Have you ever heard of a paddle shifter but weren’t sure what the term referred to and asked yourself “what are paddle shifters?” Maybe you have paddle shifters in your car right now but aren’t fully confident in how they work or why you'd want to take the time to use them when your car seems to do just fine on its own without you setting a finger on them. Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever heard of paddle shifters and just what to know what paddle shifters are all about. Let’s take a deep dive into the subject and clear up any confusion while explaining what paddle shifters are, what they do, and how they can enhance your driving experience.
Why Do Cars Have Paddle Shifters?
If you’re an old-school driver, you remember a time when the manual transmission was the standard. You had to shift into gear to drive and if you did it wrong a terrible grinding sound was your reward. The upsides to a manual transmission were actually many. They were better on gas; they had more gears, offered better control, and they were less complex than an automatic transmission system. You’ll still see performance racing cars using manual because they are superior in a lot of ways except one. Automatic is much, much easier. In fact, you don’t need to know anything to use an automatic transmission. You do need to know how to drive stick. The result? Manual is dying off. In 2018, only 2% of the vehicles manufactured were manual transmission. It’s conceivable that automakers will cease making them altogether soon enough.
With the proliferation of automatic transmissions, many drivers are feeling like they’re missing out on an important part of the driving experience and that has led to the introduction of paddle shifters. Newer cars and performance cars of the last few years have them located on the steering wheel or steering column and they most often look like small levers or buttons marked by a “+” and a “-” symbol. They’re not as new as you might think though, as Ferrari was using them all the way back in the 1980s on their Formula One race car. Thing is, how often do any of us drive a Formula One Ferrari? But now many modern makers are using paddle shifters and they're no longer exclusively in high-performance vehicles that are meant for speed. You can find paddle shifters in family sedans, SUVs and even minivans in 2020.
In terms of where they are specifically in the car, you’re most likely to see them on that central crossbar of a steering wheel sticking up like small flaps at the 9 and 3 positions and they are easily reached by your hands while driving. Their purpose? To let you manually shift your automatic vehicle, giving you some of the same control you’d have in a car with a manual transmission. Weird, right? Not as weird as you might think!
How Does a Paddle Shifter Work?
In a standard automatic transmission vehicle, there is a computer that decides on its own which gear you should be in as you drive depending on how fast you're traveling. Even though there are different automatic transmission configurations including dual clutch, continuously variable transmission, and hydraulic, they all shift gears basically the same way and they do so very well these days. This system is incredibly efficient and user friendly, which is why so many cars use it now. And while these systems generally save fuel and shift into the correct gear at the correct time, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when you’d rather have more control over your own gear shifting. Why would you want to do that? Because it adds another layer of control and enjoyment to driving.
Using a paddle shifter to shift up or down tells the computer that controls your transmission to shift gears rather than letting it happen on its own. It’s fun, it can make a risky patch of road a bit safer, and it’s just an all-around cool feature.
What is the Point of a Paddle Shifter?
By now you may be asking, why should I use paddle shifters at all? The whole point of an automatic transmission is so that you don’t need to shift anything. The systems are so advanced now that they can shift with the precision and timing only a computer can employ, doing so even more efficiently than any human driver with a manual transmission for the most part. But there are times when an automatic transmission isn’t always the best option and having the control of a manual may be of a greater benefit. One of the biggest advantages of paddle shifters is that it lets you anticipate the road the way an automatic transmission can’t. Automatic transmission relies on sensors to determine things like if you’re going up or downhill so it can adjust accordingly. But with a paddle shifter, because you can see if you’re coming to a hill, a curve in the road, or a stop, you can shift with some anticipation of what is to come allowing you to have a much smoother driving experience and also a much more exhilarating one if that’s what you’re in the market for.
Paddle shifting into a lower gear as you go into a turn ensures you have more torque and can actually speed up faster out of the turn. Is that 100% necessary? Not for all driving, but it can help in a pinch and it also makes your driving experience more fun and sportier. When you’re heading downhill, downshifting with a paddle shifter can help you slow down without using your brakes and lets you have better control of the car. On the opposite side, when you’re heading towards a hill you can downshift as well, put it in a lower gear with high revolutions, and get the most power for the climb as possible. This is especially helpful if you’re towing something on the road and are worried about performance dragging a trailer of some kind up a hill.
Using paddle shifters to shift up a gear in snow can help you get unstuck as well. The paddle shift can stop your wheels from spinning as much, which can get you unstuck faster. Also, when driving in a heavy downpour, for instance, downshifting slows the car without the use of brakes and that can give you much greater control, ensuring a safer driver. As advanced as automatic transmissions are, they aren’t great at reading slippery roads in a storm, so the advantage of having that manual control can’t be overstated.
In the battle of manual vs automatic transmission, the paddle shifter qualifies as the hands down winner because it lets you have both at the same time. Since you never need to use the paddle shifters your car will function as a normal automatic for as long as you want. When and if you do want that extra control you have it there, and that is an amazing advantage. The added bonus here is that you don’t need to worry about grinding gears, using a clutch or any of the things that intimidate people about using a standard manual transmission ether. The system won’t let you upshift or downshift at the wrong time or over-rev. The paddle shifter is just a superior form of technology in that regard.
How Do I Use Paddle Shifters?
Using paddle shifters is fairly simple as there aren’t a lot of moving parts or complex systems involved. A standard manual transmission can look like a challenge to someone unfamiliar with it, as the gear shift is mounted on a path with shifting branches that are hard to understand for a first-time driver. A paddle shifter is just a switch. Pull it forward or push it back and you’re done.
Depending on the model of your car and how it’s set up, when you shift up or down, your computer’s car will hold the new gear for a moment then return to automatic or you can disable automatic altogether to keep manual control. Even in this mode, if the way you’re driving isn’t safe for the transmission, it will kick you into the appropriate gear so no matter what, you don't risk damaging your vehicle.
Why Would You Want a Paddle Shifter?
Back in the day manual transmission had a lot of advantages over automatic, but modern automatics are superior in many ways. Just look at how cars are sold right now. Six-speed manual vs ten-speed automatic in the same model. Automatic performance is often superior. Is the ability to slow into a turn really worth it to use a paddle shifter? Well, it’s more than that.
One of the most attractive features of driving a manual transmission vehicle is the way the car feels when you drive it. If you've never tried manual this may not make sense to you but if you have then you know exactly what we mean. There is a real sense of connection to the road in a manual vehicle, you feel more like your movements and the car’s movements are in sync. That’s the level of control you feel when driving manual that is lost when using automatic. Paddle shifters can help bring that sense of connection back.
Merging that old school driving experience with the advantages of automatic has really improved driving overall for many people. Manual requires you to be much more attentive behind the wheel, shifting intelligently as you drive to maintain performance on the road. Paddle shifting means you can take those few moments to flip through the radio for a good song with your free hand, or have another drive of your coffee without being overly worried about shifting up or down because the computer automatically takes care of that.
Do I Need Paddle Shifters?
Having paddle shifters makes your car what many people have taken to calling semi-automatic. Not manual, but not just automatic, and pretty diverse as a result. But is it necessary to drive? Not at all. You don’t need paddle shifters and if you have them in your car, you could drive it for years without ever touching them once and it wouldn’t make any difference to your overall driving experience or your enjoyment of your vehicle. But they don’t take anything away from your driving experience either. They don’t make the car harder to operate, they don’t require any special upkeep, and they can enhance your driving experience overall, which is not a bad thing.
If you learned to drive stick back in the day and it's something you’re committed to, you may never be sold on paddle shifters. They’re definitely not the same thing, and they can’t replace the manual experience fully. But if you’re comfortable behind the wheel of either, or if you’ve never experienced manual, you might enjoy getting to know how to use them and the way they alter your driving experience.
Paddle shifters are a lot like a rear camera or a GPS system in your car. You don’t technically need either of those things to drive your car, and plenty of cars don't have them at all. But they do enhance the driving experience, they do make you safer behind the wheel and they do demonstrate how technology is constantly improving to make driving easier, more efficient, and even fun. Many drivers only use the paddle shifters to have a more sporty and enjoyable drive when they’re out and about which is perfectly fine. Your car is a tool, but it’s also something you’re allowed to enjoy. So, do you need paddle shifters? Of course not. Is it a good idea to make use of them if you can? Absolutely!