Once reserved for sports cars, paddle shifters have been introduced into every type of vehicle on the market today including family sedans, crossovers, and even minivans. The early days of paddle shifters go back to the '80s when Ferrari added the feature to Formula One racecars to allow the driver to shift gears quickly without letting go of the steering wheel. With manual transmissions becoming rarer, automakers are trying to give some control back to the driver by offering paddle shifters in automatic cars. Are paddle shifters worth it? Learn the benefits and limitations of paddle shifters, how to use them, and which vehicles offer them.

Benefits vs. Limitations

Corolla XSE
Even a Toyota Corolla can offer some driving fun when you activate the paddle shifters.

Normally when you drive an automatic vehicle, the vehicle's computer chooses the gear for you based on the driving conditions you encounter. Most drivers are happy letting the car choose for them without giving it a second thought, but some want to have more control. Paddle shifters allow the driver to electrically shift their automatic vehicle's transmission up or down one gear at a time. The primary reason to look for paddle shifters in the car you're buying is to improve performance and make driving more enjoyable, but there are a few practical implications such as helping you drive in snow, going downhill, and towing. 

Subaru Forester driving in snow
Paddle shifters in the Subaru Forester can help with driving on steep grades or in slippery conditions.

Benefits

Although using paddle shifters won't necessarily make your vehicle faster when accelerating from a stop, dropping a gear when cornering can give you more torque to accelerate out of a turn faster. This feature improves the driving experience whether on a track or simply driving around town. Although you won't get the same level of control as you will with a manual transmission car, paddle shifters offer more flexibility because you can use them when you wish, and let your car's automatic transmission take over the rest of the time.

If you plan to share your car with a driver who doesn't drive stick, paddle shifters can be a good compromise. There are also safeguards against damaging the transmission by using the paddle shifters incorrectly since the automatic transmission will override any mistakes you make when you shift gears, giving you more peace of mind.

When you're traveling downhill or driving in slippery conditions, using paddle shifters to downshift can be safer than hitting the brakes because it reduces skidding. When towing, you can better control the weight of the trailer by downshifting using the paddle shifters. Using the paddle shifters can reduce the burden you put on your brakes which prevents them from overheating. 

2019 Hyundai veloster n manual
A manual transmission car like the Hyundai Veloster N gives you more control than paddle shifters.

Limitations

Although they provide some control over the driving experience and performance of the vehicle, paddle shifters will not replace the feeling of driving a manual transmission. According to Daniel Pund, deputy editor of Car and Driver, “The engagement — and by that, I mean my engagement — is not the same as with a manual. The manual experience, beyond that it takes coordination and more limbs to accomplish, is that when you’re done with your input, you’re immediately in the next gear. When you’re done with your input with a paddle shifter in a conventional automatic, you’re still waiting for the shift to happen." In a nutshell, an enthusiast who enjoys driving manual vehicles will not get the same experience from an automatic car with paddle shifters.

Using Paddle Shifters 

Dodge Charger Paddle Shifters

Even though many vehicles on the market offer paddle shifters, most drivers simply choose to ignore them. According to the New York Times, General Motors reported a very small percentage of drivers actually use paddle shifters, and when they do, it's rare. 62 percent say they use the paddle shifters less than twice a year and 55 percent report they are only used for sporty driving situations.

Typically the paddle shifters are located on the steering wheel or the steering column with an upshift marked "+" on the right side and downshift marked "-" on the left side. According to Erich Heuschle, an engineer at FCA, the primary reason for using paddle shifters is simple - driving fun. “The paddle shifters are more about fun and engagement, rather than function because the [automatic] transmission shift logic is so good,” he said. “We put so much effort into making the automatic behave well.”

Other than activating the "+" paddle to upshift and the "-" paddle to downshift, there are no hard and fast rules for using the paddles or which gear you should be in for various driving situations. Because each vehicle reacts differently, it takes feeling yours out and learning how it reacts. Eventually, you'll learn the proper gear for each situation. Some basic tips for using the downshifting "-" paddle include slowing down to take a tight turn, going downhill in bad weather or when towing a trailer to better control your load. 

2019 VW Arteon R Line
The new Volkswagen Arteon R-line offers paddle shifters as a performance upgrade.  

Although the roots of paddle shifters can be traced back to Ferrari race cars, it isn't difficult to find a daily driver with this feature. Mass market automakers like Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Subaru, and Dodge, along with luxury brands like Acura and BMW are just a handful of options that offer paddle shifters. In some cases, a specific trim level or a performance package adds the paddle shifters when they aren't available on the base model. For example, the Toyota Corolla only offers paddle shifters in the higher sporty trims and the new Volkswagen Arteon has paddle shifters in the R-line performance package. If you care about performance, additional safety when driving in snow or towing, or you just want more control over your vehicle, paddle shifters can help. If not, you can simply ignore them. 

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