Let's talk about the correct way to do paddle shifters
More companies get this wrong than you might think.
Steven EwingFormer managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
I'm testing a 2020 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio this week, and I found my favorite feature before even leaving my driveway. The
has some of the best paddle shifters around, and it reminds me just how many car companies get this wrong.
There's a whole second discussion I could have here about the necessity of paddle shifters in general -- Are people really using these in a Honda Accord? Why the hell does a Subaru Legacy have them when its continuously variable transmission doesn't even have a planetary gear set? -- but I'll save that for another day. Instead, let's talk about the three fundamental attributes of what makes a good paddle: Placement, Material and Action.
Column vs. wheel
For me, the best paddle shifters are the ones mounted on the steering column, not the wheel itself. Not everyone on the Roadshow team agrees, but hey, it's not my fault they're wrong.
Column placement ensures that the shifters are always in the same place regardless of steering wheel position. This is arguably more important for road cars than race cars, where you have the greater chance of going hand-over-hand in a tight, hairpin turn. Should you need to shift during such an event, you don't want to have to think about the position of the wheel, and column-mounted paddles are always in the same place (admittedly, shifting mid-corner is generally a no-no). The column setup also inherently allows for a larger paddle design and better action, which I'll get to in a minute.
So why don't all companies do this? Packaging. From an interior design standpoint, it's easier to mount a smaller paddle on the wheel itself and integrate its electronics into the spokes. This frees up space on the column for more ergonomic placement of turn signal and windshield wiper stalks, which is much more important in something like a Kia Sportage SUV.
The Stelvio's paddle shifters are made of aluminum, and they're super satisfying to touch. Because column-mounted paddles are inherently larger than the ones on the steering wheel, they need to be strong, and plastic simply won't do. I used to love the long, magnesium shifters Mitsubishi offered in the Lancer Evolution X, and I'm especially fond of the forged carbon paddles in the new Lamborghini Huracan Evo.
Wheel-mounted shifters aren't nearly as large, but not all companies cheap out and resort to plastic.
is one of the many carmakers that fit its sports cars with real metal paddles, which go a long way towards making these shifters more enjoyable to use, despite their placement.
Tactility and engagement
For me, the most important attribute of a paddle shifter is how it feels in action. Regardless of placement or material type, if the shifter doesn't offer a great tactile experience, I have no desire to use it.
Let's go back to the Stelvio for a moment. I find myself opting to shift via its metal, column-mounted paddles often, even when I'm on the highway or just driving around town. The aluminum feels good against my fingers, and the action is crisp and nicely weighted. Plus, since they're farther away from the wheel itself, there's a longer stroke to the actual process of pulling the paddles, which is a lot more satisfying. Of course, it also helps that the transmission itself is extremely quick to respond.
Now, flashback to my first drive of the 2020 R8 Spyder and a lovely day of driving on the warm canyon roads of Southern California. The
small, wheel-mounted paddles give you an unsatisfying click when you want to change gears, which in no way adds to the excitement. I feel like I'm breaking some chintzy toy, not going fast in one of the world's best supercars.
Under the same spirited conditions in a McLaren 720S, I'm way more prone to manual shifting, simply because that car's large, carbon-fiber, column-mounted paddles are a delight. The best paddles are the ones that are the most visceral -- if they don't enhance the experience, why bother using them at all?
Paddles that aren't shifters, and other weirdness
There are a few outlying examples of cars that have steering wheel-mounted paddles that don't actually shift gears, or in some cases, aren't related to the transmission at all. Chevrolet offered such a feature on C7 Corvettes with a manual gearbox, where the paddles acted as on/off switches for the transmission's rev-matching tech. (This also meant every C7 Corvette could use the same steering wheel part, which is truly cost-cutting at its finest.) The new Subaru STI S209 only comes with a manual transmission, but it has paddles that activate an intercooler water-spray function for cooler high-performance running.
Even electric cars are adopting paddles for various uses. The Hyundai Kona EV has one that lets the driver choose between different levels of regenerative braking intensity. Similarly, the Chevrolet Bolt EV has a single shift paddle offering on-demand regen, which is really fun for quick bursts of deceleration and for maximizing energy recuperation.
In the past, companies have tried to reinvent the wheel when it comes to paddle shifters, albeit unsuccessfully. Some particularly egregious recent examples? The 2009 Porsche Boxster and Cayman, which had shift tabs on the steering wheel did the same thing on either side: You'd push them away from you to upshift, but pull them toward you to downshift. General Motors offered a similar bit of nonsense on many of its mainstream cars, like the why-does-this-even-have-paddle-shifters Chevrolet Malibu. So did the E89 BMW Z4, though the action of its paddles was actually the opposite of Porsche's. (I once had a 2009 Boxster and a 2009 Z4 in for testing at the same time, and holy moly did I screw up a lot of gear changes.)
Shift buttons have also tried to become a thing on several occasions, too. The second-generation Lexus GS had these on the front and back of the steering wheel (front for downshift, back for upshift), and to this day, the BMW Alpina B7 uses its own weird little buttons, although they at least operate in the correct right-for-up, left-for-down configuration.
Don't forget about console shifters
The aforementioned options aren't the only ways automakers have offered manu-matic shifting throughout the years. In fact, while a lot of companies don't fit their new cars with paddles, the PRNDL shifters on the console can often be moved fore and aft for the same experience.
There's a correct way to do this, too: Pull toward you for upshift, push away for downshift. Since you're usually upshifting under acceleration, and your body is being pulled back into the seat, a simultaneous toward-you motion feels most natural. But just as column/wheel placement for paddles varies from company to company, so, too, does the direction of the fore/aft console operation.
There are outliers here, as well. I've been in cars with up/down toggles on the top of the shift lever itself, and I'll never forget Chrysler's infamous AutoStick transmission, where you'd move the lever to the right or left to upshift and downshift (respectively). Hell, GM's full-size trucks and SUVs even have a manual up/down toggle on the PRNDL column shifter, mostly to induce engine braking, especially while towing. What a world.
The right way will never be the standard way
Much as I'd love every carmaker to adopt the same rules for automatic gearboxes with manual shift functions, I know it'll never happen. Just look at manual transmissions. You'd think they'd be the same, but some automakers place reverse to the left and up, while with others, it's to the right and down. Don't even get me started on racing-oriented dogleg 'boxes.
As automakers gradually phase out manual transmissions for quicker-shifting automatics (it's true, sorry), paddle-shift setups will become increasingly prevalent. They may never be standardized across the board, but that'll just give me reasons to appreciate vehicles like the Stelvio Quadrifoglio -- a model that gets it right.