What is a BMW Steptronic Transmission?

Drivers new to BMW might be curious when they get inside a newer model BMW and examine the shifter. There are a number of buttons and shifter controls associated with the transmission. You have probably heard by now that BMWs utilize a steptronic transmission, but you don’t know what they actually do.

A BMW steptronic transmission is a BMW proprietary transmission that gives the driver the option to have automatic and manual functionality in the same transmission. The steptronic transmission has three different modes depending on the situation and driver preference. 

The steptronic transmission is an innovative piece of technology that has made it possible for BMW to bridge the gap between manual and automatic driving preferences. In this article, you will learn what makes the steptronic transmission unique, what the different modes are, and how reliable it is.

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What makes the steptronic transmission unique?

bmw shifter paddles

The BMW steptronic transmission was first imagined more than twenty years ago by a BMW engineer. Since then it has become the standard transmission in BMW, Mini, MG, and Rover vehicles. Since then, many brands now offer a tiptronic transmission (automatic transmission that can shift gears manually), and BMW’s steptronic transmission has become far less unique. That being said, there are still some cool features of the BMW steptronic transmission that are unique to BMW.

Mechanically, a steptronic transmission is an automatic transmission with a torque converter that has a shift lever. The shift lever allows the driver to engage the typical automatic drive modes (PRND), but it also gives you the choice to shift manually. You can switch between automatic and manual by tilting the shifter left or right.

Modern BMW steptronic transmissions allow you to shift manually either with the center console shifter or with the steering wheel. The steering wheel “paddle shifters” are convenient for most drivers because you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel.

Once your BMW is in manual mode you can tilt the shifter forward to up-shift and backward to down-shift. The steering wheel paddle shifters are also extremely easy to use. Use the buttons on the right side of the steering wheel to manually shift. The button on the front right part of the steering wheel is used for downshifting whereas the button on the back of the wheel is used for upshifting.

What are the three modes of the steptronic transmission?

There are three different modes that the driver can switch in and out of easily whether you are parked in idle or driving down the road.

  1. Fully Automatic Mode: I’m sure you are used to this, normal automatic transmission, you don’t have to worry about shifting the vehicle.
  2. Sports Mode: The engine basically revs higher before shifting in this mode. The transmission will stay in each gear longer to give a driver more performance. Most people use this mode when they are about to get on the highway or accelerate quickly on the streets.
  3. Manual Shift Mode: Not a true manual because you don’t control the clutch but you do control the gear shifting. Shift like it’s a real manual transmission because the transmission will not shift for you. If you are lax on your downshifting the onboard computer will pick up the slack and downshift, but it will not upshift without your input. The computer will also save the transmission if you do something that risks damaging it.

Why use the steptronic transmission?

One of the greatest benefits of the steptronic transmission is safety. The transmission never really allows you to switch to completely manual control because the onboard computer will take control in certain situations. If the wheels are losing traction or if there is an electronic failure related to the transmission the onboard computer will take over.

The steptronic transmission lacks some of a manual transmissions failings. In a manual transmission, selecting the wrong gear could damage the transmission or stall the engine. No such problem exists with the steptronic because it has a safety mechanism preventing such mistakes.

Another cool aspect of the steptronic transmission is that it will adapt to the driver’s driving style. The computer will adjust gear shifting depending on how the driver handles the vehicle.

Let’s face it, the ability to manually shift a car is a fast dying art form. The vast majority of modern drivers do not know how to use a manual. Well, the good news is that you can get some of the benefits of a manual with steptronic transmissions. Manual mode on a steptronic transmission is within the grasp of anyone to learn within an hour. Once you have learned how to use it, you will realize it’s a fun thing to have.

Is the steptronic transmission reliable?

The biggest concern for new BMW owners is usually the reliability, and the steptronic transmission is no different. Many people want to know after hearing about the various bells and whistles that BMW installs in their steptronic transmissions, how reliable are they? It’s a perfectly reasonable question given the complexity of a steptronic compared to a regular automatic or a manual.

In my experience, I have found the steptronic to be no less reliable than a standard automatic. BMW in particular tends to build their drivetrains fairly solid and the steptronic is no exception. That being said, BMW has had mishaps from time to time with their automatic transmissions, you can read about a “jerking problem” here, and you should not be surprised if BMW comes out with a few dud steptronic transmissions along the way.

One of the biggest issues I have with steptronic transmissions is the fact that they are sealed and BMW tends to claim that the transmission fluid is “lifetime”. This is not true and has never been true. BMW transmissions are relatively reliable, but they last longer when the fluid has been changed.

But once you come to the conclusion that “lifetime transmission fluid” claims are bogus, you will realize that these transmissions are still relatively reliable. I have owned several BMWs with steptronic transmissions and all of them had at least 120,000 miles. I never had to replace a transmission once.

If you are searching for a more reliable transmission, the most reliable is always going to be a manual. But manual transmissions are increasingly falling out of favor and they are extremely inconvenient to drive around in the city.


Overall, steptronic transmission is a cool feature of modern-day BMWs. It adds some unique functionality to your driving experience but does not sacrifice your transmission’s reliability in doing so. It is true that the steptronic manual option does not offer the same experience as a manual transmission, but it does provide a great compromise.

Stephen Metellus

I am a BMW enthusiast and owner of abetterbmw.com! I have been repairing, flipping, and parting out BMWs for nearly ten years. I love these vehicles and I hope you will find my articles and YouTube channel helpful for whatever BMW project you have in store!

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