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BMW sticks to its guns for future gearboxes

Future BMWs won’t chase efficiency with nine or more gears, but will get three-cylinder power, according to tech chief

BMW is convinced its current transmission policy of eight-speed automatics, seven-speed dual-clutches and six-speed manuals is the perfect combination, according to its small and midsize cars boss, Klaus Frolich.

Speaking to Auto Express at the launch of the new X4 and 4 Series Gran Coupe – both of which offer an eight-speed ‘Sport Auto’ paddleshifter option – Frolich expressed scepticism at the gearbox policies of rivals Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes and Cadillac, all of whom are working on transmissions offering nine or more forward speeds.

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“We ran some tests” explained Frolich. “The [efficiency] difference between an automatic with six speeds and eight speeds is seven or eight per cent, which is a good result. But the benefit for nine speeds [instead of eight] is almost zero per cent. Plus, it adds weight, complexity and cost, and with turbocharged engines you have a good spread of torque, so [drivers] do not want to have the gearbox constantly changing its mind.”

Quizzed over the policy to equip BMW’s M Division cars with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (known as M-DCT), Frolich said: “Seven gears is not optimum, it is a compromise. As in a manual gearbox, in a twin-clutch you must arrange all the gears in a line, so for weight and packaging reasons we are limited to seven speeds. But our new turbo M cars have so much torque this is no problem. DCT remains right for M cars because we can’t make a torque-convertor that would be durable up to 8000rpm.”

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Frolich also confirmed that for the foreseeable future, the manual transmission is safe at BMW, both in M Division cars and regular non-performance models. “Of course, with a manual you are slower, but it is more emotional; it now says ‘I am a serious driver, I am a connoisseur’. So, we will continue [to offer a manual] even if only ten per cent of customers want it. That is why we offer a manual M5 sedan in North America. It is stupid – the development costs are huge – but we will keep doing it as long as the customer wants it.”

BMW unconvinced by Audi prediction 

Asked about the possibility of three-cylinder engines in larger cars like the 3 Series and 5 Series, Frolich was unconvinced by Audi CEO Rupert Stadler’s prediction that this will become the norm within ten years. That’s despite four-cylinder turbo engines having beginning to usurp thirsty six-cylinders in the large executive saloon and estate class, in Europe at least.

Frolich forecasted: “[small engines in the larger cars] will happen, but only when the buyers are ready. Many buyers don’t care how many cylinders are in their BMW, and the new MINI shows the potential for three-cylinder. But honestly, it is much easier for us to make three-cylinder engines work with front-wheel drive than rear-wheel drive.”

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