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Everything You Need to Know About Paddle Shifters

Find out all the dos and don’ts about using your vehicle’s paddle shifters.


Let’s face it, most of us have grown quite content with transmissions that shift themselves. So satisfied that manual transmissions are rapidly heading for the junkyard of antiquated automotive technology. There they’ll be in good company with floor-mounted dimmer switches, CD players, and vent windows.

Where, though, does that leave car enthusiasts who want the rush of actually stirring the transmission themselves? Well, sort of nowhere.

Here is the good news: The impending death of manual transmissions doesn’t necessarily mean we can no longer shift the transmission ourselves. Many automatic transmissions provide for manual shifting. More often than not, it’s through the gearshift lever.

Manual mode is to the right or left of the “D” on the shift gate. Pushing the gearshift lever in that direction locks it into manual mode until the driver pushes it back into drive. Once in manual mode, look for the plus and minus (+/-) icons. Tapping the shift lever toward the plus icon upshifts a gear. Tapping it toward the minus icon downshifts a gear.

A growing number of vehicles, however, come equipped with paddle shifters. More fun and making for quicker shifts than the shift lever, paddle shifters can completely alter your driving experience for the better. Even many manual car enthusiasts grudgingly admit there is life after the clutch.


What Are Paddle Shifters?

Paddle shifters are a steering wheel-mounted alternative to the gearshift lever for manually shifting a transmission.

Usually thought of as a feature of automatic transmissions, paddle shifters were first used in race cars with manual transmissions. They can still be found in an occasional manual-transmission application.

Mounted on either the back of the steering wheel or on the steering column, you will find paddle shifters at either the 9 and 3 o’clock or the 10 and 2 o’clock position. They may be constructed of plastic or metal.


How to Use Paddle Shifters

You will bring paddle shifters into play when you want to be more engaged in the driving experience. Being able to shift gears gives you the ultimate freedom during your drive. Another reason is when you need to have more control, like driving in snow or towing downhill.

Adding to the fun of driving along twisty roads is downshifting a gear or two. Tapping your paddle shifter while going into a curve to increase the torque for a more aggressive curve exit can give you that rush you are looking for. The same goes for when passing a slower vehicle. Kicking down a gear as you begin making that pass increases torque and acceleration.

Although the paddles may operate differently based on the vehicle, you usually upshift by toggling the right paddle and downshifting toggling the left paddle.


Automatic Transmission

An automatic transmission seems relatively simple as it seamlessly and smoothly goes from gear to gear. Nothing to it, right? Not so fast.

Think of it more like a duck gliding along the surface of a lake. Smooth, effortless, it’s an exercise in tranquillity. Not really. Below the surface, its little webbed feet are going 100 km/h.

Although automatic transmission functions mostly unnoticed, there is a lot at work internally, making those nearly seamless shifts possible.

There’s no reason to wade into the details here, but manually shifting an automatic transmission disrupts the normal order of things. Because of this, carmakers have built safeguards into the system to avoid any accidental shifts.

In some cars, to shift an automatic transmission manually, it must be in manual mode. In many vehicles, putting the transmission in manual mode for paddle shifters mimics the process for manual shifting with the gearshift lever.

For other vehicles, the paddles can be used any time the transmission is in Drive. In these vehicles, using the paddles will place the transmission in manual mode. Returning to fully automatic mode usually requires holding in one of the paddles for a two or three count and then releasing it.

Once in manual mode, the paddles do most of the work. The driver does most of the thinking. Learning when to upshift and downshift comes with practice.

Appropriate shifting has everything to do with an engine’s revolutions per minute or rpm. The idea of a transmission is to maximize an engine’s efficiency. That is, to get the most out of the least rpm. The higher the rpm, the harder the engine is working.

The harder an engine works, the more fuel it burns, and the more wear and tear on its components. A typical automatic transmission will upshift when the rpm reaches about 2,500.


Some Safeguards When in Manual Mode

When using paddle shifters, you will only be in manual mode to a point. The carmaker built certain safeguards into the system to keep you and the transmission safe.  

Most of them have to do with not exceeding safe rpm limits. Here are a few of them:

  •  User neglect. If you neglect to shift back into first (or second) gear when you come to a stop, the transmission will do it for you.
  • One in use. You can’t operate the other paddle while one is already being used.
  • Upshifts only at certain times. It won’t allow an upshift until the engine rpm reaches the safe lower limit of the next gear.
  • Downshifts only at specific times. If the rpm hasn’t reached the safe upper limit of the next lower gear, it won’t allow you to downshift


Manual Transmission

There isn’t much for you to fret about here. Chances are, you’ll never be inside a vehicle with a manual transmission and paddle shifters. Only a small percentage of new cars today come with manual transmission.

If you find yourself in a Formula race car or something similar with an actual clutch and paddle shifters, you can forget about manual mode. You are already in it.

Beyond that, you’ll need to depress and release the clutch when accelerating from a stop. Then depress it again when you come to a complete stop. Otherwise, toggle those paddles as you would with an automatic.


How Do Paddle Shifters Work?

As far as the driver is concerned, paddle shifters work the same regardless of the transmission type. It’s still upshifting and downshifting with paddles to override an automatic transmission’s pre-programmed shift points.

Many drivers never so much as touch their shift paddles, well, at least on purpose, that is. No law says you must. However, mastering their operation can be fun. Not to mention, they can increase your control.

We aren’t fond of showing you how the sausage is made, but here are brief descriptions of the three types of automatic transmissions using paddles for manual shifting.

  • Automatic transmission with a torque converter: Most automatic transmissions use planetary gearing with disc packs and a torque converter.
  • Automated manual transmission: This is a manual transmission. However, sensors and actuators inside the gearbox perform the tasks of a clutch. From the driver’s seat, it’s like using paddles for an automatic transmission.
  • Continuously variable transmission (CVT): An automatic transmission with no gears, the CVT uses belts and pulleys to seamlessly and continuously move to the most efficient gear ratio. Some CVTs have built-in artificial shift points, providing the illusion of shifting


What to be Aware of When Using Paddle Shifters

Depending on your vehicle, you may be able to start in second gear. This is helpful on slippery surfaces like snow, ice, and gravel.

  •  Burning fuel. The more aggressively you shift, the higher you allow the rpm to go before upshifting, which causes you to burn fuel faster.
  • Adaptability. An automatic transmission has pre-set shift points based on common denominator conditions. Paddle shifters allow you to adapt to changing or unexpected situations rapidly.
  • Downshifting relief. Downshifting a gear or two on a hill while towing can relieve the pressure and strain on your brakes


When is the Right Time to Shift Gears with Paddle Shifters?

  •  In the right conditions. The best time to use your paddles to change gears depends on the current conditions and what you are trying to achieve by manually shifting.
  •  When the engine sends a signal. As you become more experienced with manual shifting, the sound of the engine will tell you if it’s time to upshift. As the engine works harder (higher rpm), it gets louder. It’s telling you, “time to upshift.”
  •  Follow the light. Many vehicles with manual shifting provide a warning light in the instrument cluster alerting you to upshift.
  •  Watch the tachometer. If your vehicle has a tachometer showing rpm, keeping the revs in that 2,500-3,000 rpm sweet spot is a reliable way to pick your shift points



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