As a car enthusiast, I love a good manual shifter. Modern automatics are so good these days that you can be very happy with a performance car that shifts cogs itself - and in high performance cars an auto really is the only option - but there’s something inherently more engaging about changing gear with one hand on a stick and one foot on the clutch pedal.
You see, cars are more than just objects. To the kinds of people who care about things like manual gearboxes, cars have character, and getting in tune with your car is half the fun. A manual shift allows you to do that, as it gives you ultimate control over your vehicle, and requires focus and coordination between your hands, legs and mind to get right.
So when you make fantastic enthusiast cars and offer them with a manual - which many manufacturers are ditching, so kudos for that - the initial response is to say “good on you, BMW, for caring about real drivers.” The problem is, shifting gears in a manual BMW is not particularly satisfying, and is the one aspect of the driving experience that lets down the package as a whole. In fact, until BMW completely changes its manual transmission, I’m left with the only option of recommending the automatic equivalent of any given car (if you can afford the premium).
Recently I spent some time driving both an SMG and manual E46 M3. Both cars were great as a whole, but the one thing that let the pair down was their respective gearboxes. Fortunately, the SMG is no more and has been replaced with far more up-to-date technology, but I can’t say the same for the manual. In the E46, the throw was too long, and offered little feedback when selecting a gear. It was just all very vague, but I put it down to the fact the car was over a decade old.
However, this week I spent time with both a 2016 M235i and 2011 1M Coupe, and the manual problem persists. First up the new car, and immediately on moving the thing around a car park I noticed that changing gear required a bit of force. (In fact, finding reverse requires you to almost punch the shifter across past first, so why not just use a lift or depress of the shifter like other manufacturers do?)
Once you’re going at speed, the problems are exacerbated. The throw isn’t as long as in the old E46, but it’s anything but short. Worst of all, changing gear requires you to really concentrate and ram the shifter into place; the action of moving the stick doesn’t inspire great confidence as to where exactly you are in the gate, and when you push the stick into a gear, you have to get past an initial resistance. It’s almost like the stick is catching on something.
The 1M, despite being older, is actually a little better, but it’s far from perfect. I found with both cars that the shift action is vastly improved by rev matching, so perhaps the problem lies in the syncromesh? When giving the 1M stick in Sport mode, braking hard and applying a heel-and-toe blip of the throttle as you downshift improves things immeasurably. Unfortunately that’s not very practical in most driving situations.
It’s frustrating, because in all other aspects you make fantastic cars, BMW. Sure, the interiors hardly ever change between generations and the orange dials feel hopelessly outdated in 2016, but it all works nicely. As a driving experience, you’re on top of your game in chassis feel and engine performance - if you could fix arguably the most important feature of tying everything together, you’d have 10 out of 10 cars.
I think if you spent a bit of time with some of the elites of the manual world, you’d see where I’m coming from. In a Honda Civic Type R, every movement of the stick is purposeful and it feels solid underneath. You know exactly where you’re going and there’s a satisfying slotting action. The king of this is the Toyota GT86. It almost feels artificial in its brilliance, as it’s like the stick is sucked into place with a pleasurable thunk. The merest suggestion of a shift and you clunk quickly into place. It’s a wonderfully tactile experience and it means that when you’re really pressing on you’re not taken out of the moment because you’re having to focus so hard on making the gear stick.
With the new M2 imminently upon us, I can only hope that you’ve addressed this issue. That car has so much potential - like the 1M it’s the perfect size and power output for a road car - but a dodgy manual shifter could easily put a dampener on proceedings. I take heart from one early reviewer, who said “the manual is even pretty good…it’s a tighter and more precise shift than we’ve come to expect from BMW.”
Please, let this be the turning point for BMW’s manuals. For a company that once proclaimed to make the Ultimate Driving Machines, you’ve been seriously lacking in one vital department. The one thing that makes good cars great: a quality manual shift.