Paddle Shifters: Fun or Phony? The Skinny on this Performance Feature

Paddle Shifters

Can an automatic transmission have the feel of a manual?

When I first heard about paddle shifters it sounded too good to be true: Little metal tabs on either side of the steering wheel that let you shift through the car’s gears as you drive, giving you the best of both worlds: An automatic transmission that you can drive like a manual when you want to.

I also heard tearful and frightened drivers talk of accidentally pulling a paddle shifter while driving and not knowing what to do, worried they might damage the engine. One driver said she was so worried she turned on the emergency flashers, slowed down and pulled over to turn the car off and then back on again.

So before you read on, here’s the answer to that scary scenario: if you accidentally pull a paddle and hear the engine roar, pull the right paddle for several seconds and the transmission will go back into automatic. If you’ve put the car into manual mode, or in some cars, into sport mode, and paddle shifters are required for shifting gears, you can simply put it back into automatic or normal mode. Either way, these engines are designed to self-preserve; you can’t damage them by driving in manual mode, even though it’s not a good idea to drive with the engine roaring at a super high RPM.

Related: Ten Affordable and Fun Manual Transmission Cars That Will Fire Up Your Stick Shift Dreams

Paddle Shifters

The Lexus GS F‘s paddle shifters.Photo: Scotty Reiss

Guilty Pleasure or Waste of Money?

I have to admit, I’m a stick shift snob. When your left foot and right hand are controlling your engine speed, your entire body is engaged in the job of driving. You’re in touch with your car, aware of the road and clearly superior to all other beings around you. Driving a stick reveals your Danica Patrick spirit and evokes your Richard Petty soul.

Can a couple of metal tabs attached to the steering wheel possibly do all that?

Originally developed by Ferrari for faster shift times on the race track, more and more cars are equipped with them. From small, inexpensive hatchbacks to premium luxury cars to sporty SUVs, paddle shifters are often part of the package. They are even included on the Honda Odyssey minivan.

Automakers saw an opportunity: As more cars serve multiple drivers these days, from one-car families to moms and dads who share school drop-off, it’s a win if all drivers in a household like driving all the cars in the driveway.

They also saw utility: paddle shifters, like a manual gear shifter, can be used to regulate engine speed and slow your vehicle’s speed. The reason the Honda Odyssey has paddle shifters is not for the far-fetched notion that you’d speed onto a highway using them, or that the minivan might be more fun on mountain roads using paddles, but rather, that you can go light on the brakes on a downhill drive or when trailering a U-Haul.

So when my husband wanted a car with paddle shifters, I was on board. It sounded good in theory: Have a manual transmission when you want, but drive in automatic when you don’t. But after many thousands of miles trying to find the fun in paddle shifters, I never got it. It was all function and no fun.

Related: Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Learn to Drive a Stick Shift

Paddle Shifters

The Lexus lineup in Palm Springs, California, ready to head to the track. Photo: Scotty Reiss

The Chance to Learn the Truth: Can They Be Fun?

Then, Lexus offered me the opportunity to drive on a racetrack with an instructor who would teach me how to use paddle shifters in the Lexus RC-F performance sports car, which has a powerful engine and suspension designed for track driving, and the GS-F, the four door sedan version of the RC-F. We also had the opportunity to drive Lexus F Sport models, which take some cues from the F series but have slightly smaller engines (and price tags).

I looked forward to finally understanding the lure of paddle shifters.

I spent the afternoon with Gail Truess, a professional performance drive instructor, who spends her weeks driving fast cars around famous tracks. I learned a few things from Gail about why paddle shifters can make driving a bit more fun.

You can see how much fun we had, and Gail’s advice, in this video:

Paddle Shifters

Lexus RC F and GS F models lined up at Chuckwalla Raceway.Photo: Scotty Reiss

Paddle Shifters Can Make You a Better Driver

You learn to listen to the engine to know when to shift gears, lowering the engine speed while maintaining or increasing the car’s speed

  • You can downshift to use your engine’s power to slow down without braking
  • You can get better performance — better control of speed and the car— on curves and hills
  • You’re more aware of the car, the engine and the road
  • It’s fun

Related: 6 Real Life Reasons Why Everyone Should Learn to Drive a Stick Shift

Paddle Shifters

The Lexus IS FSport we drove to Chuckwalla Raceway; photo: Scotty Reiss

Once You Learn How, Paddle Shifters Give You Greater Command on the Road

Learning to listen to the engine is really the key here. As the engine gets louder, shift to a higher gear; you’ll hear the engine quiet down, but you’ll maintain your speed or increase it. You can watch the tachometer to know when to shift (around 3,000 to 4,000 RPMs), but then, you’re taking your eyes off the road and that’s a no-no. As you need to slow down, ease off the gas and downshift; you’ll hear the engine roar again, but this time, slowing you down without actually braking. And when you need more power, such as starting up a hill, downshifting will give you that power. Or, when you’re increasing your speed as you come out of a curve, upshift to keep the engine operating optimally. The goal is to listen and feel the engine, and to be the one in control, rather than just letting the automatic transmission take over.

And, when you’re in control, it’s more fun. You knew that, right?

Disclosure: I was a guest of Lexus for this performance drive experience; Lexus provided my travel and accommodations, but any opinions expressed here are all my own.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss