When we ordered up our long-term 2012 BMW 328i, our only request was that it have a manual transmission. Why the stipulation? For starters, there's real pleasure to be had in driving a manual gearbox-- after all, three pedals are unarguably more involving than two, and given BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine" tag line, the 3-series's reputation for being a driver-focused ride made it a solid candidate for the non-automatic option. But would rowing through gears and repeatedly pedaling the clutch get old during day-to-day driving through Los Angeles traffic? There was nothing like firsthand exposure to shed some light on the realities of the experience.
First, Some Facts
Unlike numerous manufacturers who only make automatic transmissions, BMW still insists on building manual gearboxes (and they even make a special stick shift version of their M5 just for the U.S. market), but they won't say what percentage of their new cars are sold in that configuration. Suffice to say, the vast majority of contemporary BMWs are automatics and dual-clutches, especially considering that less than 7 percent of new passenger cars and light trucks are sold with manuals-- making them a dying breed when compared to automatics, which tend to be quicker shifting and more fuel-efficient.
Here's the lowdown on the 2012 BMW 328i's manual option.
You won't be saving any money by picking the stick shift gearbox over the Steptronic automatic; the only way to spend extra dough on the gearbox is to opt for paddle shifters on the auto, which run an extra $500. While other engine/gearbox combinations usually yield greater fuel economy savings with an automatic, the 328i's setup produces an identical city number of 23 mpg with either arrangement, and actually favors the manual when it comes to highway consumption, edging out the auto with 34 mpg (versus 33 mpg). But as anyone who loves driving will tell you, choosing shift points on your own usually means revving higher (for fun), which means shorter intervals between fuel ups; that's just part of the reality of being human, enjoying the sensation of acceleration and succumbing to the temptation of getting from A to B as quickly as possible.
Stick Shift Reality: No Regrets in Real World Driving
I feared that choosing a manual meant my left leg and right arm would tire of stick shift duty, especially when shifting through the gears in stop-and-go traffic. But the good news about our 328i long-term tester is that the clutch pedal is delightfully light and shift action easy, with positive engagement and excellent feel. Though drinking coffee while negotiating city traffic demands more concentration (and forethought with those crucially timed sips), the BMW's 3-pedal arrangement proves surprisingly easy to live with during day-to-day driving. It's invariably more involving to interact with the car when all four limbs are involved-- even in rush hour traffic-- and the BMW's low effort inputs make driver fatigue a highly unlikely part of the all-day driving experience. Perhaps best of all for those who opt for a 3-series because of its enthusiast underpinnings, the manual option feels like it maximizes everything the car has to offer, making the driver feel more in tune with the dynamics among engine, chassis and road.
Silver Lining: Our Long-Term Tester Becomes an Instructional Tool
I knew all along that my wife would end up spending some seat time in our long term test car, so I took the opportunity of having a manual in the family fleet to teach her how to drive stick-- you know, for that inevitable day in the future when I make good on my promise to add another 1980s-era Porsche 911 to the stable.
That said, our manual-equipped 328i proved to be an excellent way to get my wife more familiar with three pedals; the BMW is user-friendly and especially forgiving for newly minted manual drivers, especially since the car's gas saving engine Stop/Start function automatically kicks the turbocharged 4-cylinder back to life immediately following the likely event of a stall. The so called "Hill Hold" feature also boosts confidence by automatically maintaining brake pressure when starting on an incline, even when both feet are busy negotiating the clutch and gas pedals-- which helped her focus on the essentials of clutch release and throttle application.
All in all, my wife ended up learning stick surprisingly quickly and easily with the 328i, and I think she's a better, more aware driver because of it.
Bottom Line: Is a Manual Right for You?
The debate over manuals versus automatics has been a hot topic of late, especially since two pedal setups have evolved to become theoretically better and more efficient. That said, the 3-series makes a compelling case for a manual: it's the same price as an auto, offers one mpg more highway fuel economy and is user-friendly enough to make it a learning tool for a beginner. Most importantly, the stick shift version of the 328i is easy enough to drive in traffic that I haven't regretted ordering mine without the automatic--in fact, the 3-pedal gearbox is actually one of the biggest reasons I look forward to driving our BMW sedan.
Whether or not a manual gearbox is right for you depends on your personal taste and how you view transportation: Do you consider driving a chore or a pleasure? Do you enjoy interacting with a machine on a mechanical level? And do you view your car a finely engineered tool that can get you across town in a way that's both entertaining and relaxing? If you answer one or more of these questions with a "yes," I'd venture to say you might be happy with a manual gearbox. As for my experiences with the 328i, its outstanding 3-pedal setup makes it hard to imagine this sporty sedan outfitted any other way.