SAN DIEGO – There’s nothing like a convertible to put a smile on your face, especially when there’s 376 cu.-ins. of Detroit muscle purring under the hood.

The new ’11 Chevrolet Camaro does just that. A visual stunner, the drop-top is equally impressive on the road. More importantly, it shows what the new General Motors can do when it puts its mind to it.

Immediately noticeable on a test drive here is how stiff the Camaro’s body is, with typical convertible chassis flex virtually nonexistent. That’s because Chevy engineers designed the vehicle as a convertible from the onset, rather than a chopped-top version of the coupe.

Several body reinforcements were added to the Camaro’s frame for the convertible, including a tower-to-tower brace under the hood, a transmission-support brace, underbody tunnel brace and front and rear underbody “V” braces.

The suspension is tuned toward stiff and handling is spot-on, with little input required in negotiating tight curves. Still, the ride is smooth, not harsh, with nary a shake over the pavement’s rougher patches.

Chevy offered up two models to drive – the base version fitted with a 312-hp direct-injection 3.6L V-6 and the eye-popping SS with 6.2L V-8 generating 426 hp.

After brief stints in each, it’s obvious these are two completely different animals.

The SS shines on the straightaways, and its V-8’s raspy growl adds to the driving rush. But surprisingly, the V-6 is the better of the two cars, its lighter weight making it more nimble through the curves. And with more than 300 horses, the base model is no slouch in the power department.

Both cars can be had with 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions. The automatic is adequate, with good off-the-line response, but gear changes don’t come as quickly and seamlessly as they should under hard acceleration.

The manual is easy to manipulate, and the clutch, while stiff, doesn’t cause cramps.

The Camaro convertible is easy on the eyes. While not a big departure from the hardtop, the car looks better in drop-top form. And with the top down, visibility – a drawback in the coupe due to its compressed backlight – greatly improves.

’11 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible
Vehicle type Front-engine, RWD 4-passenger convertible \
Engine 6.2L OHV V8 with aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 426 hp @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 112.3 ins. (285.2 cm)
Overall length 190.4 ins. (483.6 cm)
Overall height 54.7 ins. (139.0 cm)
Curb weight 4,116 lbs. (1,866 kg)
Base price $37,500 (including destination)
Fuel economy 16/24 mpg (14.7-9.8 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Mustang, Nissan 370Z
Pros Cons
6-speed automatic Abrupt shift points
Nicely appointed cabin Some gaps between panels
Easy to operate top Top-up driving limits visibility

The interior is largely carryover from the hardtop, with retro-looking switchgear, including a nifty center-console mounted gauge package that shows transmission and oil temperatures, oil pressure and battery voltage.

Materials are above average quality, with soft-touch surfaces on the doors and center armrest. However, some unsightly gaps between components leaves the interior’s overall quality lacking.

Front seats are well bolstered, keeping occupants appropriately pinned through the curves. Rear seats remain tight for adults, but there’s plenty of headroom with the top down.

With the top up, the convertible takes on a whole other tone. It’s remarkably quiet due to generous acoustical damping that lines the headliner. But like the coupe, visibility becomes restricted.

Chevy officials say a folding hardtop never was considered, as previous-generation Camaro convertibles all had ragtops. Weight, complexity and price were additional roadblocks.

A glass rear window with defroster, plus thick insulation, help make up for the lack of a retractable hardtop, turning the Camaro convertible into a viable option for buyers in colder climates. Raising and lowering the top is a cinch via a 1-latch, 1-button setup.

Originally targeted to debut closer to the launch of the coupe, the Camaro convertible was delayed as a result of GM’s walk through bankruptcy.

But the wait was worth it. Chevy may have taken its time, but it did the job right.