What is that?
The global automotive market is probably more homogeneous than it has ever been. You can buy a BMW 3 Series in London, Los Angeles or Tokyo, just like you can buy a Big Mac. Nevertheless, subtle differences remain, and these are often the most tantalizing. You can order a beer from a Belgian McDonalds, and you can order a manual BMW M4 from a German BMW dealership.
The reason why BMW won’t bring the manual BMW M3 and M4 is easy to guess and a quick scan of the previous generation M3 and M4 classifieds confirms it: few people want to buy one.
That logic makes sense, but when Toyota announced it would be coming with a manual version of the Supra and Porsche is releasing what is effectively a rear-drive manual version of the 911 Turbo, one wonders if BMW should reconsider. . After all, it builds 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 relevant question is whether we’re missing something. When I went to drive the modified BMW M135i recently, BMW pulled out a manual M4 from its German press fleet for me to try.
A quick reminder about the M3 and M4: in most regions, BMW offers them both in “ordinary” and Competition versions. The non-Competition was always designed as the purist’s choice, with a manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive only. In the UK we only get the Competition, which has an extra 30bhp, comes with just the admittedly brilliant eight-speed automatic, gets a few extra amenities and can be optioned with the fiendishly clever xDrive all-wheel-drive system from BMW.
What does it look like?
I had heard that it’s not the biggest change in the world, that the manual seems a bit of an afterthought and that the automatic suits the character of the M4 more. And you know what? All of this is true.
The clutch is quite stiff and springy, which doesn’t make it the easiest car to drive smoothly. Torque from the 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight-six means it’s nearly impossible to stall, but a bit of kangaroo is easy to do. Our test car also had the absurd carbon bucket seats with that weird trapezoidal piece of carbon between your legs. It’s annoying in a car, but even more so with three pedals.
The gearshift itself also has some springiness, as well as the typical BMW rubbery feel. However, the throws are short, notched (in a good way) and rewarding. Oddly enough, the shifter sits right in the middle of the center console, and since the 3 and 4 Series are now fairly wide cars, the shifter is a bit within reach. And that’s not to say it’s weird enough to be in such a big, fast, high-tech car, and shift gears yourself.
But despite all that, I would absolutely opt for the manual if I was offered the choice.
My overriding impression of the M3 Competition is that it’s so competent that at anything resembling reasonable (or legal) speeds, you feel like you’re just rolling. To make it no longer feel ordinary, you either have to take some serious liberties with speed limits or find a racetrack.
Having six gears and an extra pedal tends to add a lot of engagement, both at low speeds and when you find a good road to explore engine rev range and chassis balance.