It's a rare car that can lose its top. Only the most iconic, and sporty, of vehicles are typically selected for the retractable roof treatment, such as Chevrolet's latest: the 2011 Camaro Convertible.
Trotting outs its new pony car not only marks the kickoff to Chevy's centennial anniversary this year but also celebrates the Camaro's newfound success. Last year, it overtook the Ford Mustang as the sports car segment leader for the first time since 1985.
The Camaro is one of Chevy's best-known models. Introduced in 1966, it's been available as a convertible off and on throughout the decades.
Its current incarnation was created with a possible convertible in mind. It shares the same updated, Gold's Gym body style introduced on the Camaro in 2009, minus the hard roof. Topping its sculpted steel musculature instead is retractable canvas.
The two-door convertible starts at $30,000 and is offered in the same engine configurations as the hard-top coupe. Two of the four versions are 3.6-liter V-6s, while the other two are hulking 6.2-liter V-8s. I was testing the 2LT -- the higher trim level of the 312-horsepower V-6.
The $3,500 extra over the base model 1LT buys a handful of well-worth-it luxuries. They include heated leather bucket seats, slightly larger 19-inch wheels and one of my favorite features: a heads-up display that reflects the car's speed in the lower left-hand corner of the windshield where the driver's eyes are already directed.
Not that the display is really necessary. This is a car that feels exactly like the speed at which it's traveling. It isn't the sort of vehicle that hits 120 mph and lulls drivers into thinking they're going the speed limit until the swirling lights appear in the rearview mirror and correct that misperception. It is powerful without being particularly responsive.
The 278 pound-feet of torque looks good on paper, but it wasn't satisfying so much as adequate. On take off, it just wasn't enough to counteract the convertible's overall weight of 3,995 pounds -- a weight gain of 247 pounds over the coupe.
The Camaro is a muscle car, designed to sprint out of the gate and flash its fanny at whatever is left in the dust behind it. Chevy engineers did not change the suspension tuning on the soft-top version. Still, the Camaro moves most comfortably in straight lines and sweeping turns rather than hairpins.
To strengthen the car's structure, which is compromised when the fixed top is replaced with a convertible one, Chevy added braces to the vehicle's hood, transmission and underbody. The structural enhancements were added to prevent the steering wheel shake that often results when roofs are removed, but a slight quiver remains at high speed.
The V-6 has a six-speed transmission and is available in automatic and manual versions. The automatic I was testing can also be semimanually shifted with buttons, rather than true paddle shifters, on the flip side of the steering wheel.
Further aiding the illusion of active engagement is a palette of analog gauges in front of the center-console gear shift. The gauges indicate oil pressure, battery charge, oil temperature and transmission temperature -- all of which are cool to look at if a little poseur-ish for an automatic.
I enjoyed being a passenger in the Camaro more than driving it. It's extremely comfortable and the ride felt solid. In California on a sunny day, there isn't much that beats driving a convertible with good company.
Unfortunately, switching this car back into an enclosed coupe on a cold or rainy day can be problematic. The canvas top, which is made by the same firm that makes them for the Corvette, is power operated but manually latched.
Putting up the top involved first removing the cover that conceals the retractable roof's nesting place, then folding that cover and stowing it in the Camaro's scant trunk. Lastly, it meant pulling and twisting a handle just above the rear-view mirror to lock the roof into place.
Chevrolet times the car's open and close cycle at 20 seconds. Factoring in the hands-on nature of the cover, two or three minutes is more realistic.
At least it's fairly quiet inside the car once the roof is up and in place. The canvas top incorporates an acoustical liner and reinforcements around the windshield.
Inside, the Camaro isn't quite as come-hither as its exterior. The side panels on the version I was driving were a minimalist two-tone; the black leather was inlaid with shiny beige acrylic panels. And the dashboard was pleasingly wide and unobstructed. But the displays looked like plastic toys, and the radio screen, like many Chevys, appears dated with a type face that looks like it was developed in the earliest days of Atari.
I tend to gauge my affection for any given convertible based on whether the experience was worth picking the knots out of my hair after I've parked. With the Camaro Convertible, it was worth it, but not to the extent I'd hoped.