Klaus Fröhlich can seem a bit unromantic about BMW's past. Last month, the BMW board member and head of development gave . Speaking about the latest 3-series, internally known as G20, Fröhlich said, "it has to beat everybody in the segment in driving dynamics because all the Australian, UK and American journalists say, 'ooh the E46 CSL was the last real 3 Series.' I do not want to hear that shit anymore."
Shown above, the current 2018 BMW M4 CS.
You can understand his frustration. As the man in charge of developing BMW's newest models, Fröhlich is constantly looking toward the future. So when I sat down with him at the LA Auto Show, I was surprised at how readily he answered a question that, I assume, he was hoping I'd never ask: Will we see a manual transmission in the next M3 and M4?
"Honestly, the pure engineering answer is, you're much faster with paddles and an automatic transmission," Fröhlich told me. "They're very precise and sporty. Especially on the Nurburgring, you are much better in control when you're not taking one hand away [to shift]. I think, in the overall portfolio, manuals will disappear. But I think M4 should be the fortress of manual. So the last manual transmission which will die, it should die in an M4, as late as possible. That's my view."
And how long can that fortress hold?
"I think it should survive in the next generation of M4," Fröhlich said. "The successors [to the current M3 and M4] are all in the pipeline. And so my promise is, yes, there will be a manual in the successor to M4."
He mentions that the next-gen model will likely be produced until 2027 or 2028. "And then I will be an old man," the 58-year-old said with a laugh.
The imminent death of the stick-shift BMW has been a persistent rumor for the better part of two decades. So far, it's been nothing but speculation. But Fröhlich is frank about the fact that the stick-shift can't live forever.
"Honestly, you have a problem with manuals," he told me. "Because we have these turbocharged engines with 600 N-m [roughly 443 lb-ft] of torque, to develop such a high-torque manual transmission for such a small volume isn't profitable at all. So I tried to prolong the lifetime of the manuals, but we can't invest in developing a new manual transmission. No transmission partner will do that with us. So we are evolving our existing manuals as long as possible."
You can understand the frustration for someone like Fröhlich, who has spent 30- years at BMW pursuing the best high-performance technology currently available.
"This is not appreciated," he told me. "People told me M cars can't be turbo. They have always been high-revving naturally-aspirated engines. Honestly, this high-revving engine was a V10, or a V8 in the 3-series, and it was so many pounds on the front axle, the steering was awful." He points to the crisp, turbocharged straight-sixes in the current M3 and M4—lighter than a V8. "It's not the boring turbocharged engine," he says. "No, it's revving, revving, revving."
People also said that an M-car shouldn't be all-wheel drive. Fröhlich ignored them with the new M5. "Honestly, I hate understeering all-wheel drive cars," he said. "And most cars, if you push them hard, or if you're not such an experienced driver and you tear at the steering wheel, you get understeer. The fun is gone. So I told [former M boss Frank Van Meel], whenever I drive the car, it should never, never understeer."
In our testing, a new M5 Competition did 0-60 in 3.3 seconds. "If you have more than 600 horsepower, a rear-wheel drive car loses nearly one second in 0-60," Fröhlich pointed out. "And by the way, the new M5 with all-wheel drive weighs less than the predecessor without it."
So could the good-handling, lightweight all-wheel drive that Fröhlich worked so hard on find its way into the M3 and M4?
"Yes, I think so," says Fröhlich. "But especially in the M3, M4 side, I think there is still a big market for pure rear-wheel drive. M4 is our icon."
Fröhlich notes the possibility for numerous M4 derivatives. "I always really appreciated what Porsche did on the 911. They have whatever new derivative every month. I think we missed some opportunity not doing the same on M4. So I'm interested that, on M3, M4, we do more.
"This car will be rear-wheel drive," he said. "But we will have an all-wheel drive derivative too."