It is not news that the death of the manual transmission is as certain as yours and mine. Outside of a few cheap cars, the “standard” gearbox hasn’t been standard for years. But I thought BMW would be the last carmaker to drop it entirely, with the 3 Series representing the final stand for that most sacred of enthusiast cows. Turns out, no. BMW will still sell you a manual in the old 2 Series or 4 Series for now. However, the new, seventh-generation 3 Series, which went on sale in March, comes only with an automatic in the States, and a manual is only available with the lowly diesels in Europe.
But why? Start with the sixth-generation, F30-platform 3 Series—and the mechanically identical 4 Series coupe—which grew bigger and softer, more mainstream. The gambit worked at first, but sales have been on a steep slide for the last four years, and last year F30 sales were about half of their peak. A 3 or 4 Series accounted for nearly four out of every 10 cars BMW sold here in 2014. Last year, that number was just two in 10. The venerable entry-luxury icon is clearly no longer the car the rest of the company revolves around.
The manual take rate for the F30 3 Series during its entire run was in the single digits. So it stands to reason that amidst slipping demand, BMW has little incentive to devote money or engineering to manual transmissions—in the new 3 Series or elsewhere. While we might hope corporate pride would dictate otherwise, the bottom line is the bottom line. BMW Group sales in the U.S. have been stagnant for the last three years. Considering the larger state of affairs in the auto industry and its money-devouring push toward electrification and autonomy, financial and engineering resources are more finite than ever.
But if the decision to axe the manual does indeed come down to the almighty spreadsheet, there’s more to discuss about BMW’s plight. Principally, that Mini has not been pulling its weight. The BMW sub-brand was supposed to broaden its parent company’s market beyond traditional luxury buyers, adding volume in order to drive down costs and improve overall profitability. Instead, it has backed BMW into a corner in the U.S.
Mini sales have been on the decline for about as long as those of the 3 Series, and unlike at BMW, Mini can’t turn to SUVs and crossovers to bail it out. Indeed, BMW keeps selling ever more X models, those crossovers and SUV’s numbered 1 through 7. Through the first half of 2019, the X3 is BMW’s bestselling nameplate by far. Combined sales of the X3 and X4—and their M versions—are a sure bet to surpass sales of the 3 and 4 Series for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, Mini is stuck, trapped by its own name, unable to produce anything larger than the Countryman. At least not without knocking over the house of cards that is its brand image, which is where Mini derives most of its ability to charge its premium prices. Sure, there’s nothing actually stopping BMW from building a supersize, three-row, Mini-badged SUV—except that the company also knows it can sell that vehicle for more money if it has a roundel on its nose rather than a Union Jack on the roof.
Now imagine for a minute that Mini wasn’t the cartoonish, quasi-retro, niche brand that it is. What if it were more generic? What if BMW had launched something more akin to Toyota’s Scion back in 2001, a brand that could build cheeky small cars and SUVs and crossovers. And whatever else the market wanted. Maybe today that brand would still be growing. Maybe BMW wouldn’t have had to spend the last decade mining every market niche to grow volume on its own products, diverting resources to create “coupe” versions of SUVs and four-door versions of coupes.
Maybe, just maybe, had BMW created a more worthy junior brand, it might still be invested in manual transmissions.