Paddle Shifters: What They Are and How To Use Them

Paddle Shifters: What They Are and How To Use Them
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What do Formula 1 race cars and your Ford Escape crossover have in common? They both offer paddle shifters. You can find this manual/automatic transmission setup on many modern vehicles, including million-dollar hypercars and your average SUV. But are you using them correctly? Here’s a detailed look at how to use paddle shifters.

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What are paddle shifters?

Paddle shifters are transmission shifter designs usually in the shape of a paddle located within easy reach of your fingers when your hands are on the steering wheel. They aren’t always paddle-shaped, but are typically made of plastic or metal. Regardless of shape, the function is the same: to provide quick and easy access to gear changes without lifting a hand off the steering wheel.

A traditional automatic gear selector displays “PRND12,” listing the available gears, while a manual transmission lets you stuff the shifter into the notch for whichever gear you need. Both of those gear selectors are rapidly disappearing in today’s market, replaced by electronic gear selector wheels in the center console, or on a touch screen in the dash.

While both are attractive designs, it can be difficult to select the correct gear when you are busy with the steering wheel. Paddle shifters solve this problem by being attached to the steering wheel, so they move as the wheel turns. This means a gearshift mid-corner is as easy as a flick of your fingers. The plus sign indicates upshifting, while a minus means downshifting from, say, third to second. This manual control, with automatic clutch engagement, coined the term “semi-automatic transmission,” although it’s also called an “automated manual transmission.”

How do paddle shifters work?

Steering wheel paddle shifters work through electro-hydraulic actuation, meaning it’s a combination of electronics and hydraulic systems that physically engage the clutch and change the gears. It sounds like science fiction, but it makes more sense when you see the first paddle shift car, the 1989 Ferrari 640 racing in Formula 1.

Previous F1 cars were wider and heavier to accommodate the shifter located at the driver’s side, and the clutch pedal at the driver’s foot. By removing these elements in favor of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the race car lost critical weight and size and gained on performance. The dramatically shortened length to reach the shifter also improved shifting times, a benefit that could help road cars in the ever-critical 0 to 60 times. Ferrari added paddle shifters in 1997 to their 355. Over the next 20 years, paddle shifters became more common in sports cars such as the Corvette, regular cars like the Honda Accord, and even the super-cheap Smart Fortwo.

How to use paddle shifters

Learning how to use paddle shifters is surprisingly easy. First, some vehicles require you to shift to manual mode. This lets the vehicle know you are going to use the paddle shifters instead of leaving the standard shifter in D for the best gas mileage. From a stop, accelerate like normal, and when you want to change gears (based on vehicle and engine speed), pull the paddle with the “+” toward you. The shift happens quickly, the RPMs drop, and you’ll keep accelerating in the next gear. When you are slowing down, brake like you normally would, but also pull the “-” paddle towards you. Watch the road but also watch your speed and RPMs, and downshift as you slow.

Can I damage my car by shifting wrong?

While paddle shifter tech seems complicated and expensive, it is reliable and foolproof in daily use. If you drive in the early morning before your coffee kicks in, don’t worry, you can’t mess up the transmission by using paddle shifters incorrectly. Vehicle engineers accounted for new and inexperienced drivers, and eliminated any possible way to damage the transmission, including:

  • Pressing both paddles at the same time.
  • Holding one paddle and tapping the other.
  • Waiting too long to shift.
  • Upshifting too early and stalling the engine.
  • Downshifting too early and bouncing off the rev limiter.
  • Using paddles in reverse.
  • Attempting to start from a stop in sixth gear.
  • Starting the engine with a paddle pulled.

Do I need paddle shifters?

If you’re shopping for your next car, you might hesitate at the additional charge for paddle shifters—for instance, upgrading to the powertrain package that adds paddle shifters to the 2021 Chevy Camaro will raise the MSRP by about $1,500. Is this something you are going to use every single drive, or something you mostly ignore? Here’s what to consider whether or not this option might be right for you.

  • You do a lot of high-performance driving. Whether competing on the track or blasting down a fun canyon road, the lightning-quick shifting of paddle shifters gives you an edge.
  • You sometimes need more passing power. Regular automatic transmissions can be sluggish to downshift. If you need to pass that big rig right now, downshifting with the paddles is your best bet.
  • Manual transmissions aren’t your thing. Maybe you are rusty with a manual, or just don’t like that they are slower. Whatever the reason, you can still get manual control without hunting for the right gear.
  • CVTs annoy you. Continuously Variable Transmissions are programmed for fuel economy, and will happily let the engine drone all day long on the highway. Control that sound, if not the gears, with paddle shifters.
  • You have leg/knee issues. As we age, joints start to protest. Keep your driving fun without the pain by using paddle shifters.

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About Andy Jensen

Andy Jensen is a former reporter, now automotive enthusiast writer. He covers industry news, manufacturing, car reviews, race recaps, maintenance how-tos, and upgrades. Andy has contributed content to Jalopnik, Advance Auto Parts, Carvana, and His project car is a modified Scion FR-S, but he’s probably looking at $400 beaters on Marketplace right now.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.