Driven: 2011 Chevrolet Camaro RS Convertible

By Tom Martin

July 07, 2011

—Austin, Texas

Like a lot of the Winding Road staff, I have had mixed emotions about the Camaro. I like the idea of a more modern challenger (sorry, Dodge) to the Mustang’s semi-monopoly on the intersection of inexpensive and powerful. I like the basic design of the car, though I could tweak a few details to make it better. I’m not even that troubled by the Camaro’s limited visibility, knowing full well that we heap praise on Lamborghinis and Lotuses without screaming bloody murder about visibility.

But I generally haven’t been smitten by the Camaro driving experience; a better description would be “frustrated.” Frustrated is the word, because the Camaro shows promise. The V-8 is potent and the suspension is capable. And yet the Camaro generally feels a little lifeless: thick, heavy and isolated. Adding insult to injury, the controls were executed by a junior stylist or manufacturing engineer, not someone with actual experience driving cars for pleasure or pace.

With these biases in mind, I approached the new Camaro Convertible that Chevrolet dropped off at our Texas offices, with more than a little skepticism. Our tester looked great (the Camaro shape works well as a convertible), but was saddled with a V-6 and an automatic. So, I confess to thinking that Chevy PR has the same death wish that some in the design department seem to use as a guiding philosophy.

Surprisingly, I liked this Camaro about as well as any I’ve driven. You might think that this judgment is the result of low expectations, but let me explain before you leap to that conclusion.

First off, this engine is pretty darn impressive. Some of you may think V-6s are for girls, but with 312 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, this V-6 has the same numbers as a V-8 from a few years ago. The big thing isn’t numbers, though, because they often don’t convey the power curve and gearing setup very well. In the Camaro’s case, the V-6 engine feels more than adequate on the street, with good low-end and mid-range power, and excellent throttle response. This is a pretty heavy car (3986 pounds for our auto-equipped tester), but the V-6 won’t have you wishing for more all the time. Still, the V-8 in the SS feels faster, because it is. It’s just that you don’t have to splurge ($4000 to $7000 depending on options) for a V-8 if you want a comfortable level of power.

The other thing I admired about the engine is the sonic package. The V-6 makes enjoyably sporty sounds while revving. It isn’t loud, but it isn’t too quiet either. And since the LS3 V-8 pretty much requires an aftermarket exhaust to avoid sounding like a dishwasher, the V-6 offers additional savings when you get down to actual ownership calculations.

Impressively, the automatic transmission doesn’t kill the V-6. The gear ratios are well-chosen and the torque converter and shift speeds make the drivetrain feel responsive. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Camaro would be even more fun with the standard manual transmission (answer: it would).

Handling on the RS convertible is pretty good. The roll stiffness is excellent and turn-in doesn’t feel ponderous, even though you sense that you’re twirling some serious mass around. While the convertible weighs 267 pounds more than the coupe (3986 pounds for the vert and 3719 pounds for the auto), it doesn’t feel noticeably heavier.

In addition, the chassis feels solid, as if a convertible were planned from the beginning (which it probably was). Ride quality seems more than adequate, though Texas roads simply can’t simulate conditions in the north.

The last thing that I enjoyed about the RS convertible is that the visibility is no worse than on the coupe. Often, with convertibles you lose rear-three-quarter visibility, but in this case the loss is minimal. That, of course, is because the coupe is rather stingy on glass area, but at least you can choose your top without much compromise. Naturally, when you put the top down, the convertible has it all over the coupe.

VS: Ford Mustang GT Convertible

Overall, the Camaro Convertible is a fun car at the modest street speeds that most people use all the time. The price starts about $2000 above the Mustang, though the bigger differentiator lies in the completely different feel and style of each car. The Mustang feels more responsive; the Camaro feels more luxurious. The Camaro seems bigger and more modern, though on the edge of good taste; the Mustang is more manageable and more traditional. Both are good choices, though you’ll probably have a strong preference for one over the other based on those fundamentals.

VS: Nissan 370Z Roadster

Outside of the Mustang/Camaro blood feud, it’s actually a little bit difficult to find a completely competitive product. The 370Z Roadster is pretty close in terms of specification though, with a slightly more powerful (332 horsepower versus 312 for the Camaro), higher-revving V-6 than the Chevy offers. The cross-shop is tenuous in terms of price, as the Nissan starts at around eight thousand more than the American machine.

And, of course, the two convertibles offer wildly different on-road personalities. In terms of ride and comfort, the Camaro is downright posh when compared with the much harder edged Nissan. The 370Z is louder and far more intense than the Camaro, too. The general idea of a sporting convertible may bring some Camaro shoppers into the Nissan showroom, or Z shoppers to the Chevy dealership, but basic taste and driving style will sort buyers into two distinct groups here.

2011 Chevrolet Camaro RS Convertible
Engine: V-6, 3.6 liters, 24v
Output: 312 hp/278 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.1 sec (est)
Weight: 3986 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 18/29 mpg
Base Price: $29,275
On Sale: Now

+ Winding Road Video: 2011 Ford Mustang GT Convertible