Paddle shifters, once exclusive to race cars and exotic sports cars, like the Ferrari F430, are now becoming commonplace on performance cars with automatic transmissions.
This is because manual transmissions are going away faster than the landline telephone. Critics of automatics say that they take the passion and command out of driving. Paddle shifters, however, bring some of that joy and control back by allowing drivers to manually shift an automatic transmission with steering-wheel or steering-column-mounted levers.
Normally with an automatic transmission, whether it’s a traditional hydraulic unit, a dual-clutch system, or a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the computer chooses the appropriate gear changes for the driving conditions. You just put the car in Drive and go, without having to touch the shifter again until you need to back up or park. That's perfect for everyday commuting, as manufacturers generally do an excellent job of programming their automatics for smoothness, maximum fuel efficiency, and power when you need it. The “shift logic” almost always selects the highest gear possible for the conditions, so the engine runs at a slower speed, increasing fuel economy.
There are, however, times when you want more control over what the engine and transmission are doing, and that's where paddle shifters come into play.
“There’s always cases where someone will want the paddle shifters,” said Erich Heuschle, an engineer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles who works on FCA’s high-performance SRT brand.“The paddle shifters are more about fun and engagement, rather than function because the [automatic] transmission shift logic is so good,” he said. “We put so much effort into making the automatic behave well.” “You can use the (Challenger) paddle shifters and along with the track mode, the car will stay on the rev limiter,” explained Heuschle, adding that performance might be the most popular reason to use paddle shifters. I want the paddle shifters to be redundant,” he said,explaining that manually shifting these kinds of performance cars may not be the fastest driving style. "And, at the tracks we test at, it's redundant. But, then again, not all tracks are like our test tracks and, as a result, we also have the paddle shifters for drivers who need that control."
Trucks Expert Stephen Elmer cited a practical use for paddle shifters- towing. He said, “this is especially helpful when descending down long grades where you may want the engine/transmission to help control weight…by using the paddle shifters, you can have the truck downshift to keep the load controlled, all without having your hands leave the wheel.”
One final use for paddle shifters is in the snow. Most automatics will allow the car to start off in second gear, rather than first. As we all know, first gear, in this situation, is desirable to limit the amount of torque sent to the drive wheels and to help prevent wheel spin or a loss of traction. Most cars may have a snow mode that automatically does the same thing, but the paddle shifters put that control in the driver’s hands.
Transmissions have certainly come a long way from the column shifters and push-button automatics of the 1960s!