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BMW doesn't offer a manual gearbox on the M3 and M4 in the UK. We try one in Germany to see if we're missing out

What is it?

The global car market is probably more homogenised than it ever has been. You can buy a BMW 3 Series in London, in LA or in Tokyo just like you can a Big Mac. Nevertheless, subtle differences remain, and those are often the most tantalising. You can order a beer in a Belgian McDonalds, and you can order a manual BMW M4 at a German BMW dealer.

The reason why BMW won’t bring over the manual BMW M3 and M4 is easy to guess and a quick browse of the classifieds for previous-generation M3s and M4s confirms it: not very many people want to buy one.

That logic makes sense, but when Toyota has announced it’s coming with a manual version of the Supra and Porsche is bringing out what is effectively a rear-wheel-drive manual version of the 911 Turbo, one might wonder if BMW should reconsider. After all, it does build right-hand-drive manual versions for Australia and Japan, so all the engineering work is done.

BMW probably won’t change its mind, so the more pertinent question is whether we’re missing out on something. When I went to drive the tweaked BMW M135i recently, BMW wheeled out a manual M4 from its German press fleet for me to try.

A brief refresher on the M3 and M4: in most regions, BMW offers them both in ‘plain’ and Competition versions. The non-Competition was always intended as the purist’s choice, with a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive only. In the UK, we get only the Competition, which has 30bhp extra, comes with only the admittedly brilliant eight-speed automatic, gets some additional equipment and can be optioned with BMW’s fiendishly clever xDrive four-wheel drive system.

What's it like?

I had heard that it’s not the greatest shift in the world, that the manual feels like a bit of an afterthought and that the automatic suits the M4’s character more. And you know what? All of that is true.

The clutch is quite stiff and springy, making it not the easiest car to drive smoothly. The 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight six’s torque means that stalling it is almost impossible, but a bit of kangarooing is easy to do. Our test car also had the preposterous carbon bucket seats with that weird trapezoidal bit of carbon between your legs. It’s annoying in the auto, but even more so with three pedals.

The gearchange itself also has some springiness, as well as the typical BMW rubbery feel. However, the throws are short, notchy (in a good way) and rewarding. Curiously, the shifter is right in the middle of the centre console, and as the 3 and 4 Series are now quite wide cars, the gearlever is a bit of a reach. And that’s not mentioning that it’s quite odd to be in such a big, fast, high-tech car, and to be changing gear yourself.

But despite all that, I absolutely would go for the manual if offered the choice.

My overriding impression of the M3 Competition is that it is so competent that at anything resembling sane (or legal) speeds, you feel like you’re just cruising along. To stop it feeling ordinary, you either need to take some serious liberties with speed limits or find a racetrack.

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Having six gears and an extra pedal to tend to adds a lot of the engagement back in, both at lower speeds and when you find a good road to explore the engine’s rev range and the chassis’s balance.

You’re far more aware of what the engine is doing, you think about which gear to approach a corner in, and you can perfect your heel-and-toe technique (there is an auto rev-match function if you’re not up for that). And while the gearchange isn’t the sweetest in the world, it’s satisfying enough.

BMW has also avoided the issue we have with Porsche’s recent manuals, where you end up just leaving it in one gear because the ratios are so long. Second gear tops out at 76mph, which seems rather high, but unlike with a naturally aspirated engine, you don’t always feel the need to rev it out, so you end up going between second and third quite a lot. The other gears are pretty closely stacked, too. Third runs to 115mph, and at 70mph in sixth, the engine is still turning 2400rpm – unusually high for a modern petrol car.

Do you miss the 30bhp that the non-Competition version loses compared with the one we get over here? Of course not. It’s still ballistically fast, and actually feels more intense because you’re more involved. To my ears, the engine also sounds a little more natural – slightly gravelly and a far cry from naturally aspirated M3s of old, but free-revving and exciting.

Should I buy one?

Well, if you’re in the UK, you can’t. Anywhere else, absolutely.

Even in the US, which is the main holdout for manuals in performance cars, BMW could easily have brought out the current generation of the M3 and M4 and not done a manual ’box at all, and no one would have found that strange.

The next generation will almost certainly be hybrid and auto only. So if you are in the UK and enjoy some DIY gearchanging, even just slightly, I’d say go and lobby your BMW dealer to bring the six-speed over here, before it’s too late.

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jer 13 May 2022

Surprised you can't notice 60lb ft or so less. I always remember BMW gearboxes described as rifle bolt when reality was too heavy too notchy and slow causing revs to drop. 

Speedraser 13 May 2022

Major kudos to BMW for offering this with a manual. I'm in the US, so it's available, but I will not buy a car that fakes its engine sound - that completely ruins it for me. I live in a high-traffic area, so I'm all too familiar with using a manual in heavy traffic. I have a manual 'box car, but my daily Giulia has - only because there was no manual available - the excellent ZF 8-speed automatic with paddles. I always use the paddles - but I'd much rather have a manual 'box even in my daily.  The lack of a manual is the main reason I ever consider selling it.

Peter Cavellini 13 May 2022

Yeah, I used to be a manual fan, but now having an Auto it's so much easier and I don't indulge myself that often...Officer.