Paddle Shifting 101

Paddle Shifting 101

Last Updated August 30, 2021 | Meghan Drummond

Paddle shifters turn automatic transmission cars into semi-automatics. Originally only available in sporty vehicles, paddle shifters are becoming a common sight in cars with automatic transmissions. As more car manufacturers look towards eliminating manual options, paddle shifters are going to be one way that car enthusiasts who like the sporty feel and control of downshifting and upshifting at will can continue to enjoy new vehicles.

Rise in Popularity of Automatic Transmissions

In 2018, only 2% of cars sold in the United States were equipped with a manual transmission. As automatics gain ground and are able to shift faster than a human foot ever will, more speed demons are gravitating towards cars with automatic transmissions and it’s hard to blame them.

Once upon a time, automatic transmission meant a slower vehicle that used more fuel to move less powerfully. Auto enthusiasts always picked manual, because why wouldn’t you? For the small price of learning more about how your vehicle functioned, you got increased speed, better fuel economy, and frequently a lower price.

That attitude has changed rapidly with the advent of vastly improved automatic transmissions. While as once automatics felt sluggish, now it’s like driving a manual with a robotic assistant. The computer knows exactly when to shift for maximum effect, and in a straight race, the automatic almost always wins.

Fewer people buying manual transmission vehicles means fewer auto manufacturers producing them. The death of the manual transmission (anticipated since the 1970s) may finally be upon us.

In vehicles that offer six-speed manuals, the automatic transmissions come in ten-speed options. Automatic transmissions are coming with more gears that can change faster, all with no risk of over-revving or any of the other perils of manual transmission vehicles. But there is something lost besides a clutch pedal.

Enthusiasts miss the control and experience of feeling like a part of their car. Others have pointed out that learning to shift manually is how they learned to get a feel for their car, and really understand how the gear system worked together.

Paddle shifters are a compromise to that. And even some diehard auto enthusiasts are being swayed by the little gains that come with learning how to use them effectively. While in automatic mode, hands can be held, drinks can be consumed, and horrible music tracks skipped when you don’t have to shift a half-dozen times in a traffic jam. Then, with the push of a paddle, manual can be engaged, allowing for the sporty feeling of changing gears at will.

BMW Steering Wheel with Paddle Shifters

What Are Paddle Shifters?

In the 1980s, Ferrari was the first to use paddle shifters on their Formula One racers.

Though they were first designed to enhance the “sporty” feel of cars that were already quite sporty, paddle shifters became an increasingly common option, and are now available on Mustangs that have an automatic transmission.

It makes sense from a design perspective. Instead of keeping up with the expense of manufacturing two drivetrains, one of which appeals to a very small percentage of the population, many car manufacturers are opting instead to install paddle shifters and only manufacture automatic transmission vehicles. While that doesn’t seem to be Ford’s plan with the Mustang, there are certainly more being sold with automatic transmissions than there were in the ‘60s

Many refer to an automatic car with paddle shifters installed as a “semi-automatic” transmission. Though it’s not a perfect hybridization of manual and automatic technologies, it offers additional control for those who want it, and automatic ease.

Using Paddle Shifters

Paddle shifters are located on the steering wheel, at the ten and two positions. One lever will be marked with a “+” and the other with a “-.”

Hitting one of the paddles tells the car that you’d like to up or downshift and it responds accordingly. It’s the equivalent of telling your robotic clutch-assistant what you want, and the response time varies. In dual-clutch vehicles, that time can be as little as 100 milliseconds. In order to make it easier to hit the paddle shifters while driving, many companies offer paddle shifter extenders, which can help when trying to shift in a tense situation when you may not want to take your hand off the wheel. They also make it significantly harder to ignore your paddle shifters, reminding you that a little more control is always an option.

Mustang Paddle Shifters

Accessing manual mode in a Mustang is actually incredibly easy. While in drive mode, simply hit one of the paddle shifters to perform a one-off gear shift. Or you can put the car into “Sport Manual” mode by pressing the paddle shifter while in sport mode. This allows you to manually change gears by yourself, though the Mustang will take over and shift down or up if it senses that you are about to stall or that you might hit the rev limit. The Mustang is still installed with a rev limiter that should kick in and prevent you from over-revving your engine.

When Should You Use Paddle Shifters?

Many people who have newer automatic transmission vehicles have paddle shifters, but they just never see themselves as needing to use them. And they’re right. There’s no real need to ever use your paddle shifters, but you may want to.

Though learning how to use paddle shifters effectively has a learning curve, once they’re understood and properly utilized paddle shifters can be a revolutionary driving experience. Having the option of a manual mode allows drivers to select a lower gear when they need more power. For example, when climbing a hill or towing a heavy load, drivers can choose to downshift. You can also downshift when you want to overtake someone.

In particular, paddle shifter-advocates point out that having that extra amount of control in the middle of a snowstorm can be hugely beneficial.

You should not downshift instead of braking, however. This can put unnecessary stress on the transmission and given the choice of needing to repair the transmission or the brakes, the brakes are always the better choice.

Most people who have paddle shifters use them infrequently. When they do, they say it’s less about efficiency and more about driving in a sportier situation and enjoying the feel of their car.

While paddle shifters may never fully win over the most die-hard of enthusiasts, they’re a useful tool that makes driving an automatic transmission vehicle better. Even drivers who never particularly cared for manual transmissions may find themselves giddily changing gears with their paddle shifters once they get a feel for it and may even enjoy driving a little more.

Meghan Author Photo

About the Author

Meghan is a Classic Mustang geek with a soft spot for four-eyed Foxes. She has over 300 in-depth articles to her credit that have been cited by some of the top news sites in the US. Read full bio →

Sources: Paddle Shifters Move From the Fast Lane to the H.O.V Lane, New York Times | Manual vs Automatic Transmission: Which Is Right For You?, Edmunds | Manual vs Paddle-Shift Gearboxes, Road and Track | Saying Goodbye to the Stick Shift, Chicago Tribune | What Is the Ford SelectShift Automatic Transmission?,Ford | Image Credit: BimmerPost | Mustang Evolution

Paddle Shifting 101

Paddle shifters promise to turn an automatic transmission into the perfect blend of manual control and automatic ease. Knowing what paddle shifters are and when and how to use them can improve your driving experience substantially.