Editorial: On the Obsolescence of Manual Transmissions – BMW M3/M4

BMW M4, Featured Posts | August 26th, 2013 by 43
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I’ll start with a confession. I have never owned a car, that was MY primary vehicle, with an automatic transmission. That’s right, in over forty …

I’ll start with a confession. I have never owned a car, that was MY primary vehicle, with an automatic transmission. That’s right, in over forty years of car ownership I have never purchased anything but stick shifts for my use. I’ve never really found an automatic that I liked that would preclude purchasing a car equipped with a manual gearbox.

And I’ve driven a variety of automatics and automated manual gearboxes over the years, and yet still prefer the manual option (and it is one reason I drive a BMW now – it was one of the few cars in its class available with its combination of powerful engine and manual transmission).

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But, we’ve reached a crossroads for manual transmission lovers, especially for high performance cars. The automatic and automated manual gearboxes are actually the appropriate choice. More so if the car is one that you intend to use on the track.

The newest automated manual gearboxes shift faster and more appropriately than almost any driver can accomplish with a manual gearbox. It rev matches on downshifts and always seems to be in the appropriate gear. And since the automation for the gearbox includes a level of intelligence (without the accompanying ‘red mist’) they won’t destroy themselves in an ill-chosen downshift from sixth to second on the track.

bmw m3 dct 655x400

It makes sense then that the M6, M5, M4, and M3 would be better served with the automated manual gearbox – and that the take rate for a three pedal arrangement should be quite small. But, as we saw with the M5, we expect a manual gearbox will be made available for the M3/M4 in the North American market.

And yet in Europe there is no need for a manual option. What is different about European consumers that they eschew a manual gearbox for an automated transmission? Europeans grew up driving cars with manual transmissions coupled to fairly small engines. And there was nothing sporting about that proposition. In addition European cities seem to have denser traffic (at slower speeds) than most North American counterparts.

Shift quality is also a key component of how Europeans view the transmission (and it is a primary reason BMW employs a clutch delay valve in their manual gearboxes – it actually improves the perceived shift quality), and an automatic or automated manual gearbox will deliver superior shift quality compared to a traditional manual gearbox.

However, in the US market less than 4% of all car sales in 2011 were equipped with manual gearboxes. In the US it is a sign of sporting character, a badge of honor, that you drive a car with a manual transmission (with some interesting exceptions – hello hypermilers!).
But, given the capabilities for fuel economy of transmissions like ZF’s 8 speed automatic, and the astounding capabilities of the 7 speed double clutch automated manual transmission that is available, why would anyone want a manual gearbox.

So – how important is a manual gearbox for the M3/M4? Take the poll and flame away in the comments.

[POLL] How important is a manual gearbox option for the M3/M4?

[poll id=”127″]

43 responses to “Editorial: On the Obsolescence of Manual Transmissions – BMW M3/M4”

  1. mpa says:

    manual will be always a “the sporty” version (don’t confuse with Formula 1)

    With manual you can choose the precise moment to combine steering and release the clutch o get a gorgeous curve with not that high speed but with a controllable drift angle.
    A computer doesn’t see the next instant of the road… your brain does. =)
    But I must confess that for a daily use a semi-automatic gearbox is the better option..but not for playing and feel my BMW! =D Don’t you agree?

  2. DSC OFF says:

    I could get from the start line to the finish line of the Nurburgring in 0’0″ by just not even getting in the car. But that wouldn’t be much fun would it?

  3. peanut says:

    M cars are all about pure driving experience not just on the road but on the track the fact a machine or technician dictates when the gears should be changed takes away the thrill you get when you do the perfect gear change when you take the bend in the right gear or when you are at the traffic lights and you react fast and change gear and have the satisfaction of knowing it was all you rather than mashing your foot in the carpet and letting the car do all the work.

  4. bfd says:

    another reason is the poor reputation of BMW automatics, “breaking” at the 100k mark and costing $5k to $10k to replace! I like manual transmission as it is easier to service and repair! Servicing is basically changing the fluid, using synthetic oil like Redline, every 30K. Repairing is changing the clutch which cost about $1000-1500, maybe a bit more for a M car! Call me old-school, but I’ll take the manual tranny any day! Good Luck!

  5. bakashrimp says:

    lol. Somewhat related. I had a co-worker sit in my car (Manual RX-8 R3 edition) who was under the impression I had a manual transmission because it was the “cheaper” option. Some people just believe if you have a manual – it must be the cheap version of the model car you are driving.

  6. bakashrimp says:

    lol. Somewhat related. I had a co-worker sit in my car (Manual RX-8 R3 edition) who was under the impression I had a manual transmission because it was the “cheaper” option. Some people just believe if you have a manual – it must be the cheap version of the model car you are driving.

  7. bakashrimp says:

    lol. Somewhat related. I had a co-worker sit in my car (Manual RX-8 R3 edition) who was under the impression I had a manual transmission because it was the “cheaper” option. Some people just believe if you have a manual – it must be the cheap version of the model car you are driving.

  8. bakashrimp says:

    lol. Somewhat related. I had a co-worker sit in my car (Manual RX-8 R3 edition) who was under the impression I had a manual transmission because it was the “cheaper” option. Some people just believe if you have a manual – it must be the cheap version of the model car you are driving.

  9. bakashrimp says:

    lol. Somewhat related. I had a co-worker sit in my car (Manual RX-8 R3 edition) who was under the impression I had a manual transmission because it was the “cheaper” option. Some people just believe if you have a manual – it must be the cheap version of the model car you are driving.

  10. Herrdoktorprofessor says:

    For me even the very best slush box would be a deal breaker for an M car. I’m driving my first AT in my 335d and while I love that car I desperately miss the 3rd pedal and my next car will not be an auto. The day BMW stops selling manuals is the day I stop buying BMWs. Full Stop.

    For that tiny fraction of guys that want to track their car then they can choose a DCT.

    • RockCartel says:

      A year late but may help other readers.
      A DCT is not a slush box (torque converter), it’s a manual with electronics that control the clutches.
      The 335d was NOT fitted with a DCT, it’s an auto (335d has the ZF Steptronic auto)

      • BMW driver says:


      • BMW driver says:

        A 335d is indeed an auto. A DCT is as you say shifted by electronics automatically without driver input – we refer to this as a slush box. some like it and others find it boring – in any case it is not a manual

  11. Peter says:

    I wonder what the price difference is between replacing one of the new automatic transmissions versus a basic manual transmission. Of course, one should have moved into another car before such an awful situation comes to pass, leaving the shock for the second-hand owner to experience!

  12. Barry says:

    I enjoy the feel of a manual transmission. A seamless heel and toe rev-matched double-clutched downshift where the lever just melts right into the gear you are selecting is a beautiful thing, and feels great!

    I have also owned an SMG BMW which I liked very much, but it wasn’t super smooth and I replaced several hydraulic pumps at great expense, dealt with leaking plumbing, unbelievably expensive special fluids, and the thing ate clutches much faster than my left foot did.

    Automatic just feels numb to me. I feel disconnected from what the car is doing. Not because it chooses when to shift (because steptronic or whatever covers that), but because the slip that is introduced by the fluid coupling doesn’t feel natural.

  13. War-Enjoy Life While You Can says:

    I’ve grown up with a manual box in all of my BMWs and really don’t desire anything different. There is an amount of user control and activity involved with the manual gearbox that in my opinion you don’t really get with any other type of automated transmission. They may be faster and shift more exactly, but I still prefer the control of a manual gear ripping loose with no traction control more than I like stepping on the gas pedal in an automatic. The only exception, for me, is in grid locked traffic where there is stop and go, stop and go, and the clutch is depressed a ridiculous amount of times causing leg cramps. My answer? Get in that gym.. I drive over 800 miles per week and I drive a 6 speed 335i every day. ..Wouldn’t have it any other way!

    • aaa says:

      I would still prefer manual in heavy traffic! Driving manual in traffic is actually the most fun! It’s a test of your skills!

  14. Mike says:

    Without a doubt the automated manual is better for tracking. It might be superior for traffic.

    But I’m not a race car driver, and I prefer to avoid traffic. For me, it’s purely about the feel. I love the feel of shifting. I love getting the transfer right. I love driving, and I’m unwilling to give any portion of it over to the machine.

    I’m a driver first and foremost, and the day I give up my clutch pedal is the day I sit in the passenger seat. I don’t do it professionally, I do it because I enjoy it. That’s reason enough.

  15. Guest says:

    Here’s a question: where do we as enthusiast drivers want to draw the line on automation? We seem to think that shifting gears manually is sporty. What about adjusting ignition timing, fuel mixtures, etc.? (All of those had to be adjusted manually by the driver at one time – see “spark control”, “chokes”, etc.) Why are we happy today to allow the computer to set ignition timing and fuel mixture but not set the gear?

    Would be interested to discuss…

    • Guest says:

      I should add that modern F1 cars still allow most of these parameters to be adjusted manually from the steering wheel. My point is that there is a line drawn somewhere between manual and automatic on the street, and claiming that DCT or automatic gearboxes are not “sporty” doesn’t take into account that I may draw my line for street sportiness differently from you.

  16. RJ says:

    Oh boy, here we go, another “manual transmission is dead” article because automatics and DCTs shift faster and more precise, blah, blah, blah. Of course they do, so what? And when fully automated cars come out I’m sure they’ll be able to drive better and more efficiently than you, especially around a track. Whooptie do, where’s the fun in that? I track my manual transmission 330i and you know how big the trophy is for me going 1 second faster around the track? Absolutely diddly squat. The only “trophy” you get from tracking your car is the intrinsic feeling of knowing that you’re improving, that you’re the one making the difference, not the car. Folks need to get out of the mindset that it’s all about the quicker time, it’s not. It’s about the feel and the challenge. A manual gives that extra feel and challenge for the human to overcome.

    • Horatiu B. says:

      They won’t go away but BMW M sometimes hints that some day they might.

      • RJ says:

        I know they do and every time I see that from them I cry a little inside. My point is we as enthusiasts don’t need to help them out by writing articles that would help them justify killing off manuals. We should be writing just the opposite. We should be writing about how we want involvement and enjoyment from our sporting cars, not just cold, ruthless efficiency. M cars (and BMWs in general) should be fun and involving, connecting the driver to the car, not shutting them out of the process.

        As I’ve grown older and hopefully a little wiser I’ve learned that a few tenths of a second quicker mean nothing to your driving enjoyment. I’m trying to spread the word and teach others that the stopwatch isn’t the be all end all (for the 99.999% of us that are not professional racers), there’s more to it than that. I drove a manual ’91 Honda Prelude for a number of years before my 330i and that was a fun little car. Obviously it wouldn’t set any speed records but that didn’t matter, it was fun to toss around and the manual always kept me involved in the driving.

        In the last couple of years I’ve converted two people to manuals. They were both intimidated before they learned, but once they did they now love them. You could also tell they were proud of themselves for conquering this “beast” that intimidated them for so long. That was really cool to see them enjoy a personal accomplishment! I suspect with a lot the younger generation this may be the case where they had nobody to teach them and they’re intimidated by a manual, so they tout the superiority of the auto or DCT. It’s up to those of us that have had the experience of driving the various transmissions and living with a manual to share what those benefits are and encourage others to give it a try.

        We need to change the conversation from sheer numbers to things that matter way more to driving enjoyment.

  17. Duncheck says:

    hello i am from Serbia. in my country there is no tracks.. and most people don’t care about how fast will gear be changed, and most people don’t race their m5,m6,m3, m4. There is something about manual transmission, something eternal. Anyway manual is also reasno whi i chosed bmw instead of mercedes c amg. I like to shift.

  18. e39M5er says:

    why not a simulated clutch pedal? Use that pedal as another input to the DCT and have it provide feedback so it simulates a real clutch’s feel of engagement or whatever. make the new shifters support a 6-8 speed shift pattern as well. i don’t know, could be too compex…

    • hdude says:

      That would be similiar to the simulated engine noise that electric cars would have. And TBH, that would be just plain lame.

  19. Ben says:

    I think the results speak for themselves, the thing is that a manual not only shows your prowess as a driver or links you to the car, it is a badge worn by those who aren’t afraid to tame the beast, a badge for those who really know what it means to be a petrol-head. It shows that when everything else is being updated and made better you’re not afraid to stick to your guns, you know what your doing.

  20. Quite nice post thanks for share………………

  21. Gawdzila says:

    Though I acknowledge the general superiority of the DCT, I do still love manual transmissions because of the direct connection with the car that it gives you. I love the feeling of that perfectly-nailed, rev-matched downshift into a turn, and the fact that I’m coordinating all of it with my very own hands and feet is central to the experience. Even if I keep a DCT in “automatic” mode most of the time, or use the paddles when setting lap times in earnest, it would be sad to give up even the opportunity to have that thrilling dance of man and machine.

    That said…
    I have recently wondered if a DCT could be offered with a clutch pedal? The inner mechanical workings of it, with gears on lay shafts (as opposed to a sequential or a planetary set), seems like it might be amenable to adding an actual mechanical shift linkage. Then you’d just need a pedal that disengages both clutches on the DCT while shifting manually. I’d certainly pay the premium in price and complexity to have a gearbox that does it all.

  22. Really very nice and informational post thanks for share……keep it up………

  23. Mike Choi says:

    enthusiasts think with our hearts not necessarily with our heads. in our heads we know that the new automatics can shift faster and more efficiently than us. but our heart wants to row the gears, double-clutch heel-and-toe downshift and enjoy the driving experience. a true enthusiast knows that high-power cars are faster in their head, but might still prefer a more light, more nimble, more involved, more experiential lower-powered car that they can drive to the limit– explaining how cars like the E30 M3 or Miata or MR2s are loved so much despite their “low” power.

    i like to go to the track and autocross too, but i’m not doing it to win trophies or cut my lap time by 0.1 seconds. i’m doing it because i love driving my car the way it was meant to be driven and have a good time overcoming my own challenges or goals i’ve set for myself. having driven many steptronic BMWs, i vowed that i would never get a BMW that wasn’t manual– it completely neuters the experience. but i can see the writing on the wall: those days are numbered… the days of the “driver’s car” and “enthusiasts car” are numbered. which is why i can’t get excited about most new cars out right now and hang on to “classic/vintage/older” cars. the ones that are simplier, more involved, and come with manuals… i know i am not alone… look at the demand/price of E30 M3s: a 4-cylinder “low”-powered manual tranny car… that should say something…

    i would never buy a car for myself (i,e, that isn’t shared with my wife) that was automatic. i’d like to go 40+ years like that…

    • Eugene D Brooks III says:

      With one exception, every car or truck that my wife and I have driven has been a manual transmission. Much to the chagrin of the DMV tester, our son took his drivers test in a manual transmission equipped car, and passed. The exception was a 2011 BMW X3 that we bought new. The performance and comfort of that vehicle was great, but the antics of its automatic transmission forced us to liquidate it after less than two years and 12,000 miles. It was replaced with a 2007 X3 with a manual transmission. The clutch delay valve was perhaps a good crutch to force someone to learn to shift smoothly, but if you already know how to do that its interference with any sort of sporty driving is a disaster. It turns out that the delay valve is easily gutted of innards. With the exception of the 2011 X3 that I liquidated by the time of its first oil change, I have enjoyed my BMWs and in fact kept one, a 325e, for 30 years. My next car will have a manual transmission. It will be unfortunate if BMW does not offer one, but that is how it will be.

  24. Matt says:

    About 7 months late to the convo, but manual has a better feel and is just more damn fun. I don’t care if paddle shifters shift quicker. Maybe I like to drive fast, but I don’t race, not even in a $100k+ sports car if I had one. If I find myself lucky enough to drive a Porsche 911 or Maserati one day, I want to have fun with it. I’d say that the wannabes with their status symbols can keep their F1 paddle shifters, but they’re only demonstrating demand for driving the inferior superficial way.

  25. OCULUS says:

    Similarly, I have never purchased an automatic transmission in my 40+ years of BMW ownership. But a couple of factoids: When I last heard, (a couple of years ago) a high percentage (as in 70%?) 5-series V8s imported here had stick shifts. How things seemed to have change over the past couple of years.

    Right now, I am still running my 545 sport 6-speed (79K miles) and am considering selling it and changing over to an i3. Yeah, imagine it: from a 6 -peed to no-speed “transmission”–after 27 years of 5-sports sticks, I’m about to go electric.

    I really have to figure out what to do with my left foot.

  26. Ashot Shahbazian says:

    In Russia, it’s not the sportiness but the safety on icy roads, which makes a stick shift more appropriate.

  27. Winecats says:

    Need the manual option, regardless of what else is offered.

  28. David e36 ///M says:

    Hows this for not getting rid of them.. You can drive in snow with a manual.. GL doing that in an automatic with rear wheel drive you just get stuck and or dont go anywhere… F*** FWD and autos. Better get with the ///M or GTFO then.

  29. pjkbrit says:

    Automatics are for people who cannot or will not drive, (because texting is more important).
    NOT being able to get a 328d or the basic 328i with the lovely 6 speed manual box like I had in my rental car in the UK just cost BMW in the US a sale….oh well.

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