A more engaging M4

With a six-speed manual transmission borrowed from the 1 M Coupe, the M4 becomes a more rewarding car to drive.

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December 4, 2015

It’s ironic, but as cars have evolved, the most relevant component—the driver—has become a less important part of the equation. Today’s cars have taken over more of the driving duties and require less driver interaction, which is anathema to anyone who enjoys driving and does it well.

The transmission has been at front line of the battle between technology and driver involvement. Here, technology has been winning, as even hardcore sports cars like the Ferrari 458 and Porsche 911 GT3 RS abandon manual transmissions in favor of automatic or semi-automatic gearboxes.

So far, at least, BMW has refused to follow the other automakers’ lead, and the company continues to offer its high-performance models with manual transmissions for those who still want to shift for themselves. After spending a week in a manual M4, we’re glad they do. Most buyers will choose M-DCT, but the old-school manual is still available in the F80/82 M3/M4, as well as the current M5 and M6 and a few non-M models. Even more surprisingly, the M3/M4 gets a lighter, more compact manual than the Getrag Type G gearbox used in the E9X M3 it replaced.

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More to it than the numbers

The new Getrag Type K manual takes its basic architecture from the transmission used in the 1 M Coupe (also designated Type K) and improves upon it with a double-plate clutch designed to handle the S55 engine’s 406 lb-ft of torque. It also gets new carbon friction linings in the synchronizer rings, plus a rev-matching feature for nailing your downshifts.

Choosing the manual transmission over M-DCT results in an M4 that’s lighter by around 55 lbs., and which also has slightly better weight distribution at 51.8% front/48.2% rear versus 52.3%/47.7% in the DCT model. The manual M4 weighs 3,530 lbs. where the M-DCT model weighs 3,585, which puts 1,829 lbs. over the front axle instead of 1,875. Those numbers might sound negligible, but having a lower curb weight and spreading it more evenly between the axles is a good thing for a performance car’s handling.

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Where acceleration is concerned, the M-DCT car makes the 0-to-60 mph dash a bit quicker, in 3.9 seconds versus the manual’s 4.1 seconds, but those numbers are so close they mean little in the real world. The M-DCT car also gets 26 mpg on the highway where the manual car gets just 24, in part because it has two overdrive gears—6th and 7th—where the six-speed manual has just one. You may use slightly more gas with the manual, but you’ll have an extra $2,900 with which to pay for it, which is what checking the M-DCT option will cost you.

My Yas Marina Blue M4 test car had not only the manual transmission but the standard suspension. As such, it was the first F80 or F82 I’d driven without Adaptive M Suspension, a $1,000 option. It also had seat upholstery in a cloth/leather combination, which I highly recommend especially if you plan on taking your car to track days. The cloth is grippier than leather, looks great and feels like it will wear well. Also recommended for those with track days on the agenda are my test car’s carbon ceramic brakes ($8,150 in themselves, plus $1,200 for the 19-inch Style 437 M wheels they necessitate), which give fantastic stopping power along with great pedal feel.

Hands-on meets high tech

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On first impression, the Type K manual transmission’s shifter throws and the clutch pedal travel were both a bit too long, but I quickly grew to appreciate the former’s precise gear changes and got used to the latter. The feel is less distinct than expected compared to the manual transmission 3 and 4 Series cars I’ve driven lately, but that’s something of a non-issue, especially after a day or two.

The manual is a great match for the turbocharged S55 six-cylinder engine, whose abundant torque allows you to trundle around town at lower speeds without needing to change gears very often. At the other end of the equation, the manual’s lack of a seventh gear is hardly missed on the freeway, and I never found myself wanting to upshift from sixth at cruising speeds. (Interestingly, both the manual and M-DCT use the same 3.46:1 final drive ratio.) Similarly, the engine’s torque allows easy passing with or without a downshift, though the manual will give the throttle a satisfying blip if you do drop down a gear.

The idea of having a manual transmission that blips the throttle for you on downshifts may seem like another case of technology winning over driver involvement, but I found that it actually added to the driving experience. I’ve become pretty good at heel-toe downshifts over the years, but I don’t want to do it all the time, especially in normal daily driving. With the M4’s automatic rev matching, you get smoother downshifts and have more power on tap when you get back on the throttle. The rev matching is very accurate and also adds to the auditory experience, as you hear the blips of the throttle clearly through the exhaust.

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Ceding control to the computer

That said, I wish BMW made it easier to turn rev matching on and off. It works in the Comfort and Sport drive mode settings, but not in Sport+. There are some good drivers out there who routinely do track days but aren’t adept at heel-toe downshifting, and they may want to pair rev-matching with Sport+ suspension settings for the track. Conversely, other drivers may want to use the slightly softer Sport mode without rev matching on tracks like Lime Rock where it’s ideal. Right now, you can’t turn rev matching off in Sport or Comfort mode, and you can’t turn it on in Sport+ mode.

As I mentioned earlier, my test car didn’t come with the Adaptive M Suspension but rather with standard suspension. The spring and damper rates are more on the firm side than the soft side, which is fitting given the sporting nature of this car. The car rides on springs with a different rate than those of the Adaptive Suspension, and overall the standard setup feels closer to AS’ Sport than Comfort, but it’s still a good compromise between ride quality and handling. Of course, the ride would be a bit less firm with the standard 18-inch wheels rather than the 19s on our test car. I drove this M4 only on public roads, not on the race track, but the standard suspension felt like it would have no problem with the more extreme demands of a track day.

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As for that manual transmission, only time will tell if BMW remains committed to it beyond the current generation of M cars. Manuals will disappear if no one orders them, and early indications suggest that fewer F80/82 M3s and M4s are being sold with manuals than their predecessors. Even so, racer and dealer Boris Said told us that his BMW of Murrieta dealership in Southern California is selling every M3 or M4 it gets “immediately,” with some two out of every ten cars sold equipped with the manual.

M-DCT may be the default option in the ordering process, and it’s a terrific transmission, but the manual makes the M4 much more involving to drive and makes the driver feel more integral part of the car. I’ve driven six different M3s and M4s over the last year, and the car you see here is the one I’d buy, not least because its manual transmission really won me over.

Long live the manual transmission!

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