Payne: The first convertible V-8 of spring

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ah, spring. The snow has thawed. The skies are painted blue. And Detroiters’ ears strain to hear the sweet song of the first ...

No. Not the first robins. The first new convertible V-8 of spring.

This year it’s a 2016 Camaro SS and its voice is music to my ears. Turn the key and the BLAAAAT! of the familiar quad-exhaust fills the air. With an insane 455 horsepower, the SS lopes down the street with a menacing gurgle. Stomp the pedal and the rear end briefly twitches with delight under the 455-pound feet of torque. This bird can fly.

It’s on sale now, and I’m happy to tell you it was worth the wait of the long winter. With the sixth-generation Camaro, GM has torn up the pony-car playbook and put a muscle coupe on a luxury performance platform. It’s the same backbone that stiffens the Bimmer-beating Cadillac ATS-V coupe. (Comparo test to come: Why pay $80,000 for a nimble 425-horsepower M4 when you can have a nimble 455-horse Camaro SS for $50,000?)

The Camaro isn’t a muscle car, it’s a sports car.

My colleague Pat Devereux of “Top Gear” argues that with the latest chassis upgrades of the clinical Camaro and Mustang, only the brutish Dodge Challenger can still be classified as a muscle car on the grounds that its old school, V-8-on-a-sled can still scare the pee out of you. Unleash a Hellcat’s 707-horses and you might wind up upside down in a tree. To paraphrase Hemingway: “Only the Challenger R/T, Scat Pack and Hellcat are muscle cars — the rest are just sports cars.”

A fair point. But surely the Camaro SS convertible is still a terror? After all, the last generation Chevy was a capable if overweight athlete. But when it went topless, its ginormous, 20-inch hooves rampaged through corners like a Pamplona bull.

Not this droptop. Like the sublime Corvette C7 (with which it shares an LT1 engine), the SS was conceived from the ground up with the convertible in mind. That means its modular structure is not only significantly lighter than its predecessor by 275 pounds — but lighter than the last-generation coupe. Extensive bracing does the rest to deliver 10 percent more torsional rigidity. An Underbody “X” brace. Underbody “Y” brace. Tower-to-tower brace. Front engine compartment “V” brace. And so on. This beast is strapped down tighter than Hannibal Lecter.

But the effect is a car that feels as nailed to the pavement as its Chevy SS coupe brother. And I tested it over a lot of pavement in Death Valley, California.

The Woodward Dream Cruise is held in perfect, 80-degree Michigan summer weather because it’s 125 degrees in Death Valley in the summer. If Dairy Mat sold ice cream here it would melt before it got to your mouth. You could cook hamburgers on a topless SS’s leather seats.

But Death Valley in winter is as pleasant as a Motor City August. Eighty degrees. Low humidity. And the roads! Miles of State Route 190 are straight as a shotgun barrel. Think of Woodward Avenue without stoplights.

This is Camaro convertible country. And when you get there you don’t have to stop to stow the roof.

The SS not only shares its chassis with ATS and engine with C7, it also gets the ’Vette’s hat. It’s like being the third Manning brother. Slow to below 35 mph and the SS top will retreat beneath a lovely rear tonneau cover. Which will be a relief to your Dream Cruise passengers in the backseat who have been sitting with their legs crossed under them all this time because the rear seats have less legroom than Delta coach class. Now they can sit on the rear deck and wave to the crowds.

On Death Valley’s Route 190, they might reconsider. With no intersections and sightings of other vehicles as rare as raindrops, my SS had plenty of room to stretch its legs. Keep the side windows rolled up and the cabin is surprisingly free of buffeting at high speeds. How high? The SS will rocket to 125 mph in the blink of an eye. The governed 155 mph top speed is not far beyond that. Yet with my $53,000 SS’s planted steering, magnetic shocks and stiff springs, the SS is a locomotive on rails.

Brother Devereux would be disappointed. No fear here.

The convertible also solves the Camaro’s legendary visibility problem. With the roof up the Camaro bears an uncanny resemblance to a World War II pillbox with its narrow slits for windows and a blind spot the size of Donald Trump’s ego. How tall are the Camaro’s flanks? I’m 6-foot-5, and my elbow rests on the door sill next to my ear.

So what? If you want visibility, buy a minivan. If you want a wicked muscle coupe that looks like a front-engine Lamborghini and sounds like Godzilla gargling jalapeno peppers, get an SS. And with the top down, you get the V-8 at full volume — its eight-speed automatic tranny spitting a peppery bark with each 6,500 rpm upshift.

Inside, the convertible’s interior is the same, quirky office as other Camaros. Same cool, central, aviator-style cooling ducts located so low in the cabin that only your elbows get air conditioning. The same infotainment screen angled downward so you can barely read the nav map through your 7-Eleven cup’s reflection. The same side pockets located so far back on the front doors they may as well be in the backseat (maybe on purpose so passengers have someplace to put their legs)

Luckily, it has the same awesome bolstered seats and heads-up instrument display because you’ll be spending hours in this car gulping asphalt at an alarming rate of knots.

I reached Death Valley’s Furnace Creek — which once hit 134 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the US — after 97 miles on an 84-degree March day in the hottest convertible Camaro has ever made. My blood-red steed had delivered me without convertible cowl shake, back discomfort or a misplaced wheel. A $73,000 Corvette Convertible cruised by in the other direction. Best-ever 455-horse ’Vette droptop, or the supreme 455-horse Camaro for 20 grand less?

It’s nice to have choices as you emerge from hibernation. Nice to finally hear the first V-8 of spring: RRRRWAUUUUGGGGHH!

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2016 Camaro SS convertible


Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports convertible

Price: $44,295 base ($53,075 2SS as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 455 horsepower, 455 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.0 seconds (automatic), 4.3 seconds (manual); top speed, 155 mph (governed)

Weight: 3,685 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city / 25 mpg highway / 19 combined (manual as tested)

Report card

Highs: Ferocious performance; glorious open-air sound

Lows: Balky manual shifter; eccentric ergonomics


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★