In Defense Of SMG

Few things fill car enthusiasts with impotent rage quite like BMW’s sequential manual gearbox (SMG). That’s especially true when it’s bolted to the excellent, raspy-sounding S54 in the beloved E46 M3.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a manual elitist. Only a small percentage of the dozens of cars I’ve owned have been automatics, and I’m currently undergoing the laborious and expensive process of swapping my E34 Touring over to a three-pedal configuration.

I understand that modern automatics are faster, but I don’t care. Driving a manual is just more fun. It’s more involved, more engaging, and offers an additional layer of control when driving.

That said, I have driven cars with some very good automatic transmissions. However, the SMG is neither.

The SMG II found in the E46 M3 is based heavily on the Getrag six-speed found in three-pedal versions of the car. When these cars were new, their buyers, many of whom were still riding high on the money they made during the dot-com boom, opted for the latest, fanciest tech for their new sports car. As a result, it seems like SMG E46 M3s are easier to find than their six-speed siblings.

This may just be my experience, but it seems like a lot of folks who dislike the SMG have never had the opportunity to drive one. In fact, few who have driven one have had the opportunity to drive one properly.

While the SMG does feature an automatic mode, using it is a disservice not only to you, the driver, but to the car itself. These cars love to be flogged, and they repay that abuse in spades.

My good friend Bill owns—and daily drives—an SMG-equipped E46 M3. Nothing short of road salt and freezing temperatures (which tend to turn sticky summer tires into hockey pucks) keep it in the garage.

Bill has owned the car for several years. Incredibly, he sold an air-cooled Porsche 911—purchased well before the infamous boom in prices for such cars—to fund the purchase. To this day, he has no regrets. After spending some time in his car, I can understand why.

Over the years, Bill has upgraded and personalized his M3 to suit his needs as a weekend warrior track toy and a weekday commuter. He’s slowly transformed his car into a near-perfect replica of his dream car, an E46 M3 CSL, forbidden fruit for us Americans. The processes has included replacing the entire roof with a carbon fiber panel.

Thankfully, Bill’s commute consists almost exclusively of winding, undulating two-lane county highways—backroads in the truest sense of the term.

Every day offers another opportunity to hone the same skills he uses when he attacks Mid-Ohio and Gingerman with all his might. Apparently, the SMG has learned from this behavior, and it has learned well.

Bill likes to point out that the E46 M3 CSL, for all of its intensive weight-saving measures and race car posturing, utilized an SMG. There’s a good reason for it, too.

The first time I went to lunch with Bill, I strapped myself into the fixed racing seat and prepared for what should have been a routine trip to Chipotle. Instead, I got a thrill ride.

I’d be lying if I had said that I hadn’t initially wondered why he opted for the “inferior” transmission. That question was answered when he launched the car in S6 from the very first stoplight. Once I had regained my breath, I scraped my eyeballs from the inside of the rear window. I was speechless.

This sucker was fast. Each lightning-quick shift came with an immediacy and brutality not unlike a Viking raid. I had never experienced anything like it from any manual transmission car I had ever driven.

I still prefer manual transmission cars, and I always will. But someday, when I shop for an E46 M3 of my own, there’s a very good chance that I will make the same choice Bill did. If you think that’s wrong of me, I can’t wait for the opportunity to show you how I came to that conclusion.

When that day comes, I hope I do Bill proud. Hold onto your eyeballs.—Cam VanDerHorst

[Photos via William Jackson, ECS Tuning.]

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