lines than the coupé. I just love the Coke bottle rear fenders and the mean-looking taillights.
Removing the top is fairly easy — you just need to pull on the single grab handle located at the centre of the windshield header and press the magic button; 20 seconds later you'll be toasting your bonce. Since the roof comes equipped with an acoustic liner, road and wind noise is muted when it's up, but there's no silencing the growl of the 6.2-litre V8. The thick, durable black canvas top, also available in tan, incorporates a glass rear window with a rear-window defogger. Boot space drops from 320 litres in the coupé to just 288 in the convertible. It gets worse; take the top down and you are left with just 223 litres of space. But, that'll be the last of your worries when the wind starts ruffling your hair.
Inside, it's pretty much the same as the coupé and the dash retains the retro-inspired design from the first generation model. It's nice and simple in here, but it's high time that the car got a full sat-nav system.
Since there's a roof to stow away, the rear seats have become narrower. That's not to say you can't sit in them. I jumped into the back and though it was cramped, short journeys wouldn't be a problem. I was very disappointed with the poor forward visibility and that's mainly due to such a large steering wheel. It wouldn't look out of place on a semi-trailer truck. For what isn't exactly a super-spacious interior, the oversized wheel certainly doesn't help. On the plus side, it is nicely padded and comes with tap shift controls, while the rack and pinion system provides good driver feedback. The letter-box-type windscreen and thick A-pillars are a hindrance but the good news is it comes with rear parking assist. However, what's important is what lies under the bonnet, you certainly won't be disappointed with the engine.
Made from an aluminium block with cast iron cylinder liners and aluminium cylinder heads, it produces 400bhp at 5,900rpm and 556Nm of torque at 4,300rpm. Those, I'm sure we all agree, are very respectable figures. The engine is bolted on to a Hydra-Matic 6L80 six-speed automatic and it's a perfect match. It swaps cogs effortlessly and it's simply a blast once you take over and start shifting gears manually. Mileage, for a muscle car, isn't too bad either — 16 litres in the city and 10 litres-per-100km on the highway. The Active Fuel Management System shuts half of the engine's cylinders down when you're not driving with your teeth clenched. With those horses on the rampage, you need to know you're not dicing with death every time you go for a drive. It's reassuring then, to know the suspension doesn't feature leaf springs like the original car had back in the late Sixties. However, nothing has changed in the suspension from the coupé, not even a single bush. Usually, engineers will soften the ride to make the car a bit of a boulevard cruiser. Not here. Its structure has been bolstered but the struts and spring rates have been left untouched. This means you still get a multi-link strut with coil springs and a stabiliser bar for the front, while at the back there's a multi-link set-up with a stabiliser bar and coilover shocks. It proved to be a brilliant set-up on the track with the car remaining perfectly poised with hardly any body roll.
However, it is a firm ride so if you're planning on cruising up and down the road in one of these, pack a spare cushion to sit on. It gets on with the job without a creak or groan, nor does it wallow around corners. It attacks them with verve and grips onto the road like a vice thanks to the sticky Pirellis. But take a turn rather too enthusiastically, and you'll be grinning from ear to ear when the tyres start to screech and plead for their life.
Equipped with Brembo brakes, this Camaro stops as quickly as it goes. Even after a whole afternoon of hard driving, there wasn't any noticeable fade.
So, has chopping off the roof made the Camaro a better car? Well, it's put on 115kg, now weighing 1,866kg, and as a result it takes 4.9 seconds to hit 100kph. But that's just two hundredths of a second slower than the coupé, and there is no way you can notice that. But, the extra kilos actually help make it feel more planted on the road. The convertible manages to amplify all that was already good about the hardtop. It looks better and as a bonus, you get to hear the glorious note of the V8. It sounds like Chevy has played with the exhaust, but it hasn't been touched. It drives almost as well as the coupé and without any obvious chassis flex that you usually associate with convertibles. Flinging it around corners without the safety of a roof also makes it all the more exciting.
This is a thrilling car you're sure to love, despite its poor visibility and basic interior. You don't buy a Camaro hoping to blend into the background. It's an extrovert's car, and there's certainly no place to hide in this. I'd happily strap myself into that dragster again if it meant another date with this SS.
Model Camaro SS Convertible
Engine 6.2-litre V8
Transmission Six-speed auto, RWD
Max power 400bhp @ 5,900rpm
Max torque 556Nm @ 4,300rpm
Top speed NA
Plus Awesome styling, decent dynamics
Minus Visibility is still a problem