New cars with manual transmissions are fewer and farther between these days. Some of that comes from the art of driving a stick-shift being erased from car culture. The other side is that today's automatic transmissions are better than ever. Part of that has come with so-called paddle shifters being increasingly prevalent on modern cars.
Although many drivers with cars equipped with them may never touch a paddle shifter, at least intentionally, they serve both a performance and real-world purpose. That's why they can appear on everything from a compact sedan to an SUV — and, of course, a $1 million supercar.
Here's a rundown of what a paddle shifter is and how it works.
How Do Paddle Shifters Work?
Today's automatics fall into one of three camps: torque converter, dual-clutch, and continuously variable. On a torque converter, the transmission uses fixed gears. With a dual-clutch design, there is a pair of internal clutches that engage and disengage. And a continuously variable transmission (CVT) has no fixed gears and instead relies on a belt setup to correlate the revs needed.
Paddle shifters are buttons or levers on the steering wheel that override an automatic transmission's pre-programmed points to shift into a particular gear. On a CVT without traditional gears, these are programmed points that mimic actual gears.
Paddle shifters, also known as flappy paddles, were first developed as the controls for semi-automatic gearboxes in Ferraris during the late 1980s. The placement of paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel or the steering column facilitates incredibly rapid shifting and better control in situations where drivers need it the most. The setup became popular in Formula One race cars during the '90s and was widely adopted because it allowed drivers to shift gears more quickly and maintain speed.
You may think that this is a feature best suited for high-performance sports cars, but paddle shifters are ever more frequently found in hundreds of seemingly ordinary new vehicles as well as in crossovers, minivans, and SUVs. Automakers such as Acura, Honda, and Nissan have adopted the system in many of their cars over the years.
Early paddle shifter-equipped cars were from the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini. They only used one clutch because they were, for all intents, manual transmissions with electrically operated clutch pedals. Later, an additional clutch was added to form what's known as a dual-clutch transmission (sold under names such as DSG, Direct-Shift, and others) to smooth out the jerkiness of earlier systems but still offer quick shifts with paddles.
With the adoption of automatic transmissions with six, seven, or as many as 10 gears, automakers added paddle shifters to many cars to give drivers more control than before. Newer models with push-button or rotary shifters, too, necessitated the change. That's why they're seen on types of cars that wouldn't necessarily be considered performance models.
What's the Purpose of Paddle Shifters?
While inspired by racing, paddle shifters have different uses in road cars. Just about everything from a $25,000 compact hatchback to $200,000 sports cars are available with them.
Instead of changing gears using a clutch pedal, paddle shifters allow the driver to select gears. It overrides what the automatic transmission is programmed to do, well, automatically.
Usually marked by +/- or Up/Down, one paddle upshifts, and the other performs downshifts. In most setups, this changes the gear while the shifter is in D(rive). Changes happen one at a time, but how quickly each change can happen depends on the model or transmission.
To cancel this override, hold one of the paddles (usually the right, upshift, paddle shift) for a couple of seconds, after this, the transmission will return to a fully automatic mode.
Some models from manufacturers such as BMW and Porsche use two steering column-mounted paddles that can perform both up and downshifts. Other vehicles might use a toggle switch on the gear shifter that accomplishes the same effect as a paddle.
The fail-safe mechanisms in most of these systems will immediately override this simulated manual condition and prevent the vehicle from remaining in that gear if the computer senses any risk of powertrain damage occurring from over-revving (or exceeding the engine speed for the car). In some cars, mostly performance models, the engine is allowed to redline in one gear before automatically upshifting.
In a vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission, the driver is expected to move the shift lever to drive and move forward only by operating the accelerator and brake pedals. For Reverse, move the selector accordingly. Apart from occasional 3-2-1-L or similar gear patterns to manually select lower gears, there isn't much choice.
Even though modern automatic transmissions often try to judge responses based on driving history and even the way the driver operates the accelerator pedal, paddle shifters can more deliberately make the car more responsive in certain situations.
With paddle shifters, the driver can toggle through all available gears and override the standard programming. That's a bonus when more power is quickly needed.
Cornering: When you need to rapidly slow down and tightly turn a corner, using the left paddle to lower your transmission down by a gear or two as you turn provides extra torque to maneuver quickly.
Towing downhill: During downhill towing, using the left paddle to downshift your engine to control the load's weight better. That prevents excess wear and tear on your brakes, which can otherwise rapidly overheat.
Some paddle shifters let you start in second gear instead of first, reducing the torque sent to the vehicle's drive wheels. That helps to prevent wheel spin from achieving and maintaining good traction in the snow.
For performance driving, paddle shifters can do the opposite for cars that usually start in second or even third gear. First-gear starts ensure maximum use of the available power from the start. That replicates the level of control many drivers appreciate with a traditional manual transmission.
Modern automatic transmissions favor higher gears to achieve better fuel economy, but that doesn't necessarily mean they adapt quickly to changing conditions. Paddle shifters can help you to ensure your engine and transmission function as effectively as possible. But the situation is best for the driver to go into manual mode and use paddle shifters only.
In a vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission, paddle shifters offer you the freedom to just let your car run in automatic mode or take control when whims or conditions dictate. And there is no extra learning curve because people can drive these cars without even using the paddle shifters.
In performance models such as Ferrari or Aston Martin cars, you have the convenience of an automatic transmission, combined with the control over gear changes from a traditional manual gearbox. It makes the car responsive on a track or in hard-driving, but easier to live within city traffic.
While you might never touch paddle shifters on your luxury SUV, paddle shifters serve a purpose. And when you do suddenly need to downshift to get more pulling power, you might be glad they're available to assist.