A Manual Transmission Isn't Always The Right Option

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“No manual, no care.” That’s a refrain among so many car enthusiasts. But there are times when that is just a cliched statement that has no basis in reality. Sometimes, a manual transmission makes a car worse.

(Full Disclosure: BMW loaned us an M4 coupe with a manual. It wasn’t as enjoyable as an M3 with the dual clutch. That resulted in this, a blog post on the internet.)

For our example, we’ll use the BMW M3/M4 twins, cars that have recently gone from a high revving, low torque V8 to a turbocharged inline six with a mountain of twist. The early rumor was that BMW had no interest in putting a manual gearbox in this car and was going to make it a dual clutch only affair.


Of course, the parade of naysayers jumped up and shouted that BMW (which never even actually said they wouldn’t make a manual M3/M4) couldn’t do that, they’d be idiots to do that. In the end, BMW built the new small M cars with both a manual and a DCT.

In DCT form, the M3 is pretty fantastic (the manual M4 continues the excellent braking, crisp handling, and downright speed of its sedan brother). Shifts are fast and aggressive. The car totally takes advantage of the gearbox to create a near endless stream of torque willing you forward. And it’s surprisingly more involving than you’d think. This is one of those dual clutch trannies that really needs you to shift it, its intuition in automatic mode is to make fuel economy numbers, not to drive the exact way you want.


I wish I could say the same for the manual.

Image for article titled A Manual Transmission Isn't Always The Right Option

The manual is involving in that you have to use it to switch gears each time, but it isn’t always the most pleasant experience. There is a sort of resistance in the lever that makes the shift action slightly vague and robotic.

But more than that, this is not a powertrain that is suited to a manual transmission.


The way that power arrives in a car like the M3/M4 is more immediate burst than gradual crescendo. If you don’t shift the car as fast as the DCT, the car accelerates in a very jerky fashion. Instead of constant power, you have a progression of power/shift/lull/power/shift in a car that has been lauded for having absolutely no turbo lag.

And it’s not just the new M3/M4 that’s like this, but it’s nearly every performance car with a turbo powerplant. If a Nissan GT-R, Mercedes C63 AMG, 911 Turbo, or any other fast turbo car had a manual transmission, it’d be the same complaint. In fact, have you ever heard anyone say that a GT-R would be better with a manual?


I haven’t.

There is an inherent joy behind the idea of shifting your own gears. But in reality, that idea can become a practice in frustration. Part of that frustration is realizing that a computer can actually do it better than you, while another part is realizing that many cars actually need an over-engineered automatic gearbox in order to be very good.


It used to be that the automatic in these cars was a choice for people only because they couldn’t drive stick. Cars like the E46 M3 had an SMG sequential gearbox, but it was so hated that you really had to want or need a two pedal car in order to consider buying one. But now the tables have turned. If you want the great gearbox in an M3, the two pedal option is the way to go, with three pedals only existing for those that can’t let go of the notion that shifting yourself is the only way to drive a car.

A great manual gearbox in a great car is a great thing. But that gearbox needs to match the character of the entire drivetrain. A car like the Miata, like a Cayman, like a Fiesta ST, like a WRX, or even a Corvette is matched perfectly to a manual transmission. But the way the newest generation of turbocharged engines deliver power mean they aren’t really a good pair for a traditional manual gearbox.


There is definitely a place for the manual transmission in our lives and in many of our cars, but there isn’t a place for it in every single vehicle on the road. Us members of the Save the Manuals crowd need to pick our battles wisely from here on out.

First order of business: Get the 911 GT3 RS a manual. Go.


Excellent top art by Sam Woolley, terrible cell phone photo of M4 by the author.

Contact the author at travis@jalopnik.com.