Recently bought a 2010 M3 GT 5 door with AT Sport Shift Tranny and wanted to share my thoughts. Let me preface this by saying that I drove exclusively manual transmissions for the past 16 years and am very skilled with a stick. When I went to the dealer though, they didn't have manuals in stock and I would have had to order one, wait 120 days and possibly miss out on the June 0% apr 60 month financing promotion (which I qualified for, a major incentive btw). I skeptically test drove the M3 automatic and was curious about the tiptronic sport shift capability. Coming from driving a late 90s toyota Tacoma, the M3 I test drove just blew doors on any car I'd ever owned. Serious torque, power, 0-60 in about 7.5 seconds, handling, overall performance and I thought the Sport shift feature a somewhat 'happy medium', since being an L.A. resident and spending considerable time in stop and go driving conditions, the auto might be a welcome change at times with the option to drive it hard and wind it up in manual mode.
I was initially having issues with the sport shift manual mode, specifically with the the slight 'lag' in the shifts between 1-2 and 2-3 which was driving me crazy. After doing some research and spending considerable time getting the manual mode down I realized that it is a skill that is (a) not to be underestimated and (b) takes a while to master. Unlike other automatic tranny cars I have driven in the past (which I hated), the manual feature on the M3 (which I imagine operates superior to the 2.0 liter version) definitely requires a high level of driver/car relationship and involvement that is similar in some levels to that of a straight manual. Only after getting a good idea of where this car's power and ideal torque ranges lie in the powerband did I discover the best points to shift in manual mode. I have found that when accelerating onto a freeway for instance and winding it up that 4000 rpm is an ideal place to shift from 1-2, and 3500 or so for 2-3, both of which provide very quick shifts with virtually no lag, faster, I have found than any shift I have ever done with a manual. As "fun"? Maybe not, but unless you are a diehard manual purist (all 500 of them that are left), you are really splitting hairs. Once in 3rd gear and up around 50-60 mph, shifts are extremely smooth and the car just purrs along and really gets on it, providing me with more power, torque and 'performance' than I really need - plenty to get me into trouble. Another great feature of M mode is when passing, especially going up the Grapevine back to L.A. in 5th gear and wanting to pass some horrible Minivan, if you get down to around 2000 rpm and bump it down to 4th gear from 5th, there is an instant surge of power with enough headroom to comfortably do 85 up a steep incline, passing all 'baby on board' minivans and urban assault SUVs. When driving around town in stop and go traffic, I slip it into D and chill out, allowing time for me to shuffle through my iPod and rock the Bose system.
So now that I have driven the car a while, I have to say that I like the tiptronic 'manumatic' feature and would never drive a stock automatic. The hardcore stick enthusiasts out there like to talk about manuals being '1 second faster than the automatics "off the line" which to me is just hilarious. "Off the line"? Are you serious buying a 22K economy car so you can race it? These are the guys that try and pin it, doing 0-80 in between each stoplight. Great. If you want to drive like that, my advice to you is to move out to the desert or montana somewhere because in L.A. it is pointless. And anyway, if the tiptronic transmissions didn't 'perform', they wouldn't be used by professional race car drivers and installed in high-end sports cars.
The times I do get to open this car up on the freeway though is when I am exhilarated by the power and performance of this vehicle. Do I still miss driving a stick? Sometimes, but in a way, the semi-auto, tiptronic, whateveryouwanttocallit transmission thing is in and of itself, a whole other thing to master and enjoy and I would think that those who have experience driving stick will be able to use the manual mode more effectively than those who have never driven stick. I must say though that it perplexes me that there are so many people out there who simply can NOT drive stick. Considering I learned on stick when I was 14 (I'm 33), I can't imagine not knowing how but from what I understand, the sticks are a dying breed and account for less than 10% of cars sold in the US. I used to think that was a shame, and maybe it is, but with these automatic trannys getting better and better and in some cases, outperforming the sticks, I guess you've got to move along with progress. I figure I'll keep this M3 for a good 7 or 8 years or so and it remains to be seen whether or not I'll go back to manual or not (if they even still make them).