BMW Development Chief Envisions the Manual Transmission's Last Dance
Your author’s first experience with a stick-shift BMW came when he was an impressionable youth, after being offered a ride to a since-forgotten destination by the head of a Christian youth group. Sorry, nothing weird happened. Something great did, however.
The car was a mid-1990s 328i, black over black pleather (a feature that irked the driver), five speed manual. “Look how much pickup it has in fifth,” I recall the man saying, stabbing the throttle as we coasted along at maybe 40-45 mph.
So different from my father’s Oldsmobile was the experience, it opened my eyes to a different type of driving — an engaging, involved form of motoring. While vehicles of a German pedigree didn’t come into my possession in the years following, stick-shift cars did. Seven of the eight cars I’ve owned boasted a clutch pedal. But sticks are dying, and the brand most associated with the three-pedal lifestyle doesn’t field many of them anymore. How long can it last? We have answers.
Actually, BMW board member and development boss Klaus Fröhlich has them, providing details on the manual transmission’s last days in response to questions from Road & Track.
After the recently revealed next-generation 3 Series ditched the stick for North American consumers ( or did it?), speculation ramped up about the continued existence of row-your-own Bimmers. It’s still an open question as to whether we’ll see a stick-shift M3. The 2 Series is holding on to its manual for now, but the next generation might not be so lucky.
Fröhlich wouldn’t comment on near-term discontinuations, but he knows what the last bastion of driver-car purity will be: the M4.
“Honestly, the pure engineering answer is, you’re much faster with paddles and an automatic transmission,” Fröhlich said. “They’re very precise and sporty. Especially on the Nurburgring, you are much better in control when you’re not taking one hand away [to shift]. I think, in the overall portfolio, manuals will disappear. But I think M4 should be the fortress of manual. So the last manual transmission which will die, it should die in an M4, as late as possible. That’s my view.”
When asked when the point would be, the development boss replied that the next-gen M4, currently in development alongside the M3, likely won’t be the one. Expect a stickless BMW some time after that.
“I think it should survive in the next generation of M4,” Fröhlich said. “The successors [to the current M3 and M4] are all in the pipeline. And so my promise is, yes, there will be a manual in the successor to M4.”
With the following generation of M4 not due until 2027 or 2028, that means the stick could reach the 2030s. Whether or not it finds its way to America is another question. BMW has practical reasons for vanishing the manual tranny, as steadily rising engine torque figures and a rapidly dwindling customer base makes the development of high-torque sticks unprofitable.
“So I tried to prolong the lifetime of the manuals, but we can’t invest in developing a new manual transmission,” Fröhlich said. “No transmission partner will do that with us. So we are evolving our existing manuals as long as possible.”
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