Scroll through the 0-60mph times in performance cars, and there’s a clear pattern. Models fitted with the latest auto transmissions outpace their manual siblings in just about every category. Not only is this evident in outright acceleration from a standstill, but in-gear acceleration is also quicker.
Tech derived from years of racing experience has allowed manufacturers to better balance engine output with extremely fast shifting allowed by complicated electronics. Up or downshifting is done within a matter of milliseconds, and something that even the best and most experienced drivers in a manual shifting car can’t match.
While there’s one flavour of manual transmissions (albeit with a varying number of gears), autos come in a wholesome three. Traditional autos with torque converters are the standard type, but there are also CVTs or Continuously Variable Transmission and DCTs or Dual Clutches. The closest to a manual in terms of driver engagement is a DCT in that it has a clutch responsible for the odd gears (1,3,5 or7) and one for the even gears (2,4,6, and 8). What’s missing in all of them is the clutch pedal.
What Are Paddle Shifters?
If you still want the outright control that’s the main boon of a manual gear stick, albeit, in an auto, there’s the option to fit the car with a paddle shifter set. These are located at either side of the steering wheel or a bit further back on the column, and allow you to change gears as if in a manual.
The left paddle shifter is usually used to downshift, say when approaching an incline or edging into a bend, and the right paddle shifter is to go up gears. What’s different here than in a standard auto is that drivers can hold on to higher revs in the same gear, so can build up more speed before upshifting and drain the last horses out of the engine. Or abruptly downshift through one or more gears to combine stopping power with engine braking whilst also using the brake pedal.
Paddle shifters can be found as standard equipment in a variety of cars. The speed at which they shift up or down gears varies from model to model, but performance outfits, like Porsches or BMWs, naturally do this much quicker. Sourcing high-end auto boxes from renowned names are what makes these cars even faster.
Advantages of Paddle Shifters
Not everyone is happy letting the car have complete control as to when it decides to change gears. This is normally done within a defined rev range, roughly 2500 to 3500 RPM in most vehicles. But even when the car is in Drive, drivers can use the paddle shifters to override the pre-programmed shifting.
Other cars may need to first be put into Manual or Sequential Mode to engage the shifters. Either way, there’s a degree of control that’s missing in an ordinary auto car, and something that drivers coming from old-school manuals will undoubtedly appreciate.
You can belt the engine to excruciatingly high redlines until the car informs you (with audible or visual alerts) when it’s time to upshift and carry on preciously built-up torque. This will be substantially more than normal rev ranges, but get too eager and the car will shift for you. There is some degree of driver control as to how long you hold on to gears, but it’s not unlimited.
The same applies when downshifting. Drivers won’t be able to downshift from say fifth gear at 75 mph, for instance, into first or second. Electronics safeguard the engine and gears but still let you have some fun. And it’s the same in a manual unless you intentionally want to blow the transmission to pieces.
Upshifting with Paddle Shifters
One of the benefits of paddle shifting and the car in manual mode is that you can start the car in second gear and avoid wheelspin in slippery or wet road conditions. Auto transmissions generally go for efficiency, but this won’t warrant that gear changes will happen exactly when you expect them to.
With paddle shifters, you can start the car in first gear, and hold onto the gear longer until you upshift. This carries on power, so acceleration is faster too. This is the fun side of paddle shifters, but there’s more to them than just putting a smile on your face.
Three scenarios where manual transmissions are better than autos, and where autos with paddle shifters work best. One is adjusting cornering speed by downshifting and applying the brakes but still having enough pulling power to get you through bends. Here automatic transmissions can struggle. But a quick pull of the left paddle shifter will get you in the right gear and at the right time.
Another is when towing a heavier vehicle attached at the back, especially downhill. Downshifting here engages engine braking while you also have the brakes depressed, so the weight of the towed vehicle doesn’t get you in an unexpected tight spot.
Lastly, just before steeper climbs, you can use the paddle shifter to go down a gear and have the torque necessary to pull the car up the incline. A standard auto might not react best here, and there are chances of stalling.
Though modern automatic transmissions may change gears based on driving history, a paddle shifter is that modicum of control resembling a manual gear shift. The difference is that here the gear changes are faster, and there’s no time wasted pressing and depressing clutch pedals and physically moving the gear shifter through the gears. A simple and quick toggle is all it takes. In addition, the engine retains the high RPMs and is ready for more.
Paddle shifters are located on the steering wheel or column, meaning both hands will be firmly on the wheel. Drivers can maintain direction while adapting speed and upshifting or downshifting when appropriate. Auto transmissions in general provide for a more relaxing driving experience, and those fitted with paddle shifters just add that level of driver control typically found in a manual.
Paddle shifters originated in late 1980s F1 cars and later moved on to street performance cars. These originally were manual transmissions with electronically controlled clutches to move through the gears, and the same tech that would later produce early versions of DCT transmissions.
Today, you can find paddle shifters in ordinary vehicles, which you can just leave in auto or engage the gears when you deem fit. Carmakers, more or less, have assigned the manual to automotive history, but have retained the fun factor and level of control with a pair of paddles conveniently located at your fingertips.