What made the news item so hard to believe was that BMW could not give us a manual gearbox-equipped Four Seasons M2 to test because of supply. Too many paying customers were demanding them, the company’s North American division told us.
On Thursday morning wire services reported that BMW’s finance chief, Nicolas Peter, said the company would cut the number of engine and equipment options in order to save money on the manufacturing process, so it could free up capital to pay for development of electric, autonomous and connected cars. The stories said Peter singled out BMW 2 Series manuals sold in the U.S., and that “We have over 100 steering wheels on offer. Do we need that many variants?”
Well, no, to the steering wheels. But the 2 Series is BMW’s most engaging drivers’ car extant. It is the last Bimmer that should go without a manual option.
The Peter interview in Munich came from the German business newspaper Handlesblatt, and was poorly translated, according to a BMW North America public relations exec. Those 100 steering wheels and the 2 Series stick shifts were no more than examples Peter used to make his point. As Automotive News notes, the issue with the manual transmission is “the cost of certifying components in each market.”
Foreign and domestic automakers must meet federal emissions and safety standards before they can sell cars and trucks in the U.S. The process for certification requires that every drivetrain variant must be tested. An all-wheel-drive 3.0-liter stick must get a separate certificate from a rear-wheel-drive 3.0-liter stick, which must get a separate certificate from a rear-wheel-drive 3.0-liter automatic, for instance. If you’ve wondered why your favorite European brand won’t see you a diesel stick-shift station wagon, the reason is that profits from a few hundred sold would never pay for the million or so dollars of certification costs.
The good news is that once you get a certificate for each of the manual variants, they’re good for the lifecycle of the car and its powertrain. There’s no financial savings from certification in dropping manuals from any of the current versions of BMW 2-, 3- or 4 Series, including the M2, M3, and M4 coupe and convertible. We can’t vouch for the next generations of those models, however — we’ll never see a brand-new BMW M5 manual again.
Manuals lost their price, performance, and fuel efficiency advantages years ago, of course, and autonomy will kill them off for good. Our Four Seasons BMW M2’s 20/26 EPA fuel mileage equals the six-speed manual version’s highway number, and is 2-mpg better in the city. A few of us aren’t swayed by such pragmatic reasons to kill off the manuals. We’d rather select our own shift points rather than program in a dynamic drive mode to do it for us.
It’s not an “age thing.” My 17-year-old nephew now drives my wife’s old Mazda2 five-speed, wouldn’t trade it for an automatic, and would like to own a BMW some day. And though BMW North America assures me there will be 2 Series manuals for the foreseeable future, the next generation is not guaranteed.
BMW models run on a seven-year cycle. The 2 Series just got a refresh for 2017, and it has three model years, including 2018, before an all-new model comes in. Those 2021 BMW 2 Series will need to be certified, again, and stick-shift variants will need to justify their certification cost with enough sales to eek out a profit margin. BMW says it has a healthy manual take-rate on the 2 Series, though it doesn’t release percentages.
Meanwhile, the BMW 3- and 4-Series have about a year before their replacements start to arrive. Their manual take-rates, ravaged by non-enthusiast premium car buyers over the years, are undoubtedly much lower. If the next-generation 3 and 4 aren’t offered with three-pedal manuals, that will make it tough for our friend, BMW Chief Financial Officer Nicholas Peter, to justify engineering a manual for just one line, the 2 Series plus maybe the very low-volume Z4 replacement. Think about that when your local BMW dealer tells you there are no 330i manuals in stock in the entire tri-state area, and you’ll have to wait eight weeks or more if you order one from the factory.