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Chevy Camaro: top goes down, appeal goes up

Steven Cole Smith

AUTOMOTIVE

10:48 AM EDT, April 22, 2011

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Funny how some cars look better, and some look worse when you cut the top off. The Volkswagen New Beetle looks awkward as a convertible, and the poor Chrysler PT Cruiser cabriolet looks like it is wearing a headdress. The sleek roofline that helps define the Ford Mustang coupe is compromised by a soft top.

For the Chevrolet Camaro, the haircut works. Replacing the Camaro hardtop's tank-turret-like roof with a convertible top just looks right, and has ever since the Camaro convertible debuted as a concept model. Now that it's in production, the convertible styling pulls the entire design together, top up or top down.

And I'd recommend "down." Twist a handle at the top of the windshield, then hit a button, and the Camaro soft top lowers and stows in less than 20 seconds. Yes, it trims the Camaro's already marginal luggage room -- trunk space is just over 10 cubic feet with the top up, and just 7.9 cubic feet with the top stowed. But if "cargo capacity" was high on your list of priorities, you should probably be looking elsewhere in the Chevrolet lineup.

Worth noting, perhaps: The redesigned 2012Chevrolet Malibu, which just debuted at the New York International Auto Show, carries over several Camaro styling cues, including very similar rear-end styling. So that's why Chevrolet declined the chance to race a Camaro-styled car in the NASCAR Nationwide Cup series when Ford is racing the Mustang. Dodge is racing the Challenger; the company the new Malibu was waiting in the wings.

The regular Camaro convertible starts at $29,150, which is $6,470 more than the Camaro coupe. That's the base "1LT" model, which was nicely equipped, but not quite deluxe. The test Camaro V-6 had the 2LT package, which adds several features, including leather upholstery and a Boston Acoustics sound system.

The test car also had the RS package, which is sort of a cross between the base Camaro and the high-performance SS models, which have up to 426horsepower. The RS package added big, very handsome 20-inch tires and spoked wheels, a modest rear spoiler, unique taillights and high-intensity headlights with a BMW-like "halo ring," a neat illuminated ring that surrounds the round lights when they are turned off. Add the extra $1,185for a 6-speed automatic transmission that replaced the 6-speed manual, and an $850 shipping charge, the total price was $36,185.

That the base-model V-6 has 312 horsepower is pretty amazing, but that's what it takes to be competitive. The Mustang V-6 and the Dodge Challenger V-6 both have over 300 horses, a level that, not so long ago, was considered genuine high-performance territory. Just as remarkable: All three pony-car V-6s get decent fuel mileage, with the Camaro rated at 18 mpg city, 29 mpg highway on regular gasoline. I averaged a slightly-disappointing 20.3 mpg, with quite a bit of highway driving.

Inside, I'm not particularly taken with the interior styling of any Camaro model, but there are no real shortcomings, but no pleasant surprises. Front seats are good, and the rear seats exist, but if you are carrying three passengers, expect a fight for the front seat.

On the road, the Camaro convertible's manners are composed and conservative, very comfortable on all but the worst pavement. The Camaro convertible is about 217 pounds heavier than the coupe. Most of that extra bracing is to stiffen up the chassis. It works -- the convertible feels as solid as the coupe on even potholed pavement. The bigger 20-inch tires and wheels that come with the RS package aid handling, and while it's not a sports car, it's plenty sporty . The automatic transmission works in harmony with the V-6 to provide all the power you need, though the 426-horsepower V-8 version is undeniably compelling -- and a lot more expensive.

I like the Camaro coupe, but I like both the Mustang and Challenger coupes better. That changes completely with the convertible -- Chevrolet really got this model right.

SCSmith3@Tribune.com

2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible

Base price: $29,150

Price as tested: $36,185

EPA rating: 18 miles per gallon city driving, 29 mpg highway

Engine: 3.6-liter, 312-horsepower V-6

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Length: 190.4 inches

Wheelbase: 112.3 inches

In a nutshell: Soft top adds substantially to the looks and appeal, and about $6,500 to the price.