As the sole carmaker to continue offering a manual option in the premium mid-sized high-performance segment, BMW M is bucking tradition and looking to position the 'stick shift' format as a flagship option in the now-delayed 2021 M3 and M4 range.
“The manual stick shift is not an entry proposition any more,” says the boss of BMW M Division, Markus Flasch. “It used to be the entry transmission then on top of that you’d have the automatic or a sequential gearbox or whatever.
"Today, it’s different. Today the standard is the automatic and the manual is for the enthusiast,” he went on.
“A manual isn’t faster on the racetrack. There are some advantages, such as weight, but in the overall package not really. (But) it’s something that adds character. And it’s something our customers love.”
The option of a manual transmission fitment to what Mr Flasch calls BMW M’s “pure” models – M2, M3 and M4 – is key to what he calls “the transformation of M”, a business plan presented to the BMW board.
“This year we brought a brand new BMW M strategy through the BMW board,” Mr Flasch explains. “Part of this strategy is that we’ll increase our share in this high-performance and performance segment, and there will be more special models directly derived from customer-based cars, on a bigger scale in future.”
Besides a push to “bring M back to customer racing in a large scale, including an entry-level race car” in 2020, buyers can expect a number of harder-core, limited-edition manual variants throughout the next-gen M3 and M4 lifecycle, further bolstering a range set to offer automatic transmissions and both rear- and all-wheel drive.
If such diversity in 'range formulation' sounds familiar, it’s because that’s very much the approach Porsche adopts with 911, with its legacy of red-hot manual-equipped 'enthusiast' variants such as the T, R and GT3 Touring versions.
“Typically, I don’t like to talk about brands but what really sets us apart is our heritage,” Mr Flasch says. “And there’s probably only one company in the world with a similar thrilling heritage like we have and that’s Porsche.
"When you see what our community brings forward: the classic cars and the race cars, this is what sets M apart.”
Mr Flasch says customer demand in the United States, BMW M’s biggest market for high-performance – or proper M-car – models, was most instrumental in retaining the manual gearbox format the Munich concern's rivals have moved away from in this segment.
“We’ve made a conscious decision (with M3 and M4) to continue (to offer manuals) and the market that pushed us very hard to do so was the United States.”
Equally, according to Mr Flasch, it was a lack of customer interest that's put paid to chances that a conventional manual might be offered as part of next year’s M5 LCI face-lift, including the recently spied, hard-core M5 CS that looks certain to join the large super sedan line-up.
“We will keep the manual in the core models of (M) 2, 3 and 4. But nobody asks for a manual in an M5,” Mr Flasch says. “I’m producing cars for our customers and (they have) a very very clear opinion of what they want to see.”