What a difference a gearbox can make.
Automatic gearbox versions of Holden's Commodore sports sedans sell much better in New Zealand than manuals. Anyone who uses one for daily commuting in Auckland's grinding traffic could tell you why. Consequently most SS or S Commodores we get to test have the slick-shifting, effort-free four-speed automatic.
So we just couldn't wait to get our hands on a manual S.
The S is no more powerful than any other naturally-aspirated V6 Commodore.
The S badge denotes the standard, beefed-up FE2 sports suspension, lower ride height and sporty bodykit.
You can have a Commodore S with a manual or automatic gearbox and naturally-aspirated or supercharged 3.8-litre V6s.
The supercharger smooths out some of the rougher edges of the decidedly angrier-feeling and certainly more raucous standard V6. Its 171kW of power betters Holden's old 5.0-litre V8.
But the supercharged engine comes only with the automatic gearbox.
We've driven one, but though it was more refined, it didn't have half the character of the naturally-aspirated test S V6.
Matched up to the chunky-feeling Getrag five-speed manual the raucous and punchy V6 produces a car that's a riot to drive. It's like a middleweight bruiser, hard-hitting enough yet nimble on its sharply-tuned suspension.
The V6 develops 152kW at 5200rpm and peak torque of 305Nm at 3600rpm (the supercharged car has 375Nm at 3000rpm). It runs on 91-octane where the supercharged version is happiest on 96.
Holden quotes fuel usage of 11 litres/100 kilometres on the urban cycle and 6.6 litres/100km on the highway (12.5 and 7.4 for the supercharged car).
On the road, there's plenty of power: 0-100km/h in around 8.4 seconds is creditable for a car weighing 1600kg.
Acceleration is vivid in the open road passing range.
Noise levels are generally low, especially at cruising speed; but the V6 snorts and bellows when you punch the throttle to the floor.
The FE2 suspension gives a firm ride but also delivers crisp, confidence-inspiring handling.
Suspension changes to the VX II, based on HSV practice, sharpen steering feel and improve stability during cornering.
The independent rear end keeps VX II Commodore tails well behaved, though the standard traction control (you can switch it off) adds stability, particularly on wet roads.
The S rides on smart 16-inch diameter alloy wheels shod with 225/50 R16 tyres.
The Getrag manual isn't the smoothest or quickest-shifting unit you'll encounter, but its ratios are well-matched and there's nothing like the satisfaction you achieve when you slot it back into second for a tight corner and nail the throttle on the way out.
The car hunkers down, the rear wheels bite and the Commodore rockets forward.
There's nothing to compare with the feel of a well-sorted rear-wheel drive sedan on a winding road - and the S certainly has a well-sorted chassis.
Automatic gearbox VX IIs are good on winding roads, but the manual adds an extra dimension: what a difference a gearbox makes.
Our only major moans about the gearbox were an occasional reluctance to go into fourth gear and the fact that the slow, heavyish shift action and (again) heavyish clutch were tiresome in 60-minute, stop/start morning commutes.
The front seats are well-shaped, comfortable, and provide excellent lateral support. The test car had the optional Anthracite leather upholstery which costs $3400 in a package which includes side airbags and a passenger's front airbag.
Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote-control central door-locking. A single disc in-dash Compact Disc player adds $200 to the price.
The cabin has first rate leg and head room. The boot is capacious.
Safety equipment includes driver's front airbag, ABS anti-skid braking and lap and sash seatbelts for all five occupants.
The S manual is an attractive, reasonably well-equipped, well-mannered sports sedan costing $46,900 (the auto costs the same; the supercharged S is $49,200). A limited slip diff adds $600.
If you plan using an S predominantly for heavy-traffic commuting, the auto is the better choice - more traffic-friendly and with none of the manual's driveline movement in stop/start low-speed running.
But if you plan to use it mainly on the open road, the Commodore S manual will be a very enjoyable companion, with character aplenty and an infectiously rugged charm.
AutoPoint road test team: story and photograph by Mike Stock.