High Octane and a Stick Shift: Standout Cars as an Era Starts to End

For speed demons — or demons wedded to hellacious fossil-fuel power — the Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing checks off quite a list. A supercharged, 668-horsepower V-8. A top speed above 200 miles an hour. All-day track thrills that would leave any E.V. depleted and gasping, as demonstrated on my endorphin-rushing test laps at Virginia International Raceway.

Another feature pushed the Blackwing into too-good-to-be-true territory: a manual transmission. That optional six-speed puts these supersedans (there’s also a smaller Blackwing, the CT4-V) in rare company. Fewer than 1 percent of American cars are sold with a stick.

The Blackwings are also among models that have a gasoline engine and manual transmission, a pairing that increasingly appears to be a last dance of technology. Showroom E.V.s have no driver-selectable gears whatsoever. And Cadillac says the Blackwing models will be the last of its ultrahigh-performance cars to employ internal combustion.

All future V-Series models will be electrified. Whether General Motors and Cadillac can keep their electric promises remains to be seen. But if they can, these Blackwings — and models like them — may be Americans’ last chance to twirl a stick shift in a new car.

Blackwing fans have gotten the message: Nearly 70 percent of early adopters are choosing the manual, though that should settle closer to 20 percent, said Tony Roma, the Blackwings’ chief engineer. That’s despite the fact that automatics left manuals in their dust years ago. Whether General Motors’ snappy 10-speed or Porsche’s dual-clutch PDK gearbox, automatic transmissions make cars faster, more durable and more fuel-efficient.

Even for top racers and factory drivers, “the fastest thing to do is let the car shift for you and not even worry about shifting with paddles,” said Luke Vandezande, a Porsche spokesman.

“A human being cannot surpass that, all things being equal,” he added.

Those facts don’t dissuade manual loyalists, who prefer a human touch and the sense of mastery that comes from smartly rowed gears. A manual transmission, Mr. Roma said, imbues a car with soul and personality.

“So much of the driving dynamics we obsess over is about that,” he said. “You feel so much more connected to the car and powertrain. It’s a joy.”

If this is the end, Cadillac is going out with a bang. Mr. Roma and his team are busily developing E.V.s like the Celestiq sedan and Lyriq S.U.V. But they’re proud of their moonshot engineering effort on the Blackwings, a love letter to a waning age.

I recently drove three of the world’s hottest manual holdouts. All are expensive. But fans can still find D.I.Y. pleasure on a budget, including with a Mazda Miata, a Ford Mustang and the kissing-cousins Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR 86.

Porsche actually sells a much higher percentage of manual-transmission cars in the United States than in Europe — including roughly one in four 911 models that offer a stick, and up to 70 percent for its track-assassin 911 GT3. The latest is the 911 GTS, whose silken, seven-speed manual is a no-cost option on five versions, including a Carrera GTS, which starts at $138,050, and a sexy, open-roofed Targa 4 GTS, at $158,150.

I drove those GTS models through the north Georgia mountains, on roads that rival Europe’s or California’s for Tilt-a-Whirl amusement. Every new 911 is a wunderkind of tech that includes electronic anti-roll bars, a torque-vectoring rear differential and a twin-turbocharged, flat-six engine that’s boosted to 473 horses in GTS models.

Yes, that tech includes the vaunted PDK automatic, which is objectively faster: PDK’s automated launch control sends the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 GTS to 60 miles an hour in under three seconds, and to a 193-m.p.h. apogee. But you’d have to pry the manual out of my cold, dead fingers.

Linking my shifting hand to the Porsche’s algorithm-crunching brain and chassis reminded me of “The Empire Strikes Back,” when R2-D2 plugs into the Millennium Falcon to ditch Imperial pursuers. Next stop: hyperspace.

And one might hope for the ultimate demise of polluting, inefficient gasoline engines while still shedding a tear for the loss of their amazing analog sound and spirit; especially in complex, Swiss-watch engines like the Porsche’s — or BMW’s, or Cadillac’s. This howling crescendo of whirring, finely engineered parts has been inextricable from racing and road thrills for more than a century.

Whatever the pace or ingenuity of E.V.s, including Porsche’s knockout Taycan, electrics are largely silent automatons in comparison. Many drivers would prefer peaceful electricity. The rest must make peace with it.

BMW has been browbeaten by enthusiasts who insist it has fattened up on S.U.V.s and leached the fun from its cars. The 2020 M2 CS might mollify the scariest BMW troll.

This track-storming version of the 2-Series coupe plays like a montage of great BMWs past. That includes its available six-speed stick with automated rev-matching; the modern edge of a 444-horsepower, twin-turbocharged inline six; an adaptive suspension and featherweight carbon-fiber roof; and some of the world’s stickiest street-legal tires, the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2.

Like the CT5-V and 911 GTS, the M2 CS offers carbon-ceramic brakes (for $8,500) to shed prodigious speed, trim 55 pounds of mass and eliminate unsightly brake dust on its pretty, gold-finished alloy wheels.

The caveat is an $84,595 starting price, about $10,500 beyond a 760-horsepower Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, and just $400 less than the CT5-V Blackwing, to name two cars that will chew the BMW for breakfast.

The M2 CS counters with rarity: Only 2,200 will be built for the world, with production for U.S. buyers ending in December. On a track test at the Monticello Motor Club in Sullivan County, N.Y., and on rustic curves in the Hudson Valley, this pint-size Bimmer raged and roared like a dude with a Napoleon complex.

The BMW’s stick shift feels a bit gummy, especially compared with the Porsche’s Platonic ideal. But it gets the job done, cracking 60 m.p.h. in four seconds. And in contrast with some larger, even more muscular BMWs — wildly capable, yet cool to the touch — the M2 CS’s hooligan spirit rubs off on any driver with a pulse. It’s a bad influence. In a good way.

Base price: $59,990 (CT4-V), $84,990 (CT5-V)

Jekyll, meet Hyde: In polite society, the Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing can drive like a doctor’s luxury sedan. But find a dark alley, or a blazing circuit like Virginia International Raceway, and the killer comes out, with a six-gun of manual gears at its disposal.

With its supercharged, 668-horsepower V-8, the Blackwing is a delirious good time on road or track, with a top speed above 200 m.p.h. I managed about 152 m.p.h. on this road course’s longest straightaway, lap after thrilling lap, before it was time to squeeze optional carbon-ceramic brakes and ease into a curling right-hander.

I also tested the smaller, more affordable Blackwing, the CT4-V, which has a 474-horsepower V-6, also offering a choice of a manual or brisk 10-speed automatic. The old-school shifter gets new-tech stuff like an automated launch control; a virtual unicorn in a manual car. As Cadillac’s engineers trade their deep internal-combustion experience to enter the brave new world of E.V.s, they’re excited about the possibilities. But Mr. Roma and his team — with a few centuries of combined experience in internal-combustion engineering — are proud of what may be their final moonshot in fossil fuels.

The no-compromise effort included Michelin and Cadillac’s development of a unique rubber compound for the Blackwings’ tires; Caddy engineers tested and rejected 30 versions before they were satisfied.

The stuff that makes the Blackwings work, Mr. Roma said, would have seemed like science fiction even in 2008, when the brand’s CTS-V became the first production sedan to break the eight-minute lap record at Germany’s benchmark Nürburgring circuit.

In one example, Cadillac bills the Blackwings’ magnetic suspension as the world’s fastest-reacting: Accelerometers and sensors monitor the road and car behavior. Metal particles in shock-absorber fluid react to computerized changes in their magnetic field, adjusting firmness at any wheel within milliseconds. A sophisticated traction and stability system adjusts safety oversight for drivers of any skill level.

Those skills can improve with an onboard data recorder that logs video and audio of everyday drives or GPS-based track laps, with graphical overlays and software that lets drivers analyze their performance in detail.

As for hands-on talent, each Blackwing engine is assembled by a single master technician, whose name is affixed to a plate on the motor. If General Motors does transform into a purely electric automaker, consider that internal-combustion autograph, and the car that comes with it, a future collectible.

Source link