By on November 30, 2018

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.”

[Images: BMW]

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30 Comments on “BMW Development Chief Envisions the Manual Transmission’s Last Dance...”


  • avatar
    dividebytube

    I’ll be trying to drive a manual until the day I die. If that means keeping an old car around longer, than so be it.

    And yes, a good automatic can be faster, blah blah, but, to be honest, I don’t trust myself driving an automatic. I get too distracted and pay less attention to the road. A manual makes me focus on what I am doing.

    Though I did have a few auto cars that I enjoyed and stayed engaged with – my modified ’86 Monte Carlo SS and the ’94 Buick Roadmaster just worked with an automatic; the latter especially so. And my attention never wandered that much in those cars. It’s the more underpowered cars that felt like golf cars that got me bored.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy67

      re: “And yes, a good automatic can be faster, blah blah, but, to be honest, I don’t trust myself driving an automatic. I get too distracted and pay less attention to the road. A manual makes me focus on what I am doing.”

      This. There’s a corollary in aviation: as more of the systems and flight processes become automated, the pilots become more disengaged, with predictable results (although this is something the airlines want, because, presumably they can hire less experienced (read: cheaper) ‘pilots’).

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        Predictable results eh? Any data showing an increase in aviation incidents correlating with more automation? Unlike motor vehicles the aviation industry actually prioritizes safety, particularly on the part of pilot behavior.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          True, but that does not mean there is not room for improvement. Watch the episode of “Why Planes Crash” for the Air Florida accident. 100% the fault of the minimally experienced flight crew. There was a problem with the setting of the glycol deicing system but every other plane took off with it delivering too little glycol. The hubris of the very young Captain, who pretty much ignored the input of the co-pilot led to a completely avoidable crash.

          Regarding the increase in automation, there is a lot of talk about the lack of engagement causing a decline in emergency preparedness. I guess time will tell. What happens when tech overrides pilot input like the Lion Air crash. Here, the pilots knew what was wrong but the plane continually overrode them because it had bad data.

          Overall I have to say it is impressive how pilots have saved the bacon over the years. And the safety stats are extremely impressive. But just as there are concerns with Tesla’s system keeping the driver disengaged until there is problem, the same concerns about human behavior exist in planes.

    • 0 avatar
      blppt

      “I get too distracted and pay less attention to the road. A manual makes me focus on what I am doing.”

      Absolutely, and personally, I believe it should be mandatory in the U.S. that teenagers learn to drive a manual. Because it FORCES you to think and plan ahead for down and upshifts—it makes you a better driver regardless of transmission in the car you end up driving.

  • avatar
    iNeon

    I’ve been speaking to this phenomenon since I bought a PT Cruiser manual in 2008, it came across as complaint, on account I had no advice that it was just the state of the art, not my own personal car— but; the manual transmission was fundamentally changed whenever clutch dampers and check-valves, brake locks and hill-holders were added.

    They’re not coming back. Get one while you can!

    Enjoy how weird and disconnected it feels!

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Some would argue that certain manufacturers stopped investing in manual transmission development in the 60s/70s.

    I knew the writing was on the wall when manual transmissions were started to disappear from 1/2 ton trucks.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    pAdDLe SHifTerS aRE sPoRtY

  • avatar

    That just takes BMW off my possible buying list after experiences with manual trans models:
    1960 700 Sedan purchased new as 2nd family car
    1964 700 Coupe purchased used as fun car
    196? 1800 TISA, one of 200 homologation specials purchased by a college roommate
    2000 323i purchased new by my wife
    2007 328i purchased new on European Delivery

    BMW and some others don’t “get it” that 0.2 seconds faster 0-60 with paddles or auto trans versions is NOT the key factor, driving pleasure with the manual is the key factor.

    • 0 avatar
      turbo_awd

      Actually, I think they DO get that. And my first 3 cars were manuals, which I kept a total of ~14 years. What happened? I had to make some compromises for living with traffic, the wife not driving stick, etc.

      Traffic is way worse now than 30 years ago (when I started driving). I still get the odd stretch of road to have fun on, but I can’t buy a manual for “once every 3 months” and suffer the rest of the time. Maybe you can..

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        I drove stickshift Hondas here in Miami traffic for the better part of 20 years. The shifting became “automatic”, so to speak – I never gave a whole lot of conscious thought to upshifting or downshifting no matter what the traffic conditions. By the way, I’ve never damaged an engine by lugging or over-revving nor have I ever had to replace a clutch.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        Yea, this is another issue, and I think why cars like the S2000 died. The more perfect the conditions need to be for someone to enjoy a car, the less likely the car is to succeed- unless people have the money and circumstances that make it workable.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          That is why I have shift cars for fun and a boring hybrid for commuting. One interesting overlap between the two is driving in traffic. With a stick in heavy traffic you try to keep moving so you don’t have to step on the clutch again and again. So you watch traffic way ahead and plan your inputs to keep you moving. That is also the exact method for maximizing your mileage in a hybrid. I routinely get over 70 MPG in my horrendous commute of 45 miles in traffic.

          I, too, enjoy a stick for the fun of it. I don’t give a damn about a half-second.

          • 0 avatar
            mikey

            Yes ..driving a stick requires one to plan ahead ..Arguably, I believe that driving a stick has a positive effect on ones driving skills .

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        I find constantly having to ride the brake pedal in stop and go traffic FAR more annoying than having to change gears manually.

        I guess I should thank BMW and all the other car makers dropping manual transmissions. They are saving me a TON of money. If the Alfa Guilia and 330i wagon were available with sticks, that is what would be in my garages instead of my old 328! wagon and GTI. I figure that is about a $75K savings. And since I can’t replace them with anything, I don’t have much reason to. Though the pull of a Cayman is strong for replacing the GTI, for no reason other than I want one. With a stick, of course.

  • avatar
    Featherston

    I occasionally do projects with a colleague outside my company who, God bless him, still is working at age 90-something. We were chatting about cars one day, and he mentioned that he started driving before WWII. When I asked him about the introduction of the (first-gen) Hydramatic, he said, “Or ‘Slip-o-Matic,’ as I call it.” He then explained that through the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s his daily driver always was a full-size Chevy with a standard transmission. (Side note: Prior to the Corvair and Chevy II, I think the different Chevy models really were what we’d think of as different body styles and trim levels of the same B-body car.) My guess is that he drives and Impala or LaCrosse but still doesn’t completely buy into automatics.

    I’ll contrast him with people who learned to drive before synchronized transmissions or even standardized controls. They tended to look on TorqueFlites and Turbo-Hydramatics as a wonder (which, really, they are). I’d guess that my late grandmother could out-shift 90% of today’s enthusiasts, but her attitude was, “Why would you want to?”

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    The horsepower wars are forcing performance car buyers to come to grips with how bad they are at driving. 3 pedal E46 was fast but manageable. E9x was fast if you committed. F8x is simply beyond the capabilities of most drivers, even at low revs. Better to have less to manage while accessing the overwhelming performance.

    In something like a Miata, BRZ or even a 228i, stickshift makes sense. But as long as cars like M3s are subject to “progress” and ego/wee-wee waving, stickshift will continue to make less and less sense for the people buying it. We are talking GT3 race car horsepower in the hands of people with generally no formal performance driving experience. The whole thing is kind of silly

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Bleh… a high horsepower manual trans car isn’t that hard to manage. I did it all four seasons with my 09 GT500 and it went from 460 whp to over 600 whp in the 7 years I owned it replete with incredibly clumsy handling.

      Seems to me the people that have the most difficulty are the ones that try to permanently defeat the TCS/ESC and modulate the throttle in one mode – pinned all the way to the floor.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        There’s a difference between managing and driving IMO.

        • 0 avatar
          raph

          Semantics… besides I’d argue an automatic is sailing right past managing and being managed. Especially in automatic mode since the shifts and power engagement depending on automatic transmisison type are entirely managed by a calibration engineer.

          In manual mode its just the same parade of human error you see with a manual just cushioned a bit since the driver doesn’t have to contend with clutch engagement.

          To be frank I don’t see the allure of an automatic other than purely a convience device. I don’t see it really adding to the driving experinece unless your game is rock bottom lap and strip times.

          In any event somebody that can turn in a fast lap time or hustle a car down the strip in short order in a manual transmission car will impress me a helluva lot more than somebody running a faster times in an automatic car.

          But meh… with the advent of steer/throttle/brake by wire systems its just as well especially in a future consisting of AWD electric buggies.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      +1

      The M4 is _exactly_ the kind of car the Burgerking set will want to subtract .2 seconds on the 0-60 specsheet from, by handing ALL operational duties to a computer “inspired by Walther Rohrl.”

      Manuals are meaningful in cars that require, or at least encourage, you to use the gearbox during daily driving. Noone dogfighting above Iraq, asks for a manual in his F18. Ditto noone contesting the F1 world title.

  • avatar
    SilverCoupe

    I never particularly had an interest in BMWs, but the M4 will have to remain on my consideration list for when I eventually replace my manual A5.

  • avatar
    craiger

    My wife refuses to buy a car with an automatic. She still has her 5 speed ’95 Accord.

    Did I marry good, or what?

  • avatar
    threeer

    Which is why I’m staring down the barrel of buying a 2018 Mazda3 hatch with manual when I get back home in the spring. Efficiencies be damned. Yes, and auto is likely to be slightly faster…get slightly better fuel economy. But after I test drove one a few weeks ago, I stepped out of the car grinning like a drunken idiot. I still drive for the pleasure of driving and have sorely missed rowing my own gears.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      My nieces fiance recently dumped his old beater truck (he’s in his 20s and just got his first real job – diesel mechanic) and got a Challenger R/T with manual trans.

      My 4 year old daughter was entranced by the vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        I enjoy my daily driver EB Mustang automatic . When I really want to enjoy driving ,my 05 GT 5 speed convertible does the job quite nicely.

        She’s sleeping the winter away in my garage . I can’t wait till April.!!

  • avatar
    thx_zetec

    There is an analogy with human language. When fewer than critical mass number of people know how to speak a language, it becomes extinct. In Indonesia there were 1000’s of stone-age cultures with unique languages that went extinct. You need a critical mass to keep a given skill or practice going.

    Imagine a 40-something, well-to-do car buyer looking at M4’s. Even if he is interested in a manual – he won’t test drive it unless he knows how. Further the dealer surrazzhek won’t offer to teach a newbie on a 50,000 dollar car. Fewer and fewer people can drive manuals, and this is a vicious circle.

    The real death-knell for the manual was not the sporty/performance/sport application, but the cheapskate/bottom-feeder/ace-o-the-base market. This gave millions of people some knowledge of manuals as they had no choice. As someone mentioned the loss of the 1/2 ton market.

  • avatar
    Noble713

    1. BMW blames “steadily rising torque figures”. I’m pretty sure a T56 Super Magnum will handle any torque level that even a Dinan-tuned M/// car could throw at it. If the Germans are too proud to take engineering lessons from us uncivilized Americans, why don’t they dust off the Getrag V160 trannies that are holding up beautifully in high-horsepower Supras even today?

    2. BMW can’t find a transmission partner for shared development? The only reason ANY manual car needs more than the 6 gears in a T56 or V160 is to chase the increasingly oppressive fuel economy requirements……hmmm, what if manufacturers started designing automatic cars with easy manual swaps as post-sale dealership “maintenance”. The manufacturer keeps their CAFE targets from selling the high-mpg 10-speed slush box car, enthusiasts get warrantied OEM manual 6-speeds installed at the dealer, and maybe the price isn’t too high as the dealerships can keep the swapped-out automatics on-hand for repairs.

  • avatar
    Nedmundo

    With manuals disappearing from Audis and now BMWs, big-time kudos to Genesis for making one available in the G70. They’re clearly going after the die-hard MT enthusiasts, and almost cornering a small but meaningful slice of the market that’s being abandoned by others.

    I drove an AWD G70 the other day, and it’s a fantastic car. I can’t wait to try the 2.0T/MT version, and might replace my old TSX with one.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Save the manuals!

    Ok, my job is done here.

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