Imagine ordering a ton of bricks. That's 400 red paving bricks weighing five pounds apiece. You know, the bricks that made Indianapolis famous. They're yours. Now, do you want your ton of bricks dumped on you all at once? Or would you rather have one brick handed to you at a time?
The manual-transmission 2016 ATS-V sedan is Cadillac's one-brick-at-a-time performance machine. Sometimes it's about feeling that kiln-hardened clay in your hand as you set the brick in place and build something magnificent with it. At other times, it's about bouncing that heft in your hand for a moment just before chucking the brick through a window and running like hell. With 464 horsepower from its 3.6-liter twin-turbocharged V-6, this is one of the world's great brick-delivery systems. And it excels at running like hell.
The stir-it-yourself transmission in this ATS-V sedan is no mystery box. It's the Tremec TR-6060 six-speed, an evolution of the T-56 that has been used in various Camaros, Vipers, and Mustangs for almost a quarter-century. All the demons were chased out of this gearbox decades ago, and it has been refined to the point that its shifts are intuitive. That is, if your intuition triggers some seriously beefy muscular reflexes.
Cadillac has optimized the TR-6060 by adding both active rev-matching logic and no-lift shifting. The rev-matching feature blips the throttle when it anticipates a downshift to make the shift change smoother, while the no-lift feature facilitates upshifts without making the driver lay off the go juice. Both technologies work well, keeping the engine in the meatiest part of its torque production even if the doofus driver couldn't stab it with a steak knife.
A pair of switches, located aft of the shifter, control the three modes in which the ATS-V will operate: Touring, Sport, and Track. One switch has an arrow pointing up, the other an arrow pointing down. Why one switch couldn't handle this task is a mystery, but whatever.
In Touring mode, the engine idles almost silently and rises into a slight vibrating contralto as it runs through the gears. It's never loud, but there is an engaging resonant note to the exhaust. The ride is compliant without being mushy, and the steering is easygoing. In Sport and Track modes, the steering takes deliberate effort, the suspension stiffens significantly, and the exhaust is louder and more vivid but still falls well short of our aural expectations (both the C63's bombastic V-8 and the M3/M4's ripping inline-six are far better). Sport mode is fun. Track mode makes the ATS-V feel as if it's in hot pursuit of a Trans-Am title.
The ATS-V's twin-turbo V-6 is a sibling to the normally aspirated 3.6-liter V-6 that General Motors uses in everything from the Chevrolet Colorado pickup to the livery-spec Cadillac XTS that picked you up at the airport. But its closest relative is the twin-turbo 3.6 in the larger CTS Vsport sedan. In the CTS Vsport, it's rated at 420 horsepower, but in the ATS-V it gets titanium connecting rods and new turbos, among other changes, and is tuned to deliver 464 horses. That's 39 horsepower more than a BMW M3's 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six but 39 hp behind the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 in the Mercedes-AMG C63 S. That's a nicely symmetrical splitting of differences.
High-Level Mechanical Intimacy
Most ATS-Vs will be delivered with the eight-speed automatic, as was the ATS-V in our most recent comparison test against the BMW M3 and the Mercedes-AMG C63 S. But while the manual has two fewer gears, it uses an aggressive 3.73:1 final-drive ratio compared with the automatic's set of 2.85:1 gears. Both fifth and sixth in the manual are overdrive ratios, but second, third, and fourth (a direct 1:1 ratio) thrive with this short gearset-not so much in absolute performance but in being almost ludicrously entertaining.
The manual transmission creates a more direct connection between driver and car. You can feel torque surging up through the shifter in your hand, and you know the precise moment when the clutch engages through the pedal as your toes rise with it. This is high-level mechanical intimacy.
So we asked it to dance. On the right California mountain road, second gear alone could earn a Golden Globe nomination. Even in the calm Touring mode, the tail will drift a bit and then tuck in before the traction- and stability-control systems abruptly engage. In Sport mode, the traction control is moderated a bit and is less intrusive. The most fun in cornering is to be had in Sport mode with the traction control turned off, when the rear 275/35ZR-18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires will sweep out heroically, bite down at the apex, and slingshot the ATS-V onward.
Watch out for the rev limiter. Lose sight of the tach and run out to the 6500-rpm fuel cutoff, and the V-6 snaps off emphatically. And it will spin the needle up there quickly, delivering fresh gobs of torque right up until the computer sends out its self-preservation S.O.S. If you stay mindful of the revs, however-after all, the torque peak of 445 lb-ft arrives at 3500 rpm-it's all Six Flags over Cadillac.
Keeping this in mind, know that our testing shows that the ATS-V is quicker with the automatic transmission. Using its paddle shifters, the automatic ATS-V sedan ran to 60 mph in only 3.9 seconds and slaughtered the quarter-mile in 12.1 at a ripping 122 mph. This manual model needed 4.2 seconds to reach 60 mph and 12.5 to complete the quarter-mile at 117 mph. If absolute performance is the ultimate decider, go for the trigger-shifted automatic. Aside from the styling and interior volume, there's nothing here that distinguishes the sedan from the ATS-V manual coupe we tested; it, too, hit 60 mph in 4.2 seconds.
While the stick brings additional amusement, what's best about the ATS-V remains its spectacularly well-tuned chassis, which is enhanced with magnetorheological dampers. With the best initial turn-in bite of any sports sedan, it's great when hustling at speed and a blast on a tight, narrow road, where one-quarter throttle is enough to entertain. The steering is so good and so satisfying in its feedback that merely commuting can be the highlight of your day.
CUE the Piper and Pay the Price
The EPA rates the ATS-V manual at 17 mpg in the city (1 mpg better than the automatic) and 23 mpg on the highway (1 mpg worse). Driven aggressively to extract maximum yuks, the Caddy slurped premium fuel at a rate of 15 mpg in our care.
What holds back the ATS-V, no matter what the transmission, is its dinky rear seat, the often frustrating CUE infotainment interface, and some lack of cohesion in design elements (for instance, switchgear and gauges that we associate with family sedans more than a luxury-brand sports model). The ATS-V's performance puts it tantalizingly close to the best in class, but the manual transmission likely isn't enough to get it past both the M3 and the C63 S AMG in another comparison test. For those who'd prefer to shift for themselves, though, the only other choice is the BMW (Alfa Romeo's Giulia Quadrifoglio also will offer a manual when it goes on sale).
The brilliant Recaro front seats are a deal at their $2300 option price, but the $5000 carbon-fiber package might better be skipped, considering the vulnerability of the front splitter. Maybe after some acclimation it would become an ingrained habit to use the forward-facing camera to avoid scrapes, but the ATS-V would be just as entertaining without the worry. As it is, our Vector Blue Metallic test car's option load inflated the total chit from its $61,460 base price to $75,900. Cadillacs have never been cheap, and neither is this one, although it should be noted that the German alternatives are easily optioned into the mid-$80K range and even beyond $90,000 if you lack self-discipline.
The ATS-V's seamless performance is in stark contrast to the seam-busting slamfest that is its radical big brother, the CTS-V, which starts at $84,990. With its 640-hp 6.2-liter supercharged V-8, the CTS-V is the Cadillac for those who prefer getting their ton of bricks delivered all at once. The choice is yours.
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