Many automatic transmissions come with manual shift capability that is engaged by first moving the console-mounted shift lever to a manual mode. The driver can then use the steering-wheel paddles to shift gears up or down manually instead of letting the transmission do the work automatically.
Some automatics don’t have paddle shifters but allow changing gears manually by moving the shift lever forward and backward while in a manual mode. Paddle shifters don’t require removing a hand from the steering wheel, and they originated in Formula One racing for that purpose: to let drivers keep both hands on the wheel while racing.
Paddle shifters are commonly found on performance and sporty models, though they also are available in SUVs and other models that aren’t regarded as hot wheels.
Just 1.3% of vehicles sold in the U.S. are equipped with manual transmissions, according to Cars.com data, but the shift-it-yourself experience lives on in automatic transmissions with paddle shifters.
This feature is designed to engage drivers by mimicking stick shift without having to engage and disengage a clutch pedal at the right time. It also lets the driver control when the transmission changes gears instead of waiting for the transmission to decide (within limits) — which in the right hands can wring better performance out of a vehicle. Operating in a manual mode also can help in snow and slippery conditions by letting the driver choose a gear that limits wheel slip.
The paddles are typically mounted on both sides of the steering wheel, and one (usually the right) controls upshifts and the other downshifts, and they shift one gear at a time.
Unlike manual transmissions, which can allow over-revving the engine to the point that it causes internal damage, automatic transmissions with manual shift capability have built-in safeguards against bad decisions by drivers.
For example, if the driver leaves the transmission in 1st gear too long, the electronic controls for the transmission and engine will intervene and shift into 2nd before damage occurs. Likewise, the digital brains won’t allow shifting manually to a lower gear if that would exceed a safe engine speed.
Though some drivers frequently use paddle shifters because it brings out their inner racer, many vehicle owners seldom use them. Some probably don’t know they have them or what they’re for, so they just let the automatic transmission operate automatically. Others may try shifting manually once or twice, mark it down as good fun … and never use it again.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.