I should be the type of guy who likes convertibles. I live in Los Angeles, I’m under 30, and—to channel my inner narcissist for a second—my hair flows in the wind shampoo-commercial style.
Yet I just can’t seem to get behind the idea of top-down driving. It’s not any one reason; it’s a bunch of little ones. Convertibles look ungainly to me with their tops up, and many don’t handle as well as their roofed brethren. And as a worry-wart (thanks, Mom), I’m convinced someone is going to come along with a switchblade and liberate me of nickels and an iPhone cable.
I’m apparently not the only one cool on convertibles; back during Peak Topless (between 1950 and 1970), American automakers offered at least 33 different convertibles, accounting for nearly 6 percent of new car sales. Nowadays, the Detroit Three offer up a combined four: the Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang, and Jeep Wrangler/Gladiator. Aside from the red-hot Wrangler, the Mustang and Camaro convertibles comprise the lion’s share of drop-top sales in the U.S., both through rental fleets in the Sunbelt and via private owners.
Although it’s clear the convertible’s heyday has passed, a dedicated following obviously still exists. In the interest of trying to see what I’m missing out on, I ordered up two of the most iconic drop-tops on the market to figure out which is the ultimate convertible for those who don’t like convertibles: the 2019 Chevrolet Camaro SS and 2019 Ford Mustang GT . As we’re in the midst of May Gray in Los Angeles, I couldn’t have asked for better drop-tops to get my feet—and hair—wet.
The Camaro and Mustang rivalry is the stuff of legend. On our pages and, well, screens alone, the two have met head to head more than 25 times over their 52 years of mutual existence, with varying results. In the latest round of matchups, beginning in 2015 and 2016 with the sixth generations of the Mustang and Camaro, respectively, both have won twice. Chevy’s Camaro SS models have been dominant in the V-8 arena, and the Mustang has won both on the low end in our turbo-four shootout and on the high end with its Shelby GT350R. But what happens when you chop off the roofs?
Our 2019 Mustang GT convertible hopes to break that stalemate. Reworked last year, the Mustang boasts revised sheetmetal and ritzier interior treatments. More important, its 5.0-liter V-8 has been massaged to make 460 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque, and it’s mated to an updated six-speed manual transmission that sports a new clutch and flywheel, borrowed from the GT350. Our topless Mustang is also outfitted with the optional GT Performance package—better known as Performance Pack 1—which gives our car a grab bag of performance goods, including more chassis bracing, uprated front Brembo brakes, and a Torsen limited-slip rear differential with an aggressive 3.73 final drive ratio. Performance Pack 2 isn’t available on Mustang convertibles, but our car is equipped with performance rubber and the package’s magnetic-ride suspension. Our near-loaded Mustang stickers for $55,735. Clearly, this is not the one you get at the Hertz counter in Maui.
History is against the Ford, though; each time the current Mustang GT has gone up against the Camaro SS, the Blue Oval lost. And although Ford updated the Mustang last year, Chevy fired back this year with a refresh of its own. With most of Chevy’s mechanical focus left on the four-cylinder model, the 6.2-liter V-8 in the SS is unchanged, making a (still) healthy 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque—though it now has a new “Flowtie” to breathe through and heat extractor hood to vent from. Our car’s six-speed manual is unchanged, too. Ditto the chassis and suspension tuning. Instead, Chevy spent its money on the botched plastic surgery that is the Camaro SS’ new front and rear ends.
To dwell for a bit on that last sentence, I’ve always been a believer that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the Camaro SS’ new front end looks like it was designed for a part in a Transformers movie; it’s somehow both distinctive and derivative (both in all the wrong ways) at the same time. Thankfully we only have to look at this schnoz for another couple months—Chevy announced a face-lift for 2020 soon after testing completed. Rhinoplasty 2.0, as it were.
No performance packages exist on drop-top Camaros, but our tester is well equipped with magnetic suspension, performance exhaust, and a few other choice features for a near-loaded $52,775 as-tested price.
As unfortunate as the Camaro looks, we thankfully don’t have to see it while driving. At the track, both cars put down eerily identical numbers, zipping from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and through the quarter mile in 12.7 seconds. The Camaro traps at 112.9 mph to the Mustang’s 113.6 mph.
It’s the same story on the figure eight, though you wouldn’t know it from behind the wheel. The Camaro convertible behaves much like its metal-topped brother—neutral, well balanced, and seemingly steerable with throttle input alone. The Chevy lapped the figure eight in 24.3 seconds at 0.82 g average. The Ford matches the Camaro’s time (at a lower 0.80 g) in spite of its more, uh, rebellious nature. Like its namesake, the Mustang fights and bucks when pushed hard. It understeers into the corner and then suddenly snaps into oversteer on corner exit. “It’s no wonder that it’s always a Mustang that ends up in a crowd outside Cars and Coffee,” features editor Scott Evans said.
The Ford’s figure-eight behavior was disappointing, but out on the road, the Mustang GT is a different animal. Cruising L.A. ‘s wide boulevards with the top down is the Ford’s forte. Its magnetically enhanced ride is soft and supple. The Mustang’s Coyote V-8 is happy to loaf around in sixth gear, but it’s even happier when given the chance to stretch its legs. The Ford’s V-8 is lively—revving quickly and pulling hard all the way to its 7,400-rpm redline. And thanks to its fancy active performance exhaust, it sounds absolutely epic with the top down. The Mustang’s manual has quick, accurate, and mechanically satisfying shifts, though the springy clutch takeup can be lurchy to the uninitiated.
To my pleasant surprise after its figure-eight performance, the Mustang isn’t half bad on a good winding road. So long as you avoid pushing it to its ragged edge, the Mustang is happy galloping along at a good pace, especially working between the top of third and bottom of fourth gear as you navigate the famed Angeles Crest Highway in the foothills above Pasadena. Steering is well weighted and accurate but ultimately a bit skittish, responding dramatically at times to microscopic inputs.
The Chevy is better still on a good road. The Camaro SS charges from bend to bend like the mighty Mississippi—its chassis, steering, and suspension are so well sorted and balanced that there’s just no way GM is paying its Camaro engineers enough. (Might I suggest docking the design staff’s pay to cover the engineers’ raises?) The Camaro’s big 6.2-liter V-8 is lazier than the Ford’s but good in its own right. Its torque and power curves are meaty, and although it’s slower to rev, it never leaves you wanting more power. “Thirty seconds of hard driving is all it takes to realize the Camaro is the superior sports car,” Evans said. “The Mustang feels nervous and unsure of itself by comparison even though it, too, is a good sports car.”
Slowing down a bit and back in town, the Camaro’s performance advantage becomes less noticeable. Its gearbox and brakes are as good as the Ford’s, and the Camaro’s engine is just as happy cruising about town as the Mustang’s. The biggest differences in the city from a mechanical standpoint is the Chevy’s easier-to-modulate clutch and slightly stiffer but still unobjectionable ride.
Where the differences between the Camaro and Mustang really come to a head is when we start looking at how they are as convertibles. This is where the Camaro’s biggest issues come into play. First the good: The Camaro’s power top goes up and down in about 15 seconds at speeds up to 30 mph. It’s even possible to drop it with the key fob, ensuring you can just hop in the car and go. I’m also a fan of the Camaro’s standard tonneau cover; it’s a nice touch that prevents the car’s clean profile—the only angle from which this Camaro actually looks good—from getting mussed up by a ruffled top like it does in the Mustang, albeit at the expense of trunk space. The Camaro’s interior features are also pretty good; its infotainment system looks nicer and is more intuitive than the Ford’s. And although the interior design may be lacking in style and imagination, materials are generally pretty nice for the price.
The Chevy’s smaller size pays dividends on a road course, but there’s no doubt it makes it a worse convertible. Despite losing its metal top, the Camaro’s cabin somehow feels tighter as a convertible than as a coupe. With its slitty greenhouse, visibility and ergonomics were never this Camaro’s strong suit, but the latter flaw becomes all the more frustrating in the convertible.
Not only is storage space sparse in the cabin (stowing loose, lightweight items with the top down is apparently not something Chevrolet considered), but the trunk is absolutely useless with the top down. “The fact that the automatic top takes up 90 percent of the trunk totally kills the advantage,” Evans said. “The itty-bitty trunk opening is just salt in the wound.” I have pondered why I’d regularly see tourists in Camaro convertibles sitting with their luggage in their laps on the freeways surrounding LAX. Now I know why.
The Mustang doesn’t have that problem. The Ford’s inability to lower or raise its top (a 10-second process) while moving is certainly a flaw, but when it comes to passenger and cargo room, the Mustang is far superior. Its trunk opening is fairly wide, and even with the top down, the Mustang can swallow two carry-on bags. Inside the cabin, the Mustang is far more livable, too. The front buckets are comfortable, supportive, and roomy, and although I wouldn’t want to spend time in the back of either convertible, the Ford feels far roomier.
As is the case when comparing the two convertibles’ exterior styling, there’s little doubt that the Mustang is the far more successful interior design. It’s not only more ergonomically designed, but it’s also better styled. The metal “Mustang” plaque on the passenger side of the dash along with the old-school auxiliary gauges, toggle switches, and fully digital instrument cluster make the Ford feel like a more unique and premium offering. The Mustang is, simply put, the more cohesive design.
I’m a bit reluctant to admit it, but after blasting around sunny L.A. in the Camaro SS and Mustang GT convertibles, I have to say I’m starting to understand the convertible’s appeal. These two pony cars offer the open-air experience of a motorcycle, the brutal acceleration (and soundtrack) of a muscle car, and the poise and balance of a classic sports car. Although convertibles have their drawbacks—both of our testers are heavier, slower, and more expensive than their coupe cousins—the spark of pure joy they inspire when the weather and road are just right exceeds mere price.
But that doesn’t mean one isn’t better than the other.
The Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible is the better driver on our favorite back roads and at the track, but the Ford Mustang GT is the far better convertible. The Mustang might not feel as planted or inspire as much confidence at its limits, but if outright performance were the endgame, you’ve read the wrong article, friend: Either coupe is a far better driver.
What the Mustang gives up in handling poise, it makes up for in style, space, and a wildly fun powertrain. I don’t see myself ever giving up the comfort of a steel top for cloth, but if you were to do so, it would be hard to go wrong with the ragtop version of the 2019 Mustang GT.
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