The skinny on this performance feature that gives an automatic transmission 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.
But 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?
Guilty pleasure or waste of money?
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.
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.
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.
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:
How 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
- Also, and importantly, cars that have paddle shifters protect you from red-lining, or over-revving the engine, which can cause extensive damage (this is a danger with a stick shift).
So here’s the thing: 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 master of it, rather than just letting the automatic transmission take over.
And, when you’re in control, it’s a ton of 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.