What Are Paddle Shifters and How Do They Work?

What Are Paddle Shifters and How Do They Work?

11/12/2020

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The traditional manual transmission, which features an H-pattern or sequential configuration, is dead. Enthusiasts will cry, but they need to get over it. The world has moved on and built better transmissions, ones that fire off shifts imperceptibly. That’s not to say control over your machine’s gearing is over, we still have paddle shifters. 

Paddle shifters began creeping into the public after they became increasingly popular in racecars. Engineers saw paddle shifters’ potential for speed, as well as reducing the strain on a transmission, and soon after the world’s supercars were equipped with these funny little paddles, so too was your Ford and Honda.

The terminology, what they specifically entail, and how to properly use paddle shifters, however, can be somewhat confusing to those outside the realm of automotive enthusiasm. They don’t have to be though. The Drive’s editors have driven hundreds of cars equipped with paddle shifters, including quirky little CUVs, high-horsepower hypercars, and everything in between. Stick with us and we’ll have you shifting like a pro!

What Are Paddle Shifters?

Paddle shifters are mechanisms built into the back of a car’s steering wheel or on the steering column that actuate the car’s gears. The right paddle upshifts, while the left paddle downshifts. In certain vehicles, both the left and right paddles are designed to shift up or down for maximum flexibility. 

How Do Paddle Shifters Work?

Depending on the type of transmission you have, paddle shifters allow the driver to control the car’s gearing through each paddle. Most commonly, clicking the right paddle upshifts the transmission, while clicking the left paddle downshifts the transmission.

Some paddles, like those found in McLaren supercars, can both up and downshift with the driver able to pull the paddle to upshift and push to downshift. 

Porsche’s 911 paddle shifters are attached to the steering wheel.

What Types of Transmissions Use Paddle Shifters?

There are three types of transmissions that employ paddle shifters, that of automated manuals, manuals, and automatics. Let’s dive in and see what’s different about each!

Automated-manual

Automated-manuals are manual transmissions that are semi-automated. Lamborghini’s Aventador features an automated-manual transmission controlled by the car’s ECU and through its paddle shifters. This system is often described as jerky or violent thanks to how the clutch and transmission are automated. 

Manual

Paddle-shift-driven manuals are usually only found on racecars. These cars still have a clutch pedal, but instead of a manually operated H-pattern or sequential gear lever, they have paddle shifters built into the car’s steering wheel. These cars only need the clutch pressed starting off and coming to a halt. 

Automatic

Both traditional automatics and cars with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) use paddle shifters to offer the driver more control over the car. These are often paired with specific ECU programming to ensure the driver doesn’t damage the car’s transmission with aggressive or abusive shifting. 

Cars That Use Paddle Shifters

Now that you understand what they’re used for and the mechanisms behind each, here are a few examples across the automotive spectrum that employ paddle shifters. 

Daily Drivers

  • Toyota Supra, 
  • Audi Q7
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Mercedes-GLC
  • Honda CR-V

Supercars

  • Ford Mustang GT500
  • Ferrari 812 Superfast
  • Lamborghini Huracan Evo Spyder
  • Chevrolet Corvette

Race Cars

  • This bitchin’ Camaro. 

Bugatti uses pure metal paddle shifters in the Chiron.

How to Use Paddle Shifters

Let’s do this! 

Automatic Transmission Paddle Shifters

Manual Transmission Paddle Shifters

Learn How To Drive Your Paddle Shift Car With Skip Barber Racing School

Learning your car’s behavior, quirks, and personality can be done on your own, but you’re not exactly doing so in a vacuum. A missed breaking point or target fixating on that tree over there could mean a bent bumper or some serious medical bills. Why take the chance when you can learn safely how to drive your paddle shift car from the professionals at Skip Barber Race Car Driving School?

The Drive has partnered with Skip Barber, the legendary racing school, to ensure that when you first prime your car’s ignition, you won’t fly off into a ditch. 

The Nissan GT-R is fastest with paddle shifters.

FAQs About Paddle Shifters

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q: So, Can Using Paddle Shifters Ruin Your Engine?

A: If you drive them like a fingerless chimpanzee, sure. Hard downshifting from higher gears can damage your transmission. However, most cars with paddle shifters have downshift lockouts that won’t allow you to drop to the lowest gear possible and burn your transmission. 

Q: Ok, But When Should I Use Paddle Shifters?

A: You can use them whenever you want to feel like a Formula 1 driver, but paddle shifters themselves are designed to allow the driver to have more control over the car’s power and torque. They can be particularly useful if you would like your car with an automatic transmission to have a bit more instant pep. 

Q: I Heard One Person Call Them Flappy Paddles. What’s Up With That?

A: That’s an O.G. Top Gear reference, and we’ve long moved past calling them that.

Q: Are Paddle Shifters Faster Than a Manual Shifter?

A: By leaps and bounds. The average driver can shift a manual transmission’s gear lever between 500 milliseconds and 1 second. A paddle shifter can do the same in a quarter of the time. 

Q: Why Do CVT Cars Have Paddle Shifters?

A: Because reality is an illusion, the universe is a hologram, and nothing actually matters? I’m not kidding, but regarding CVTs, manufacturers are doing everything they can to reduce the feel of droning that plagues the transmission technology.

Q: Wait, What?

A: Our answer is because people are weird. CVT’s don’t have traditional gearing, so having paddle shifters on them is just an illusion of control.

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