No Roof, No Competition
Every time Chevy does a new high-performance Camaro, someone invariably dismisses it as “just a Camaro,” as if nothing’s changed since the 1980s. Cutting the roof off only doubles down on the perception that it’s not a real sports car, and in the case of the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 convertible, that couldn’t be any more wrong than dismissing the Camaro out of hand in the first place.
Beyond the obvious, not much extra goes into building a drop-top ZL1. That’s not because Chevy phoned it in but rather the exact opposite. Chief engineer Al Oppenheiser says the sixth-generation Camaro was designed from the top down; that is, the latest Camaro was designed as a 650-horsepower monster first, and then it was tamed down to a four-cylinder. Likewise, the Camaro convertible was designed to handle a supercharged V-8 and was then whittled down to a V-6 airport rental for Los Angeles. As such, every convertible gets the same underbody bracing, and no special reinforcement was needed for the ZL1 convertible. Thus, like other convertible Camaros, Chevy estimates it’ll weigh just 200 pounds (91 kg) more than a coupe, which would put it at just under 4,150 pounds (1,882 kg).
Unfortunately, it does come at a cost. Not only does the ZL1 convertible start $6,000 USD higher (at just under $70,000 USD), but the convertible hardware also interferes with the eLSD electronically controlled differential. Therefore, the ZL1 convertible gets a simple mechanical limited-slip instead. This means you’ll also have to do without Chevrolet’s excellent Performance Traction Management (PTM) track program. As Oppenheiser points out, no one is really going to track the convertible anyway, so who will miss it?
Thankfully, that’s all you really lose. You still get a highly adjustable launch control program and the delightfully childish Line Lock feature, which is just in-crowd speak for burnout mode, and thanks to that limited-slip, it won’t be a one-wheel peel, either.
Otherwise, the convertible gets slightly different springs and anti-roll bars to account for the extra weight.
The result is that the convertible drives just like the coupe out in the real world. Chevy says it ought to be a tenth or two slower to 60 mph and through the quarter mile, which will keep it comfortably under 4 seconds to 60 mph and in the high 11s in the quarter. If you can tell the difference without a Vbox, you should quit your job and go pro in the NHRA. The ZL1 convertible, in manual or automatic form, absolutely rips. From a stop or from a roll, in low gear or high, it treats speed limits with the utmost contempt at all times.
Both transmissions are solid choices, as well. The 10-speed automatic is significantly better in both shift logic and smoothness than the old eight-speed, and the manual delivers reasonably short, crisp throws. The automatic will now give you the lowest possible gear if you grab and hold the downshift paddle in manual mode or if you quickly slap the throttle to the floor and release it in automatic mode. The manual will do whatever you tell it, even if it’s a bad idea.
What’s truly impressive about this car is its ability to use the power. We’ve dinged the Corvette Z06 for being unable to manage all 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque, but this bigger, heavier Camaro with the same engine puts it down. It doesn’t just put it down, but the whole car has a carved-from-granite solidity to it that is generally the purview of Mercedes-AMG cars. Even with the roof missing, there’s no flex or cowl shake, no creaking or moaning. It’s as solid as the coupe, and we drove the two back to back just to be sure.
I’d like to say it handles as well as the coupe, too, but we just don’t know. My test drive was a 500-mile (805-km) road trip from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Daytona Beach, Florida, all in one day. As such, it was mostly freeway and two-lane highways, and even if I’d had time, there aren’t many good roads right along that stretch of the Eastern Seaboard. Our handling experiences were limited to freeway cloverleaves and the like, where the Goodyear F1 Supercar tires always had far more than enough grip and the mechanical limited-slip was more than capable of handling anything you’ll find on public roads. The steering feels pretty good on those ramps, too.
What I do know is the convertible is a bit louder inside, as you might expect. It’s not that the already loud engine and active exhaust come through any more clearly but that the rest of the world finds its way in through the soft top. Although it’s pretty quiet inside for a convertible, there’s no escaping the extra tire, wind, and ambient noise the cloth top can’t keep out.
In fact, it’s quite a good soft top. It folds or extends at speeds below 30 mph (48 km/h), a welcome advancement, and it no longer has a manual latch on the windshield header. You just press the button and watch your speed. The whole process takes just under 20 seconds. When it’s up, visibility out the rear window is no better than the coupe, but over-the-shoulder visibility is markedly improved by the lack of a B-pillar. There’s no escaping the high beltline, which makes you feel like you’re sitting down in a foxhole, but for those who complain they can’t see out of a Camaro coupe, it’s a welcome improvement.
The only real wonky thing about the whole convertible top is the window switches, and it’s not exclusive to the ZL1 convertible. Rather than fit four switches for the door windows and the little triangular rear side windows, Chevy fitted two buttons that change which windows the switches control. As a result, the front and rear windows have to be rolled up or down separately and with the added step of switching the controls over every time. I’m completely baffled by the logic in adding an extra step where none was necessary.
It might have been done because there’s limited space on the door panel, and it would speak to a larger issue with the Camaro’s interior. Regardless of model, there’s nowhere to put anything. There are two cupholders and two small pockets in the doors you can barely get a hand in. That’s it. It is a very stylish interior, though.
It’s a comfortable one, too. Those racy Recaro seats are surprisingly comfortable. After all, I did 500 miles (805 km) in them in one day and walked away without stiffness or soreness. Around those freeway ramps, they demonstrated excellent support and holding power, as well.
Gripes aside, there’s no denying this is a car without peer. Anything with this kind of power either doesn’t come in convertible or costs significantly more. Or it just can’t keep up. There isn’t currently a Mustang that can touch this, nor is there a convertible Hellcat. You could pay more for a Mercedes-AMG C63 convertible and get smoked by ZL1s all day long even with your all-wheel drive. Or you could start looking at six-figure convertible sports cars.
Whether you frame it in terms of performance per dollar or just outright performance, the ZL1 convertible is a standout. Wickedly quick, it’ll take on convertibles in any class and most of their coupe variants, too, and not just in straight line speed, either. Tell yourself the car in the other lane is “just a Camaro” at your own risk.