Installing a New Steering Wheel and Shift Knob Can Transform Any Car’s Driving Experience

I threw everything I thought I knew about shift knobs out the window.

byPeter Nelson| PUBLISHED Sep 19, 2022 8:00 AM
Installing a New Steering Wheel and Shift Knob Can Transform Any Car’s Driving Experience
Peter Nelson

A few months back, I wrote about how I dug into BMW's parts catalog to see what kind of premium upgrades I could affix to my BMW 128i's interior. What I came up with was a neat Alcantara center trim piece for the steering wheel, BMW Performance Alcantara shift boot and weighted BMW Performance shift knob. To upgrade the cabin further, I also installed a manual M Sport seat from the United Kingdom and brought the wheel closer to my schlubby self with a steering wheel spacer

Tastefully improving interior comfort, as well as fit and finish, is always money well spent, as it improves the driving experience every time you get in the car. With this latest round of upgrades, I think I got a good deal on an entirely different steering wheel and yet another shift knob.

Adding Mild Flare

Peter Nelson

Steering wheels and shifters might seem banal, but I am steadfast in my stance that improving interior comfort has so much value. The wheel I went with came from the same company that sold me the M Sport seat, and I think the price was pretty fair at $182 shipped after tax for an Alcantara and soft, supple leather-rimmed M Sport wheel. I also received it in five business days, which seems like a record for across-the-pond shipping.

I'm one of those weirdos who digs Alcantara on the steering wheel. I realize that it can get a little gross and worn down with use, but I don't care. I dig the feeling and appreciate any potential grip benefits when matched with driving gloves at a trackday. Plus, companies make special solutions to keep it clean. The wheel's rim is thicker, too, and feels overall better quality. I wasn't sure if the red stripe and multi-colored stitching was going to be too gaudy at first, but I think it looks great in my E82's no-frills screenless interior. Especially at sunset or at night when it's against the instrument cluster's pleasing orange glow.

Installation was incredibly simple: Disconnect negative battery cable, then the spring-clamps holding the airbag on with long screwdrivers, unscrew the bolt, disconnect the connectors, make sure you throw the new one on straight, reverse of removal, finished.

Flipping the Shift

Yes, yes, I know, my interior needs a light vacuuming.

I thought the BMW Performance shifter was going to be a solid (pun intended) choice. After all, it's got some weight to it, has a quality metallic feel, and is lightly accented with—you guessed it—Alcantara.

It seems like we're programmed to think that more weight in a shift knob is always better, and it will always translate to a positive, crisp engagement. For whatever reason, the BMW part-numbered unit didn't offer this, possibly due to being too small and dinky. Maybe there's a scientific reason why, such as a knob of this kind of weight should be at a certain length from the bottom of the shift rod or something. Regardless, I tried to like it but just couldn't jibe with it. Shifting felt less positive and more clunky than even the factory one.

I decided to heed my colleague Chris Rosales' advice and buy a BMW ZHP knob with the six-speed H pattern on its label. That's right, the knob that comes as factory equipment in that upgraded E46 that has a bit of a cult following. Mine is an aftermarket knockoff, but it had good reviews, so I bought it on eBay.

This shift knob is immensely better than the BMW Performance unit. Shifts are more crisp and it has a just-as-quality feel to it. Weirdly, it's significantly lighter than the former one, so once again, my understanding of weighted shift knobs has remained thoroughly flipped on its head. I also dig the way it looks, and I think I've reached the limit of components that say "M" on them—this isn't a 1M, M3, or any other true M-badged Bimmer. I don't want to become that guy who adorns a base-as-hell 128i with all the M accessories you can buy.

I Repeat, Upgrade Your Interiors

Peter Nelson

Adding some sportiness to a car's handling, bumping its power, or improving its exterior looks is all well and good, and it's never a bad idea to throw your money at these aspects. But man, dollar-for-dollar, tasteful interior mods really go a long way. We don't drive our cars from the outside (well, not yet at least), so why not invest your funds in the place where you spend the most time? "Tasteful" might be open for interpretation, and I bet some folks might find my red-striped steering wheel to be less than tasteful—do what makes you happy.