It isn’t news – the manual transmission is on the way out, and everyone should be sad about it. It doesn’t take a luddite to realize that this, in general, sucks eggs. Luckily, enthusiasts are spoiled for choice. BMW knows a thing or two about making fun-to-drive manual cars, and they’ve been doing it for decades. Even more impressive is that BMW continues to offer a manual transmission today, when almost every other manufacturer has decided to give handshakers the axe.
So, while the manual transmission’s best days may be behind it, there’s no reason not to try and recapture the magic and pick up a manual box for yourself. When reviewing options, I factored in objective components like size and weight, as well as subjective qualities like dynamics, presence, and how the car functions in today’s world. Here are the best five manual BMWs.
5) E46 M3
The E46 M3 only barely makes the cut; and it’s the only car on the list that doesn’t have a ZF-sourced manual transmission. It features instead a Getrag 420G six-speed manual, which also appears in the E39 M5. Where the ZF transmissions offer moderate throws and a crisp shifter feel, the Getrag feels a little less precise.
Decidedly then, the Getrag box isn’t much to write about – but the rest of the car more than makes up for it. It’s tough deciding between the E39 M5 and the E46 M3 for this spot, as they have a lot in common from the driver’s seat. But ultimately, the lighter weight, sweeter induction sound, and more nimble handling makes the E46 M3 a little bit more fun to drive.
You’ve heard it a hundred times, but the E46 M3 really is deserving of the praise. The S54 engine and E46’s well-built chassis are a true joy to drive, despite their temperamental tendencies. Throw in a classically good-looking exterior design and a well-laid out cabin and the E46 M3 isn’t hampered by its only okay shifter feel.
I suppose if you need perspective, you could always drive an SMG version. It’s the same gearbox – just with additional components automating the process. You’ll immediately come to appreciate the traditional, three-pedal Getrag. Thus, the E46 M3 remains one of my favorite manual transmission BMWs ever made – even if it isn’t my favorite manual transmission.
4) G80 M3 and G82 M4
The latest and greatest M3 and M4 are subject to a lot of bad press. Most of these critiques are leveled at the design, and specifically, the front grilles. And many, many reviews spend a lot of time talking about them.
Which is sad, because the G80 M3 and G82 M4 are tons of fun to drive, especially with the six-speed manual. Familiar to multi-generational BMW drivers, the ZF-sourced six-speed feels better than ever in this application. Shorter throws, progressive clutch feel, and crisper shifts pair well with a more manageable powerband when compared to its direct predecessors.
The preceding M3 and M4 are wonderfully capable, but the power makes it to the ground so much better in the newer chassis. Wider front and rear tires help too, encouraging aggressive turn in and contributing to heightened courage behind the wheel. Add in supportive optional carbon bucket seats, plenty of customizability from the factory, and an easy-to-disable rev-matching system, and the newest M3 and M4 become ideal candidates for the perfect modern one-car solution. 473 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque doesn’t hurt, and that makes the G8X cars also the fastest of the bunch.
Of course, only moderately communicative steering and hefty weight means that BMW has done better work in this space. Therefore, the G80 and G82 are two of the most capable manual BMWs ever made – though perhaps, not the most eventful to drive.
3) F87 M2 Competition and M2 CS
Representing the very best of the F8X chassis, the M2 Competition and M2 CS are the best of a really good bunch. They’re powered by the S55 engine from the contemporary M3 – gone is the N55 from the original M2. That means cracking 400 horsepower and torque, and as anyone who’s made do with less will tell you, that’s a very nice thing to have. It also means they exist only a throttle squeeze away from wonderful, glorious oversteer.
The M2 in all guises got the same ZF six speed as the F80 M3 and F82 M4 – it’s got a bit of a long throw, but it’s decently precise. Clutch feel is good – well-weighted and communicative. The icing on the sports car cake is the M2’s fun-size dimensions, offering similar sizing to the E46 M3 and preceding 1M Coupe (more on that one later). The M2 Competition then, like the G80, is a wonderful one-car solution. True track star credibility, but eagerly and competently carting you to work every day.
And then there’s the M2 CS. It’s the best possible version of the M2 – gaining bespoke components like a carbon fiber roof, carbon fiber hood, and lightweight center console, as well as optional carbon-ceramic brakes lifted straight from the F80 M3. The lightweight options add up to save an optimistic 100 pounds but make all the difference in presence and feel. Optional Cup 2 tires turn the M2 CS into a track-devouring weapon, dispatching any duality of the original M2. Either guise – CS or Competition – is one of the best driving BMW’s that money can buy.
2) E82 1M Coupe
The E82 1M Coupe was a one-year only (in North America, anyway) run of a skunkworks project by BMW M’s division. It was only borne into existence at all thanks to a handful of rogue engineers that decided bolting on M3 parts and oversized wheels to a standard 1 Series might be a fun project. Fortunately for us, they were quite right.
Since everything underneath the sheet metal is carried over from the contemporary E9X M3, it’s fully to the credit of the car’s size and incredible maneuverability that it lands on this list. The E9X certainly has a better engine; but the N54 has endearing qualities of its own. Its low-end torque means the car can step out at almost any moment, requiring an attentive steward. Even better, it’s only a few modifications away from making even more power than the V8 in the contemporary M3.
It’s not hyperbole – the 1M is probably one of the very best M products ever made. Hydraulic steering, a short, low, and comically wide profile, and a sweet twin-turbo six-cylinder makes the 1M’s technical spec sheet read like an enthusiast’s fever dream. It’s all paired to the usual slick ZF six-speed manual – and there’s no option for an automatic. From the ground-up, automotive enthusiasts are responsible for this car even existing in the first place. And it drives exactly as it should.
1) E36 M3 (North America)
Supposedly not as fast or a “special” as the M3 the rest of the world got, the US E36 M3 rarely garners international enthusiasm. Which is a shame, because it’s still a fantastic driver’s car. The S52 (in 1996+ M3s) is torquey and does a good job of making the E36 M3 feel fast, even if it is a bit on the underpowered side. And while its induction sound isn’t quite up to par with the S54’s howl, but the usual BMW inline-six charm applies, and the exhaust sounds a lot better.
The E36 M3 certainly doesn’t claim the title of “best manual BMW” by virtue of its anemic S52, but by its rewarding driving dynamics and delightful ZF five-speed manual. Clutch feel is good, a bit light but progressive enough that you always know what’s going on. The linear throttle response (before the days when a “sport mode” was required on a sports car) allows for consistent and effortless throttle. Though some people lament the lack of a sixth forward gear, I’ve never found myself missing it.
The E36 M3, despite its slightly less stirring powerplant, is still very much a full-blown M car. It just requires a little bit more momentum and courage to drive spiritedly. Thanks to a very well-tuned suspension, all you really need is some decent modern tires and the E36 M3 becomes an absolute barnstormer in the twisty bits.
Plus, the S52 (and US S50) has the advantage of being one of the most reliable engines BMW has ever made – which means you get more time driving, and less time shopping for replacement parts. The E36 M3 represents the very best of what a manual BMW can be – engaging, confidence-inspiring, and wonderfully capable.
What About Yours?
Ultimately, the best manual BMW usually comes down to the one you’re driving! I’d love to hear about your favorites – or least favorites – in the comments below!
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