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.
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.
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